Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Second Take) GameCube Review

Projects that are in development for extended periods of time tend to either a) die, or b) suck. But once in a great while, a rare title comes along that questions the validity of the rule. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a title that was in development for over 4 years, is one of those games. Developed by Silicon Knights, who recently created Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and are working on Too Human for the Xbox 360, and also made the PS1 hit Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and such PC strategy games as Steel Empire and Fantasy Empires, Eternal Darkness is a dark, intelligent adventure, with an epic story and epic gameplay to complement it. The attention to detail, the seamless blend of cinema and game, the artistic direction, the graphics, and the truly outstanding music all represent a quality that has been largely absent in most games this generation: immersion. Every element in Eternal Darkness aids in creating one of the most, if not the most, absorbing games of this generation.

From the moment you start playing until the credits roll, Eternal Darkness is gripping-never so frustrating that you want to stop playing, and never so easy that you can breeze through the game with no difficulty. The game demands that you keep playing for “just one more minute,” all the way through the 40+ hours of play.

Initially, one may perceive Eternal Darkness as a knock-off of the early Resident Evil games (excluding Resident Evil 4, which totally defies every convention of the series). Early on, this comment is not entirely unfounded–after all, the atmosphere is dark, the music is eerie, there are many moments of pure, unadulterated horror, the first level of the game is an abandoned mansion, and the first enemies you will encounter are zombies. On the surface, there are some similarities between the titles, but after an hour or so of solid playing time, you will notice that those are the only major resemblances. The differences are much more plentiful.

First of all, Eternal Darkness is completely 3D–the backgrounds are not pre-rendered, allowing a moving, dynamic camera–unlike Resident Evil; you will always be able to see exactly what you are fighting, with no cheap deaths caused by enemies you cannot see. Second, there are no load times between rooms. Ever. Not once during the game will a loading screen interrupt the pace. Third, the controls are much more smooth and finely-tuned. Non-existent are the robotic movements, clunky combat, and slow character turning times of Resident Evil. Eternal Darkness opts instead for more traditional, Nintendo-style controls, putting much more emphasis on exploration and combat than Resident Evil ever dared prior to number four.

Second, combat is extremely encouraged-a plentiful selection of melee weapons and projectile weaponry is at your disposal, all very easy to use, with an intuitive lock-on system. No longer will you worry about ammo, or being killed by the zombie in the next room. Health is also easy to obtain. Once you learn how to cast spells, you will also learn how to restore health; thanks to a renewing magic (as it is spelled within the game) system, you will not constantly be dreading death.

I could go on and on about the fundamental differences between these games, but you should know by now that beyond some cosmetic similarities, Eternal Darkness and Resident Evil are in completely different genres. Eternal Darkness is, at its heart, an adventure-RPG with horror elements, while Resident Evil is pure survival-horror. The former shoves all association with survival-horror institutions and gameplay mechanics out the window, for the better far, far more than for the worse. Now that you know this, you should also know what makes Eternal Darkness so innovative, beyond its accessible and easy-to-play approach to horror.

One of the most hyped-up elements of this game was the Sanity Meter. It works like this: along with your health and magic meters, you also have a similarly structured sanity meter. When you encounter an enemy, you lose a small amount of sanity as you would a small amount of health by injury-by killing and finishing off this enemy, you will recover most of your lost sanity. But the lower the meter drops, the more insane your character becomes. Strange things start to happen at this point. The camera tilts to odd angles, your character may begin frantically mumbling, the music is replaced by a horrific collection of noises–screams, gunshots, crying, stabbing, moans, and the like–and you begin to hallucinate. This is the main, and easily the coolest, draw of the system. Without giving too much away (these effects are best left to your own discovery-the shock value is reduced when you know what to expect), explaining these effects is somewhat difficult.

But to explain these effects succinctly, let’s just say that if something bad happens to your character, if something technical affects the gameplay, or if a cut scene seems oddly out of place, it may not really be happening. After the effect ends, the screen will go blank, and the protagonist of a particular level will say something to the effect of “This didn’t happen,” notifying you that what just happened didn’t really take place. This system is very unique, and one of the selling points of Eternal Darkness. Some moments are too predictable, and some effects aren’t particularly scary, but overall, it is pulled off with amazing success, and can only be improved on for a sequel. An interesting play mechanic that, on that basis alone, makes Eternal Darkness worth checking out. I’d love to say more, but this won’t let you down. It makes for some great entertainment, and you should see for yourself.

