This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.
My fascination with Demon's Souls has spurned a quest to discover where the hell its brilliance came from. Most people say it's a descendant of King's Field, the cult first-person RPG series Demon's Souls developer, From Software, did some years ago. I have only really played one King's Field game, King's Field: The Ancient City for PS2, and not for very long. Although there is some resemblance, I think another series, one that isn't as well-known outside Japan, may be the real ancestor.
Shadow Tower was another first-person RPG series by From Software, one I'd never heard of until I began poking around the Internet. Some descriptions I read made them seem a lot more like Demon's Souls than King's Field, so I tracked them down to see for myself.
There are two games in the series: Shadow Tower for the PS1 and Shadow Tower Abyss for the PS2. I managed to grab them both off ebay and played each for a few hours. Shadow Tower is available in English. Shadow Tower Abyss isn't. This a shame because Abyss is by far the superior game, and the one that is, I feel, much closer in style, atmosphere, and gameplay to Demon's Souls.
The first game is okay. The controls are the clunky non-freelook ones common to many Japanese first-person games, but otherwise Shadow Tower does feel like a somewhat slower, awkward Demon's Souls. Weapon degradation is a major aspect of the game, and encounters with minor enemies can be pretty epic. And, of course, you upgrade weapons by collecting souls, although in Shadow Tower you actually have to pick them up as items. The importance of blocking is also another big similarity, with you being able to map a weapon to one hand and a shield to the other. It doesn't even remotely approach the sublime combat system of Demon's Souls, but you can definitely see the template being set.
The world is rather non-linear and rewarding of exploration. While I am not one to bash PS1-era graphics for being what they are, I do feel that the ones in Shadow Tower are somewhat repetitive. Like Demon's Souls there is no map, but unlike Demon's Souls a lot of environments look the same. This can make the game pretty tedious unless you are prepared to make a paper map as you play. From what I played the game seems actually less linear than Demon's Souls, with more alternate paths available.
The story for Shadow Tower is extremely minimal. There is a tower that is, er, forbidden. You go in. That's it. The games does contain some of Demon's Souls's brooding sense of silence and loneliness. (Like Demon's Souls there is no music.) The environment does seem to be imbued with some elements of narrative. There is writing you come across from past explorers, which looks a lot like the player messages in Demon's Souls, only here they are just baked in as part of the story.
One of the biggest arguments for this game being an ancestor to Demon's Souls is the intro cinematic, which features a knight getting the crap beat out of him by a variety of monsters. The game really seems to suggest a similar sense of mortality and exhausting on the part of the protagonist that was one of Demon's Souls main distinguishing features. People familiar with Demon's Souls's non-U.S. box art will remember the knight riddled with arrows, ambiguously either dead or battle fatigued to the point of collapse. One gets the sense that Shadow Tower was an early attempt to create a player experience shaped around similar ideas.
Shadow Tower Abyss is very similar to its predecessor, except that it has superior art direction, narrative design, and usability design. The real good news is that it has an option for dual-analog Western-style controls, which is something King's Field never had. In this mode the weapon buttons are the trigger buttons, and players can switch back and forth on the fly between weapons in the right or left hand. (I didn't get a shield in Shadow Tower Abyss, but I'd be surprised if there aren't any.) This makes it almost identical to Demon's Souls's control scheme, which makes the gameplay nice and fluid.
Shadow Tower Abyss has firearms, which is probably the biggest thing which makes it feel different from both Demon's Souls and the original Shadow Tower. It takes place in the present day, and you begin the game with a gun. It isn't designed at all like an FPS though. Guns are useful, but they run out of ammo, which is why you need to deck yourself out with the knives, swords, and other melee weapons you find. It feels like you are an FPS-protagonist who somehow wandered into a Demon's Souls-like game, which is interesting. Functionally speaking the game is not that different, since firearms basically take the place of bows, but it's still an intriguing twist.
The story and world in Shadow Tower Abyss really makes me wish my Japanese was better. The thought and detail put into its environmental narrative is much closer to Demon's Souls than the first Shadow Tower. It's use of sound, light, and color is also closer to Demon's Souls in terms of establishing a mood, and suggesting danger around the next corner. There are a fair amount of NPCs, all of whom you can kill for no reason if you wish. I wandered around for a while just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on, where I was, and just what all these creepy tunnels were built for. The game has a fairly Lovecraftian vibe, with you basically thrown into this scary cave which leads you deeper and deeper into a complex netherworld. In this sense Shadow Tower Abyss really reminded me of Hell Night, another (wonderful) game I played recently that also achieved a similar effect, what I'd called the 'Ultima Underworld Effect'. These are games that really make me feel like I'm a normal human being trapped in a cave or some other such subterranian world, which is where a lot of their elemental power comes from. The lack of load screens helps this feeling a lot, as does the non-linear space design. You really feel like an explorer, not some videogame badass who's just in it for the asskickery.
If I had to recommend one of these games, I'd obviously recommend Shadow Tower Abyss. It can probably be played and completed without understanding much Japanese, and the world and feeling it creates is thick and memorable. It's no Demon's Souls, but it's recognizably similar and effective in what it does. If you want to trace the design heritage of From Software's towering masterpiece, Shadow Tower Abyss is a great place to start, possibly a better place than King's Field.