Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Gamecube) Review
Every now and then, there comes a particularly rare and valuable gem of a game. The sort that never attracts the kind of attention and massive sales of blockbusters like Halo or GTA, but captures the hearts of reviewers everywhere, and those few gamers privileged enough to play it. Eternal Darkness is one such game.
Ever since it first appeared as an N64 title in development, Eternal Darkness has attracted glowing praise and anticipation from every critic to lay eyes on it. While at first glance it would be easy to write it off as a mere Resident Evil clone, ED is in fact an entirely different game.
In the beginning
That said, this is not a game for kids, nor for the faint of heart. As the story begins, we find our heroine Alexandra Roivas woken in the middle of the night by the police. Her uncle Edward has been found brutally murdered in his Rhode Island mansion, and Alex is his only surviving relative.
With the detectives completely baffled by the identity of a criminal who makes Jack the Ripper look tame, Alex takes it upon herself to discover the truth personally. Exploring the old and dingy mansion, it is not long before she discovers a secret room. Contained within is an ancient book called the Tome of Eternal Darkness, seemingly bound with human skin and bone.
The scene is set for an intensely thrilling plot, and the rest of the game does not disappoint. Not to reveal too much of the story, whenever Alex reads a new chapter of the book, the player takes on the part of a new character. The chapters span a timeline of nearly 2,000 years, and take place across 5 major locations which you will return to with different characters hundreds of years apart.
While it had the potential to be disjointed, it really works. There is a genuine thrill in seeing how the various locations change over the years. They will be recognisable but dramatically different on each visit, so dont expect it to get any easier each time!
Interestingly, Alex takes on any new abilities or spells gained by the character in each chapter. This allows her to explore more of the mansion and discover the next chapter in the book; and more than a few unwelcome surprises along the way. This is a brilliantly conceived system, with Alexs sections tying together seemingly disparate gameplay sequences, as well as providing respite from the horrors contained within the pages of the Tome.
The gameplay itself is a mix of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving. Magic is a vital part of all three gameplay elements, as well as being the most obvious point of difference with standard shotgun-wielding survival horror games.
Depending on a choice you make early in the game, the story has three subtly different variations. The player must defeat one of three ancient, god-like deities intent on subjugating or destroying mankind. These beings relate to each other in a rock-scissors-paper fashion which is essential to the plot and spell system.
To wield magic, a number of different elements must be brought together. Spells consist of runes, which must be found on stone tablets. Scrolls are then needed to interpret the runes. A circle of power determines how many runes can be used in a spell, thus affecting the power of the spell. Combinations of different runes produce different spells.
Additionally, there are four different versions of each spell which correspond to the three main deities and a fourth, neutral deity who also appears prominently in the story. Thus, a recovery spell may recover health when using the red deitys rune, sanity as the green deity and magic points as the blue deity. Damage, protection and dispel types of spells also work differently depending on the alignment of the target.
While it ran the risk of being obtuse and over-complicated, this system does in fact offer a more versatile and engaging means of spell-casting than is found in most games.
Wondering, Fearing, Doubting
Speaking of sanity, this is one of the games major selling points. Whenever the player encounters a monster, their sanity level decreases. When it becomes low enough, they start to encounter so-called sanity effects. These are an incredibly varied and brilliantly conceived set of effects which can be just about anything.
Some effect the character themselves, like causing them to sink into the floor. Some occur as audio-visual hallucinations, like seeing blood dripping from the walls and hearing a mysterious voice call out your name. Others though target the player directly. These include Blue Screens of Death familiar to any PC user, or displaying a message telling you the controller is unplugged whilst being attacked by enemies.
In one extreme case, the game will even appear to delete your save files! There are also a handful of scripted effects which would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud. Suffice it to say, you may never look at a ringing telephone the same way again.
The sanity system had the potential to be a gimmick, and in all honesty it probably is. Keeping your sanity up is easy through the use of spells and by defeating enemies. Even then, the effects are temporary and are little more than a minor hindrance. But its a brilliant gimmick, which adds immensely to the enjoyment of the game.