Innovation goes beyond that, though. Over the millennia that Eternal Darkness’s story takes place, you play as a character from a certain point in history-a Roman centurion from 26 B.C., a dancer in the court of Suryavarman II from 1150 A.D., a Persian nobleman from A.D. 565, an American doctor from the late 1700s, a 1950s-era psychologist, and more. Each struggles against the “darkness” with period-faithful clothing, period-faithful weaponry, and historically accurate fighting styles for each of the many different weapons you will find through the game. Also, these characters feel distinctly human. They are not the traditional badass supermen you find in most video games today. These men are normal.

Some are fat, some are strong of will or weak of will, some aren’t physically able to take on the darkness (some will go insane faster, some will run faster or slower, and some will get tired faster-it’s very dynamic), and many, at the end of their section of story, will die. It makes Eternal Darkness’s story and gameplay stand out from every other story-driven game available. This is something that you simply never see in games: characters that look and feel human. Even without significant attempts at individual character development, every one of the dozen people you will play as are unique, intriguing, and captivating personalities. And I do not say this irrationally-I genuinely mean it. Every person in this game is interesting, and one of them, Pious Augustus, is the single most awesome villain I’ve seen in a video game. I won’t say any more; that’s for you to experience yourself.

Eternal Darkness is a brilliant, brilliant game. If you’re willing to invest, what you will find is the deepest, longest, darkest, and in my opinion, the best game available for the GameCube. A lot of effort was put into this game–4 year’s worth–and it shows. Boy, does it show.

The presentation and storyline, above all else, is where Eternal Darkness is at its best. After watching just the opening cut scene, it was apparent that this was a crowning cinematic achievement in video games-everything from the smooth, movie-quality camera movements, to all of the subtly revealed plot points make for one of the best, most well-conveyed stories of this generation. Compelling little historical details run throughout the game, and are closely tied-in to the story. As a history buff, I greatly enjoyed the many references to the past-mentions of Charlemagne, the Inquisition, WWI, and more; also worth noting are the Latin voiceovers in certain points in the game, where several conversations play out almost entirely in Latin. How cool is that?

These are small details, ones that you have to be looking for to notice, but they point out an underlying theme in Eternal Darkness-that the Ancients (3, or 4, or possibly 5; they are Godlike creatures that rule the world in secrecy) manipulated actual events in our past; maybe they killed Charlemagne, maybe they were involved with the Inquisition, with WWI, etc. It adds a down-to-earth element to much of the horror in this game-almost as if these supernatural events could actually happen because of their association with a known reality. It’s strange, and interesting, and difficult for me to translate to paper, but as I see it, the story of Eternal Darkness is one for the ages. If there were only one reason to buy the game, this would be it. It’s completely amazing. In terms of story alone, this is easily up there with the greats like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy. In that sense, Eternal Darkness feels entirely unique, intelligent, and extremely involving from the narrative perspective. It’s too bad there aren’t more like it-this game showed me just how much potential video games have as a storytelling medium.

Taken by itself, the script is quite good, but another factor compliments it: the voice acting. There are hours and hours of it, and it is all very high quality. The actors here all seem to understand exactly the direction that the plot is taking, and they deliver their lines similarly; they can talk about matters demons and occult elements with tremendous conviction, and the vibe that they are reading their lines off of a script is nonexistent, contrary to most of the low-budget acting in games today. It really is quite an achievement for a game to have such superb acting; this is a trend that should continue. This should come as no surprise to the informed gamer; however, since these are mostly the same actors who voiced Metal Gear Solid (David “Solid Snake” Hayter even makes a few cameos).

Overall, the vision of Eternal Darkness is totally consistent (as opposed to a title like Starfox Adventures; was it Starfox or was it Dinosaur Planet?)–the themes behind the game, the artistic direction of the environments, the story; these are all flawlessly implemented, and I cannot derive a single complaint from any one element. This game would make H.P. Lovecraft proud. In terms of gameplay, only one thing can initially be said of Eternal Darkness: it really requires investment. For the first hour you play, perhaps for the first two hours, you are merely learning the rules of the game ahead. For those hours, there isn’t very much depth or reason to keep playing-in my opinion, this is what has deterred casual players, and become one of the causes of less-than ideal sales. Early on, it is easy to dismiss the game as a Resident Evil knockoff or hack-n-slash. The story, the sanity effects, the puzzles, music, boss fights, bizarre enemies, the art; simply put, none of these things really show themselves for some time. And that’s a shame because if you have the patience to learn the magic (that’s how it’s spelled in the game) system, follow the story, and immerse yourself in the gameplay, what you will eventually find is a truly amazing experience, filled with depth and subtlety.

