One of the most pleasant surprises of this year is the success story Demon's Souls. Considering the nature of the game and how its designed I was quite shocked to see it sell as well as it did. Sure it's nothing incredible especially when compared to the likes of Infinity Ward's or Nintendo's latest it's still quite respectable.
Before Demon's Souls however From Software's mainstay Fantasy game was the King's Field series. These first-person RPGs feature a heavy emphasis on atmosphere, exploration, and punishment. Anyone who has played Demon's Souls can attest to the punishment aspect. It is a welcome part to the game because it's designed fairly and creates an experience that's a bit more unique than more traditional adventures. The only problem with King's Field is that most of the games are only available on the PS1 and tend to look very dated. Everything else holds up if you can look past that though.
The Ancient City is the sole PS2 King's Field game and is the best entry to start with for those interested in the series. In a land doomed by constant fear and death one man must take a mysterious idol to the bowels of evil itself to restore light to the kingdom. While The Ancient City's strength isn't in story-telling it's certainly in atmosphere. These games are very dark and somber experiences. You'll meet less than 20 living people throughout your adventure and almost all of them wish they were dead(and a few are even granted that wish). This isn't like the average RPG where there's always somebody to welcome you at the front gate with a warm greeting. Everyone in King's Field is depressed about something and their face carries an absolutely dismal look.
When the player looks at the world surrounding them they will also gain that feeling of hopelessness. The Ancient City is a horrible place filled with ruins, crumbling villages, lava-pits, and pretty much every dungeon design we don't look forward to. In what has become a sort-of tradition for the series one of the first things the player will do is fall into a pit of lava.
Death is a concept we've long grown accustomed to when it comes to videogames and The Ancient City does little to make it easy. While the game can be saved it is only through save-points and chances are good that the player will have to go for thirty minute or even hour long stretches without saving. Clearly the designers could have implemented a system where the game can be saved at any time but where's the fun in that? Progress is only gained by taking risks while at the same time approaching everything with caution.
The pacing in King's Field has always been very methodical. While some would say that this is simply a slow-paced game I think this is not something you can run through and expect the best. The pacing is everything here and every situation must be carefully handled. This is especially true early on since simple mistakes are usually fatal.
To explain this better I'm going to look at the foes of The Ancient City. These creatures come in all shapes and sizes and cover about everything you're bound to expect. The thing to keep in mind is that these monsters can hit very hard. If the player is caught off-guard or surrounded they will die. One of the very first dungeons is filled with poisonous slimes. If the player touches one of these the poison will kill them in seconds. Pretty much any mistake made in this game usually leads to death.
The way that combat is handled leaves little room for error as well. A melee-based first person perspective is enough of a challenge but King's Field brings it up a notch by requiring that the player is properly facing the enemy in order to hit them. To further complicate things a stamina bar determines how much damage they do with a swing. Stamina is drained by running and emptied entirely by swinging. In order to take down any beast it's important to watch for openings, play it safe, and always keep track of the environment. Not only is it possible to fall off a cliff while fighting with a foe there's the chance a player could run into a wall and get stuck just as the monster makes the killing blow.
The strangest thing is however is that as the player progresses the game will actually become easier. While the game strives to keep the level of challenge at a state where it grows with the player's skills and abilities after several hours things start to pose less of a threat. This is mostly due to the magic system in the game. As the player explores The Ancient City they'll come across magic crystals that teach spells. While they start off very weak through constant use they gain in levels and start to become very useful. In fact I would argue that some of them can potentially become game-breaking(like the healing spell). In a way though it is a good idea to be able to allow for more mistakes as the dungeons and puzzles become more challenging to solve. Every aspect of the game plays off each other naturally and when one aspect starts to become easy another aspect will jump in difficulty.
The Ancient City's greatest strength is the design of its world. It's seamless and unlike Eternal Ring each area is sensible and creative. There's no wandering nothing more than increasingly similar hallways to flip a switch or find a key. Every inch of the land feels meticously crafted to be just as real as a videogame can allow.
As far as replay value is concerned that's a tough one to consider. There's not much to this game in terms of optional content and the only reward for completing the game is an ending. It might be an experience worth re-living in a month or even a few years at least. Aside from that the player could challenge themselves further to abstain from certain spells or focus on using different weapons and equipment to progress. There's a bit of leeway in how to handle combat at least.
In any case The Ancient City is a worthwhile trek and is certainly worth a look for those seeking adventure or fans of Demon's Souls who want to explore previous games.