Eternal Darkness is a horror game that was released by Nintendo, a company usually associated with more cute and child-friendly games, as part of their attempt to relinquish their image for their Gamecube console. However, given that both publishers Nintendo and developers Silicon Dreams are renowned for the originality of their products, this game could not be just another entry to the horror genre, and you will realize this as soon as you load the game for the first time, while a stanza from Edgar Alan Poe's "The Raven" is recited to you.
From a less lyrical point of view, Eternal Darkness tried to break new ground into the tired horror genre, with the use of numerous playable characters, a combat system based on magic rather than weapons and the game's most advertised feature, the "sanity effects" system. The latter was promised to scare the players directly, as it was supposed to blunt the line between the game and the player. Read on if you wish to know if it succeeded in doing so or not...
The aspect of the game that is most likely to grab your attention as soon as you start playing is the story. It all starts when young college student Alex Roivas is called in her family manor to identify the body of her uncle Edward, who has died under mysterious circumstances. Soon thereafter, Alex will find herself entangled in a conspiracy that spans almost two millennia, involving beings beyond her deepest fears.
The story in general is gripping, deep and will almost definitely remind you of H.P. Lovecraft novels sooner or later. Everything from the super-powerful, extra-dimensional beings that threaten to enter and destroy our world, to the many different characters without much apparent depth, the story of Eternal Darkness borrows heavily from Lovecraft's mythology and literary techniques, even though it never openly admits it. Or almost never, in fact, since one of the chapters is named after a Lovecraft story, the "Lurking Horror", which can be seen as a way of paying homage to one of the most renowned writers in the horror genre.
It has to be said that there are a few hiccups in the story, for example one of the characters at one point comes face to face with a corpse god and remains undaunted in his presence, only to be petrified with fear by two normal human guards a few minutes later. However, regardless of minor inconsistencies and any ties to pre-existing literature, the fact remains that Eternal Darkness has a strong story that should appeal to fans of the genre.
Eternal Darkness was released for the Gamecube in late 2002, and what is more, it did not begin as a Gamecube project. Instead, it was originally intended to be a Nintendo 64 game, a console that came out in 1996. During the transition, it did not receive a full graphical overhaul and even retained some of special effects from the old version. As a result it was never the most graphically accomplished game when it first came out, and it goes without saying that it has not gotten any better looking since. That is not to say that it is an ugly game, as some of the backgrounds and character models are really well-made, but it would never win any awards for visual accomplishments.
The presentation of the game, on the other hand, is extremely well done, with cinematic camera angles that often pan and twist around, giving you hints that something wicked is lying in that corner right in front of you, but never letting you see it until you get too close to it. This may sound more annoying rather than entertaining in theory, but it is much better in practice. Some of the visual effects also add to the high presentation values of the game, with the one that stands high above all others being the room containing the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a place that is most likely to give you the chills the first time you see it. All in all, the game's presentation creates a very spooky and creepy atmosphere, which is of course ideal for a game of this genre.
While on the subject of atmosphere, special mention should go to the game's voice-overs. In a genre that has suffered from some atrocious voice acting (Resident Evil 1, anyone?), Eternal Darkness brings some of the best voice acting to ever grace a videogame. Characters come to life through their voices, and their stories are easier for us to relate to when they are so well-told.
Other aspects that add to the game's atmosphere are the music and sound effects. Mysterious footsteps can be heard, as if from nowhere, doors open and close at odd times and whispers can be heard throughout the Roivas villa, when nobody else is around there besides Alex. The musical themes are also suitably creepy and moody, and though you may not find yourself humming them long after the game is over, they are still good enough.
As it has been mentioned before, the most advertised aspect of the game was the "sanity effects" system. All playable characters besides Pious have three energy bars, a health bar, a mana bar, and a sanity bar. The first two are pretty much self-explanatory, but the third one is directly related to how often you will experiences these effects. This bar starts to drain as your characters come across opponents and circumstances that defy logic, and they start to lose their grip on reality.