One of the novel mechanics in the gameplay of Eternal Darkness is the targeting system, where you can attack four parts of a foe’s body: the head, the torso, the left arm, and the right arm. Slice off one arm, and your enemy’s attack power has halved. Slice off both arms, and your opponent cannot attack at all. Slice off the head, and while your foe will still try to attack you (after a brief and humorous animation where it feels around for its missing head); it will have a very low accuracy rate because of blindness and the inability to hear. If you can make a torso slice, only accomplishable with larger weapons, you will kill your foe on the spot. Some enemies have regenerating limbs, and some don’t have heads, which adds an unconventional strategic element to the game of determining how you should go about the attack. Some enemies will burn to death if hit by a torch, which opens up more techniques depending on the situation.

Combat in the game is interesting; it’s very reliant on thought and planning, rather than running into a room and constantly hacking your way to safety like in Devil May Cry. This is slower, and almost-certain death situations are very rare-rather, if you know how to play, you will almost always be able to survive with the proper strategy. Knowing how and when to use the plethora of melee weapons (all period-accurate, I might add) and projectile weapons is key-in narrow rooms and hallways, for example, larger weapons with a larger swing radius are impractical, in large rooms you may want to hold back from direct combat and use a gun or other projectile weapon. When fighting tougher enemies, you may want to enchant your blade with magic.

This brings me to one of the best aspects of the gameplay: the magic system. The magic system is primarily divided into 3 colors: red, green, and blue. These colors tie in to how you play the game, and what paths you choose as you play. Toward the beginning of the game, you will enter the “doom decision room,” where you will see three artifacts, one red, one green, and one blue, mounted on pedestals-you must pick up one of them. You may not know it then, but the artefact you select will change the entire game from that point forward. Without going too much into how these affect the story, I’ll say this: there are 3 gods that are the subject of the game. One of these gods is what the blue artifact symbolizes. Another is what the red symbolizes. The final is what the green symbolizes. Each of these “ancients” has different traits and personalities, and will each tie in to the story at a deeper and deeper level as you progress-depending on which artifact you chose. And which one you pick encounters what color of spells you will use, which spells you will use against enemies, and even the effects some enemies will have on you.

Now, the colors are also directly integrated into spell casting. Here’s how the system works: to make a spell, you must first choose the power level (there are 3 levels: 3 point, 5 point, and 7 point-a 3 point “enchant item” spell will last slightly less than half as long as a 7 point spell), and then choose the alignment (color). After that you choose from various runes, which perform a function when strung together properly (you can only select two function runes). For example, there is a “summon” rune that you can unlock. By combining it with the “item” rune, it does nothing. But if you combine it with the “creature” rune, you will summon a beast that is under your command-the power of the beast depends on the power level. You can make a spell more powerful by adding as many “power” runes as necessary (up to 4). On paper, this doesn’t translate very well. But there are many spells, each performing a unique task. For example, if you use the “enchant item” spell on your sword, it becomes more powerful. Beyond that, though, you can make the spell more powerful by increasing the power level (adding “power” runes to the spell equation) and finding out which color your assailant is weak to. If he is colored red, your “enchant item” spell should be green. This will make your attack much more powerful than it would have been without enhancement.

This magic system is a deep, hugely complex, and intelligent element of Eternal Darkness. It is so beautifully, flawlessly designed that at some point, writing a spell becomes almost habit. Like all of the game, this is logical and intuitive. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the best, if not the best, magic systems ever seen in a video game to date-this area has all of the depth of a PC RPG, but all of the accessibility of a console title. Very well constructed. You may not believe me now, but once you actually play, you will see just how well done the whole affair is. And it is a sight to behold. In addition, there are many puzzles. Some are easy and some are difficult, but unlike most difficult puzzles, these are all intuitive. I won’t cite specific examples, but one of the great things about this game is just how satisfying every last puzzle is. From the extremely simple puzzles to the hardest of them, you get a great sense of satisfaction at completing your task. It’s an undefined aspect, but using logic to determine how you should go about solving something and then discovering that the method works always feels like an accomplishment. We aren’t talking bizarre, arbitrary puzzles like in Resident Evil. These make sense-they don’t hinder your progress, but rather enhance the overall experience. It makes you wish more games had puzzles like this-it really does. I’ve rarely seen puzzles so consistently fun and satisfying in any game before. There’s more I could discuss, but I don’t need to. The game here is fantastic-extremely heavy on content, and complimentary to the story. High quality material from start to finish.

From an artistic standpoint, Eternal Darkness is quite simply unparalleled. If this were the only thing being judged, it would merit a perfect 10 without any hesitation. The artistic direction is purely stunning, with historically accurate architecture, amazing creature designs, gorgeous levels that reflect various historical periods, and beautiful texture work. The world created by the graphics here is stunning, and borders on photo-realistic at times. Stained glass windows, paintings, beautiful flashes at lighting and more will leave you in constant awe at some points. Unfortunately though, you must remember that this was a Nintendo 64 game for two years of development. Consistency is the name of the game here, and while Eternal Darkness was rebuilt for the GameCube with great success, there are times when you will notice some antiquated moments. Some character models are amazing, while some are fairly low-poly with no skinning. Some environments have stunning lighting and crisp textures. Some have blurry texturing with little detail, texture seams, etc. Eternal Darkness is always a good-looking game, but some scenes are beyond gorgeous and some are merely average. I would have liked to see some more consistency in this department, but it is far from necessary, and my complaints are far from major. If the graphics were more consistent, I would have no problem calling this quite possibly the best looking game available on the system.

