Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a game as gripping as it is repelling, making players feel like moving forward even though they sometimes may not want to
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a rather unexpected turn in Nintendo’s usually family-friendly canon. Although neither masterminded nor developed by the company itself, as both of those achievements go to the Canadian studio Silicon Knights, not only did the game’s construction receive collaboration and oversight from Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata themselves, but that partnership was also strong enough for the title to be exclusively released for the GameCube in 2002.
Featuring a realistic look, a dark mansion that hides an ominous secret, a blatant atmospheric tendency towards the horror genre, occasional jump scares, and a gameplay format that mixes paced action, tense exploration, and light puzzle solving, one could easily fall into the trap of looking at Eternal Darkness as some sort of Resident Evil copycat; a game whose intention is nothing but to emulate a popular recipe and use that formula as a stepping stone towards commercial success. However, below a surface that might exhale a degree of familiarity following a superficial inspection, the game actually ends up revealing depth and ingenuity that trump those of the average efforts of the genre while giving the leaders of the survival horror pack a run for their money.
Since both Eternal Darkness’ exclusive nature as well as the crediting of Miyamoto and Iwata as its producers end up displaying a strong link between Silicon Knights and Nintendo, it is perhaps not too surprising that the title embodies the latter company’s signature strategy for successful game design. That is, rather than entering some sort of wild arms race to try to get a piece of the genre by overpowering the giants that dominate the field, Eternal Darkness tries to carve its space and lure in admirers by attempting to be significantly different from its competition.
As such, even if it does not break the rules of what constitutes a survival horror experience and it is not afraid to dive into either staples or clichés that appear in the genre, the game is quick to subvert expectations by providing a unique perspective into a tried and true format. And in the case of Eternal Darkness, Silicon Knights does such an excellent job at breaking up from the mold that it is hard to single out a specific area of the game that is responsible for that separation. Instead, the title sets itself apart from the crowd via a number of distinct moves.
In spite of that pleasantly uniform dilution of uniqueness, a lot of Eternal Darkness’ special character is found in its plot and in the areas directly affected by it. The game begins when Alexandra Roivas is informed of the sudden brutal death of her closest relative: Edward Roivas, her grandfather. She quickly heads to his mansion in Rhode Island and is greeted by the detective assigned to cover the occurrence. He shows the woman the horribly destroyed remains of Edward and comments on how difficult it will be to solve the case given the state of his corpse.
Two weeks after that event, and frustrated with the police’s inability to get to the bottom of what happened, Alexandra returns to the house and decides to do an independent investigation around the place. Tracking a series of clues, she opens the way to a secret room where a mysterious book bound in human skin rests on a table that shows signs of frantic and intense work. She picks it up and begins to carefully read its contents, unaware that the story within is closely related to her grandfather’s death, to the fate of the universe, and to her future as well.
The book Alexandra reads is called the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and its first chapter concerns the life of a Roman legionary called Pious Augustus, who in 26 BC travels to Ancient Persia to recover an artifact. While on his mission, though, a sinister voice summons him towards an underground temple where, after some exploration, he stumbles upon a room containing three artifacts. Upon touching one of them, he becomes possessed by an alien-like god of clear Lovecraftian inspirations that turns the soldier into his servant with the goal of using Pious as an earthly instrument that will pave the way for his future domination over the universe.
In the triggering of that event, Eternal Darkness sets in motion a tale that lasts for slightly over two millennia, unfolds in different regions around the globe, and ties a myriad of happenings and characters – both entirely fictional and historical – to a plot that, while filled with plenty of intrigue and twists, never loses sight of the importance of a coherent narrative.
A considerable portion of the greatness found in Eternal Darkness can be traced back to the loose boundaries its story has regarding both time and geography. Alexandra’s exploration of her grandfather’s estate is absolutely important given the various secrets that are hidden within its walls; however, the largest slice of the gameplay will take place in the tales revealed by the Tome of Eternal Darkness. In that context, cleverly, the mansion works as some sort of hub, for once Alexandra is done with a chapter, she will have to use an asset or knowledge acquired from the tome to reach a new place in the house and, invariably, uncover the location of the book’s next set of pages.
Although rather traditional in format, that compelling cycle gains a degree of freshness thanks to the particular way in which it is presented, to its usage inside a survival horror setting, and to the radical difference between the chapters. The portions that constitute Eternal Darkness are, in fact, so thematically disconnected that the characters that star in them are unique. Featuring twelve chapters, not to mention the interludes that happen in the present time with Alexandra exploring the mansion, the game stars twelve protagonists whose stories depict a lengthy and historic struggle of the human race against the rising darkness.
Smartly, and as a way to bring those tales together under the same consistent umbrella, Eternal Darkness sets those stories in only four distinct locations. Consequently, as they advance through time and alternate between chapters, gamers will often revisit places they have already been to, albeit in a new historical period and usually in a somewhat different visual and physical shape. It is a construction that makes the game constantly jump around in chronological and geographical terms; however, the tales it tells never get confusing. Firstly, because each of the four settings has its own self-contained story; and secondly, because – in a fantastic showcase of writing – the game stunningly unites these distant threads when they reach their conclusion.
These qualities give birth to a plot that feels as epic as the threat humanity is facing, and whether they are controlling a journalist stuck in a church that is being used as a temporary hospital in World War I, an archaeologist venturing into a temple in Cambodia, a messenger trying to warn Charlemagne that his life is endangered, or a Franciscan monk during the Spanish Inquisition, players will be aware of how what is unraveling relates to the overarching scheme and also thoroughly invested in the events that have a more localized nature.