There are surprisingly few different types of enemies in Eternal Darkness, but they are so well designed that you will hardly notice. There are of course your basic lurching zombies, as required by law. But there are far more interesting foes to dispatch. There are small, scorpion-like creatures who transport you to an alternate dimension, hulking three-headed giants, vampire beasts that can turn invisible and walk through walls and more.
A special mention must go to a particularly tough breed of enemy known as guardians. These creatures are just as skilled at using magic as you are; perhaps more. They can zap you from long range, summon enemies to attack you and even teleport across the room. Defeating one of these fearsome adversaries is quite a feat, requiring a significant deal of strategy.
Much kudos must go to Silicon Knights for creating a truly unique monster unlike anything seen in any other title. Engaging in a furious battle of long-range spell casting before finally getting close enough to attack is one of the most rewarding experiences in the game.
Apart from spells, combat also consists of more traditional methods of hurting things. Mainly you will be using melee weapons such as swords, since firearms are often primitive and ammunition limited.
Once youve locked onto an enemy, you are able to target its torso, arms or head. The developers clearly have a black sense of humour, as taking a zombies head off will result in it wandering around aimlessly like a bloke at the supermarket.
Dark and Handsome?
Graphically, Eternal Darkness is a mixed bag. It has some good aspects like some nice lighting effects and detailed architecture. However, at times it betrays its N64 heritage with some objects, character models and special effects that look scarcely better than the previous generation console.
Any technical limitations are however more than compensated for by the excellent art direction. The attention to detail is exquisite, like finding intricate murals inscribed in ancient temple walls, depicting characters you had yourself encountered in an earlier time period.
There are never any truly bad graphics that I noticed, but theres nothing that will make you scrape your jowls off the carpet either. Overall, they are functional and do the job perfectly well.
Eternal Darkness features a fabulous soundtrack, with a haunting score that purveys a constant sense of menace lurking around every corner. In the finest traditions of movie music, it matches the mood so well, you never really notice its there. It may be a little repetitive, but it provides the perfect accompaniment to the Hitchcock-style atmosphere of the game.
As for sound effects, it is certainly hard to fault this title. From the scuttling of tiny trappers to the crackling of spells and even the thundering of distant artillery during the World War I chapter, Silicon Knights have succeeded admirably in bringing the whole sound-scape to life.
The voice acting is not exactly Oscar material, but as games go you could do a lot worse. The various evil deities sound suitably evil (and quite distinct from one another), while your main enemy performs the role of cheesy super villain with aplomb. For her part, Alex Roivas is a pretty typical heroine, with all the clichd one-liners youd expect from a Saturday morning cartoon.
Eternal Darkness truly is a unique game. Having played it at considerable length, I can honestly say it shares far more in common with classic PC adventure games like Broken Sword and Grim Fandango than with legendary survival horror titles like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark.
Theoretically at least, it is horror. But this is an entirely different breed to the Stephen King inspired gore-fests typical of the genre. ED owes much of its influence to 19th century American author H.P. Lovecraft, whose works have enjoyed an explosion of popularity in recent years.
There are also some direct references to Edgar Allen Poe, which are sure to please literary fans. The atmosphere of the game reminded me of Shakespeares MacBeth. Yes, it is evil, mystical and occasionally violent, but these themes are handled in an altogether more sophisticated manner than most games. This sure as heck aint the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and is all the better for it.
Individually, none of its elements strike you as fantastic. Its graphics are functional and solid, but not jaw-dropping. Its music is ambient and haunting rather than bold and striking. The physical combat is basic at best; its story is fascinating but frankly absurd and the gameplay is very linear.
Yet this game is somehow so much more than the sum of its parts. Like its own magic system, the individual components may not appear too impressive. But once combined they cast a powerful spell that will hold you in its iron grasp and not let ago until the bitter end.
This is the thinking mans horror; more clever than violent, more engaging than shocking and more intriguing than truly terrifying. This is the dark chocolate liqueur of gaming; rich, satisfying and very adult. Every serious gamer owes it to themselves to play this. I suggest you do too. The Darkness is awaiting.