One of the major technological features here though, and one that is completely consistent, is the frame rate. Eternal Darkness always runs at 60 FPS. No matter how many things are going on at once, no matter how many enemies are on-screen, the game does not slow down a single time. Not once. The other technological feature is the camera. Generally speaking, there are two types of cameras: practical, and cinematic. A practical camera would be that found in Super Mario Sunshine, where the camera is always above and behind Mario, and you have full control over where it goes. A cinematic camera would be what you saw in Silent Hill, with breathtaking zooms and other fancy movements. The difference is that in Mario, you have full control over what you can see, whereas in Silent Hill, sometimes combat can become unnecessarily difficult because the cinematic angle constricts your field of view. Eternal Darkness uses a cinematic camera. But unlike the other games that have tried this before, Eternal Darkness actually gets it right. You can always see exactly what’s going on, exactly where your foes are, and exactly where you need to go next, all with some amazing angles and movements. The camera will sweep over rafters, zoom out from behind a candle, and somehow always cut to exactly the right angle when you turn a corner, an angle that is not only practical, but also cinematic. It never gets stuck, it always has a movie-like quality, and all of the zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. are stunning. Without competition, this is the best cinematic camera I have ever seen in a video game. Period.

Moving on, the sound in Eternal Darkness is simply astounding. On the surface, the sound effects themselves are great-freakish moans, enemy grunts, slicing swords, footsteps that become muffled as they move from wood floor to carpet, and everything else showcases huge attention to detail, and achieve a subtle sense of realism. And even better than the sound effects is the music-all brilliantly composed by Steve Henifin (who also did the music for the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain). Every piece is beautiful and haunting, in subtle fashion. From beginning to end, every single piece of music in this game is flat-out amazing-and long, too. I’ve heard altogether too many games with 45-second music tracks that loop continuously as you play, with no defined beginning and no end. Eternal Darkness is different, with a Hollywood composition style. The tracks are long (I haven’t clocked any of them, but I would guess that the track in Maximillian’s chapter is at least 6 minutes long-maybe more) with perfect orchestration/writing and some great little touches (such as chanting) that play into the mood so brilliantly that I cannot compliment it enough. This is one of very few games worthy of a soundtrack, and I highly recommend picking it up if you can find it, though be forewarned it can run as much as $50 as it is discontinued. Ironic that the soundtrack sells for 3 times that of the actual game.

On a technical level, it also sounds great, with no compression whatsoever. And running in Dolby Surround Pro Logic II, Eternal Darkness is one of the best-sounding games available on the GameCube, with pounding music, vibrant sound effects and the previously mentioned great voice acting. Eager to try out your new surround system? Well, this is the game to try it on. However, repetition seems to be something of a problem-the culprit track, a combination of a soft drumbeat and whispers, is played far too frequently, and you will quickly grow tired of it (even though it, too, is great the first time you hear it). Also, for players who are insane frequently, the disturbing collection of freakish noises may be the only music they hear in a level-leaving the actual music unheard. In a game with such amazing music, it’s almost as if the developers weren’t confident in its quality. Aside from that one problem, though, this game has some of the best, most mood-setting music you are likely ever to hear in a video game.

As a single-player game, Eternal Darkness has abundant replay value-completing it will take a good 30 hours by conservative estimates. And there are captivating reasons to play through a second and third time, with different enemy types, altered cut scenes, and two very nice unlockables – both of which are sure to add even more playing time. Eternal Darkness is a beefy game, without question. Most who genuinely enjoy the game will find themselves logging in 60, even 70 hours of play here. This is one of the longest, most epic games available for the system.

In the end, Eternal Darkness is art. The music is stunning, the artistic direction is gorgeous, the story is captivating, the gameplay is deep; this is truly one of the best games yet this generation, and a showcase of the talent possessed by developer Silicon Knights. Considering the relatively poor sales, I have only one question: why haven’t you bought this game? It is amazing, and if you look around, it’s dirt cheap, too. This is exactly the game GameCube owners have been hoping for–after a huge dry spell of noteworthy titles, your wishes have come true. This is your killer-app; this is the reasons to own a GameCube. Mature and supremely polished, Eternal Darkness is timeless and, simply put, is a masterpiece. It even holds up against Resident Evil 4.