Regardless of the character they are controlling, gamers will find that Eternal Darkness is quite consistent in the way it plays. There are, of course, subtle punctual differences. For example, heroes that lived during or before the Middle Ages will, obviously, have no access to firearms or explosives, being forced to rely on crossbows for ranged attacks; likewise, sometimes the protagonists will hold unique skills related to their own traits, such as how the journalist can use the flash of his camera to stun enemies or how the archaeologist can employ his brush to clean up dust. Despite those distinctions in abilities and weaponry, though, the essence of gameplay remains unchanged.
Even if not very large, the environments of Eternal Darkness do require a good deal of exploration due to how locked doors and blocked passages are a common sight; often, in order to overcome them, gamers will have to either talk to characters to make the plot advance or acquire items that ought to be employed in puzzle solving. Given they are not the focus of the adventure, the riddles the game conjures are never exactly brilliant; however, they are nicely designed, engaging, varied, and they gain an extra layer of luster thanks to the ominously mysterious atmosphere that surrounds nearly every moment of Eternal Darkness, which makes the smallest of discoveries and the solving of the simplest puzzles feel significant.
Furthermore, all characters have a total of three meters that represent their current status: a red one for health, a blue one for magic, and a green one for sanity. The first two work just as one would expect them to. If players get hit by enemies, the health of the current protagonist will go down, and if that meter is depleted, the character will faint and fail their mission. Regarding that fact, it is worth noting that Eternal Darkness does not have any sort of auto-save or checkpoint feature; as such, when death comes, gamers will be returned to the last position where they manually saved.
In a way, the format works, because given it is possible to save frequently, except during moments when danger is either present or incoming, loss of progress upon failure tends to be minimal. However, negatively, that implementation forces one to constantly open the menu and save the game if they want to avoid losing a big slice of what they have done, which can be somewhat annoying due to the frequency of the repetitive action and downright frustrating if players simply forget to record their achievements for a long period of time.
The magic meter, meanwhile, comes into play because written in the Tome of Eternal Darkness, which passes between characters as the story goes along, are a number of spells that, unlocked little by little, serve different purposes, such as creating a protective shield, removing magical barriers, summoning creatures, enchanting objects, and more. Usually available in three distinct levels of strength, these magical moves are – obviously – useful in battle as well as valuable to the solving of numerous puzzles and the overcoming of various obstacles, like when characters have to fix tools that are broken or protect themselves from unavoidable electric traps.
The blue meter is automatically replenished as characters move around, a quirk that pretty much guarantees that when a puzzle that requires magic appears, gamers will be able to cast the necessary spell. That same implementation could, however, have acted against the game’s level of challenge, because the abundance of magic power could have made enemy encounters too easy. Wisely, though, Eternal Darkness counters that by making it harder for players to activate spells during battles, for the way they are cast means that characters have to be able to stand perfectly still for a good period of time – which increases according to the level of the spell. Consequently, using magic in battle can only be done punctually and during strategic breaks, therefore protecting the solid level of difficulty held by the game.
Although certainly important, both magic and health are not as integral to the uniqueness of Eternal Darkness as sanity. The green meter takes a hit whenever a character is spotted by the greatly designed and decently varied monsters that inhabit the title’s universe, and it is restored if gamers are able to land a finishing blow on the downed foe. The lower the green meter is, the more likely will the triggering of the game’s signature feature, the sanity effects, be. These hallucinations, of which Eternal Darkness has more than a couple of dozens, include visual effects, like blood pouring out of walls; eerie sounds, such as wails of pain coming from invisible sources; and even pranks that break the fourth wall, as it happens when the game pretends to switch itself off suddenly.
In practical terms, the sanity effects do not affect gameplay: as gruesome as they may eventually be, characters will not get hurt because of them; and, surely, no deleting of save files will ever occur in spite of how frequently the game will threaten to do so. What they do, instead, is alternate between pleasantly amusing and downright frightening, as not only will most gamers be caught off guard by the triggering of some of them, but their variety will also pretty much guarantee that players will not encounter the same effect more than once during the fifteen hours it should take them to get to the end of the game.
Eternal Darkness, therefore, covers its uniquely formatted quest of survival horror with a likable love for toying with players’ minds. Its dark and mischievous heart, though, would not be effective with a good deal of artistic and technical qualities, and the game features plenty of those. Its graphics, which strive for the realistic, may not have aged as well as the visuals of GameCube titles that went for the cartoonish, but they still work. Concurrently, its haunting occasional music, its frequent fright-inducing sound effects, its tension-generating fixed camera angles, and the dense atmosphere of its scenarios create an experience that is immersive in ways that are sometimes overwhelming.
Those prowesses are complemented by a good variety of weapons with different behaviors; a tight control scheme that rarely falters; a fantastic magic system that besides being a rare sight in the genre also includes the ability to assign spells to buttons, hence creating efficient shortcuts; and combat that is supported not only by a solid triggering mechanism, but also by the ability to let characters aim for specific parts of the body of foes in order to either deliver more effective hits or simply dismember them as a way to diminish the danger they pose.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is, quite simply, a masterwork of the survival horror genre. It is a game as gripping as it is repelling, making players feel like moving forward even though they sometimes may not want to. And it achieves that fantastic duality through very original means, whether it is via a tightly connected plot that unfolds during two millennia, takes place in four distinct locations, and includes a dozen playable characters, each with their own struggles; or in a gameplay format that although featuring many of the staples usually seen in games of the kind, succeeds in feeling refreshing thanks to a chapter-based structure, a deep magic system, and stellar sanity effects that have the in-game protagonists as well as players going through heart-pounding hallucinations that make them question the very fabric of reality. And like that, even though it was developed far away from the halls of the company, Eternal Darkness presents a unique Nintendo touch that, in its case, is employed for the evil and disturbing rather than for the cute and whimsical.
Final Score: 9 – Phenomenal