You can replenish your sanity by performing a finishing move on your opponents after killing them, but you will find that often your sanity meter is being drained faster than you can recover it, and before long it will reach a low point. When this occurs, several weird things will start happening, I do not want to reveal what these effects are because it is better to experience them for yourselves, but I will say that the most innocent ones are just minor annoyances which you will pick up quickly, while the most potent ones will probably make you want to throw your joypad away. However, after all is said and done, this sanity system is nothing more than an entertaining gimmick, and little else. After a while you are most likely to have seen most of them, so you may even grow bored of some, and generally, they are not really that scary, in all honesty. Still, the ones that catch you off-guard really do so, and you may even find yourself fumbling for your "Alt", "Control" and "Delete" keys on your Gamecube joypad.
Yet while the sanity effects were disclosed long before the game was completed and perhaps for that reason unable to live up to the hype, the Magick system was a well-kept secret until the release of Eternal Darkness. This made for a pleasant surprise, since this is perhaps the most interesting and downright entertaining part of the game. There are several spells to compose through various runes that you can find throughout the game, and some of them you may even find yourself and experiment with them for results. The fact that Magick plays such an important role when it comes to fighting the various enemies in the game means that this part of the game is much more unique than the average horror game, and for that matter, a lot more entertaining than most.
Sadly, the game suffers from a clumsy control system that will get you killed oftentimes, even though you did everything right, and utilized the aiming system (which lets you target individual body parts) to the fullest. It is not so bad that it makes the game unplayable, but it does mean that you are likely to be frustrated with it a few times during the course of the game. Luckily, there are three difficulty levels to choose (though it is not that obvious when you are given the choice) so if you have problems with the fights, you may opt for an easier difficulty level.
Lastly, a more elaborate presentation needs to be made on one other part of Eternal Darkness that makes it stand out from the crowd of horror games, its story. Its pacing may be somewhat slow, especially in the beginning, and definitely nothing like the action-packed storylines of the Resident Evil games, and it may not be as heavily influenced by symbolism as the storylines found in the Silent Hill games, but it is still special in its own way. The best thing about it is that it is multi-layered, so if you wish you may opt to ignore it completely and just focus on the gameplay. You do not have to be afraid of any hour-long cut-scenes. On a surface level the story is quite simple and told in short parts.
However, if you decide to delve deeper into it, you will find a lot of hidden symbolism and themes that may have eluded you otherwise. For example, the names of the main characters are not randomly chosen. The last name of the family that would become the saviors of humankind, "Roivas", is "savior" spelled backwards, while the betrayer of humanity, the man who pledged his life to the ancients is, ironically enough, called Pious, which as you may know means a devoutly religious person. It is also worth adding that the story has a few clever twists, one of which is probably going to catch you completely unaware. There is even an ultimate ending, once you complete all three different paths, but the less said about its quality, the better off we all are.
One last point on the subject of the game's storyline and its overall writing is the quality of characterization. While not all characters are equally explored (something expectable, given the sheer number of characters and how little time you spend with some), the ones that are explored make a prime example of how to develop a character in a game. From little things that some characters use to regain some of their sanity back, such as prayer and alcohol, to Maximillian Roivas' autopsies of the extra-dimensional monsters, such intricacies help make these characters seem more real, and their tales more plausible.
My favorite example of this would be the tragedy of the aforementioned Maximillian Roivas, a renowned doctor of his time and a man who lived during the Enlightenment, the dawning of the age of Reason, a time where all beliefs in anything supernatural were dismissed as mere superstitions. When this man of science is confronted by beings that defy all reason, his mind is not capable of containing the madness he is facing, and this is chillingly obvious in his autopsy reports of said beings, through which we can see his gradual fall into insanity. All this is but a side-part of the game, and something that some players may ignore altogether, but this presentation of a man losing his sanity is so masterfully done, so wonderfully executed by the actor providing the voice-overs that it may very well scare you a lot more than any insanity effect could.
To summarize the above, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is a memorable addition to a genre that became stale all too soon, as it brought several new features with it. While the controls leave much to be desired, and the sanity effects did not live up to the developers' ambitions, the unique combat system, the strong storyline and the high quality presentation make for a solid gaming experience. Sadly, Eternal Darkness never achieved high sales so it is unlikely that we will see another game from Silicon Knights in the same universe. However, if you are a fan of both Nintendo and the horror genre, especially an H.P. Lovecraft fan (and if you are, allow me to commend you on having such diverse interests) you will find much to love in this well-executed game.
The final grade is: 89/100