Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

Post-Launch Review
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Developer: Silicon Knights
Released: June 2002 (NA)
Played: story complete in 11h:3min


As the only living member of the family, Alex Roivas is called back to her grandfather's mansion after his death. Edward was horrifically murdered, but the police draw a blank, so Alex is determined to find out why her grandfather died. But as she searches the mansion for clues, she uncovers a millenia-old plot to plunge the world into eternal darkness...

At Launch

Eternal Darkness earned average review scores of 90%. Reviewers were impressed with the story, atmosphere, magic, and camera, and especially the sanity system that was hailed as a milestone of psychological horror. Some critics felt that combat was boring and repetitive.

Post Launch

Gamecube games get no updates. However, if you want to pick up a copy, you should know that it's now rare enough that my copy cost $50.


I've gotten so used to autosaves that I didn't even think about having to save when playing Eternal Darkness. As a result, I was two hours into the game and having a great time when I died and lost all my progress. No checkpoints, no autosaves - start over from the beginning. So save your game! 

This is not the same style of horror as games like Dead Space. Eternal Darkness goes for more of a Lovecraftian horror style, which I appreciate. The story and its structure convey an incomprehensible creeping doom and cosmic inevitability rather than a gory shock fest. In fact, most of the time there's relatively little horror or tension. Jump scares are extremely rare, which makes them way more effective when they actually do come into play - like the bathtub (highlight for spoiler).

The game's story is mostly told through playable chapters of the Tome of Eternal Darkness, which Alex finds in her grandfather's mansion as she investigates his death. The structure is very effective. As Alex you wander around a creepy empty mansion, searching for the hidden chapters of the book, solving puzzles to unlock the house's secrets. When you find a chapter you can read it and play a segment as the character of that chapter. Each individual who finds the Tome inherits the knowledge of its past bearers, so the runes and spells you find carry forward through each chapter. Alex also inherits this knowledge, so as she reads more chapters she gains more abilities and information that help open up sealed parts of the mansion and find yet more clues and chapters. The structure does a great job of conveying the relentless threat as it affects history - while the player characters create setbacks and score some victories, the inevitable doom creeps onward.

I was a little disappointed at the re-use of levels. As I played the first few chapters I got an impression of a globe-trotting mystery, but as it turns out there are really only four locations. On the plus side, the time span between chapters allows for a lot of reconfiguring and redecorating, as well as access to large new passages and areas. The difference between the cathedral's medieval appearance and its WWI dressing is especially noticeable - medical and military supplies hastily stacked, and an emergency room erected in the main hall.

The many different characters are interesting too. It's a fairly diverse cast, pulled into the plot for many different reasons - obligation, curiosity, happenstance, or even boredom. Members of the Roivas family are all white men, but you also get to play as a black Canadian firefighter and a Cambodian warrior woman, among others. Each character has slightly different capabilities - the health, magic, and sanity meters vary, as do speed and endurance. Everyone plays the same way, but the character design, animations, voice acting, equipment, and ability differences make each character feel unique.

Unfortunately combat is quite clunky. If you want to maximize your effectiveness you need to lock on to an individual enemy and then target a specific body part, and you can't move while targeting or reloading. It's easy to get surrounded if you don't keep moving, and there's no block or dodge button, so combat frequently consists of running around the room chopping off heads when you have the chance. You do often have access to guns, with power and speed dependent on the chapter's time period. Many of them are difficult to use, though, due to long reloads. And all the pistols actually seem weaker than your melee attacks, which is annoying - I'd rather have the guns' range advantage balanced by ammo scarcity. I get that ineffective combat is a good way to build horror, but enemies are so slow and the player has so few options that it feels awkward instead of tension-inducing.

But speaking of targeting specific body parts, I was surprised to find strategic dismemberment as a game mechanic. The first time I remember hearing about it was with Dead Space. Eternal Darkness allows you to target limbs and heads in combat, and it's actually pretty important. Enemies go down faster if you cut off limbs rather than hacking wildly. Lopping off an arm reduces enemy attack options. Cutting off an enemy's head prevents it from seeing you, meaning that if you're careful you can avoid damage and sanity drain.

The sanity mechanic is excellent, easily the best part of the game. You lose sanity when a monster looks at you, so you can potentially avoid sanity loss if you can get behind it and cut off the head before it notices you. You can restore sanity by finishing downed enemies, but if you kill an enemy without performing the finisher, you get no sanity back. If you're low on sanity, you get some weird audio like whispers or crying, which aren't very scary when you get used to them, but when you think you're alone and hear a knock on the door, that's a little creepy. More freaky are some of the visual hallucinations: faces of statues or paintings will move, blood drips from the ceiling, rot appears in the environment.

But the really great sanity scares mess with the player directly instead of acting as the character's hallucinations. A couple of examples (highlight for spoilers): use a healing item and your character's torso blows up in a shower of blood, or a crash screen. Both of these literally made me jump up and shout "WHAT".

For about half the game I thought that finishing enemies was the only way to restore sanity, but then I discovered that you can do it with magic. That's nice, but also a little disappointing - if you can just pop your sanity back up whenever you feel like it, the game loses a lot of power, and you may never see some of its best moments.

Anyway, magic is also well implemented. As you work your way through the environments and timeline, you accumulate runes (used to cast spells), codices (used to understand the meaning of your runes and unlock their use), and spell scrolls (teach you which runes to use to create a given effect). You can also find new symbols of power, which will allow you to discover more powerful versions of existing spells. This probably sounds more complicated than it actually is - spells are given to you when you need them, though you can often discover spells by playing with runes before you find their scrolls.

This is interesting enough on its own, but the spell attunements are what really make the system cool. Each spell can be cast in several different attunement modes, altering its effect or its strength against creatures or enchantments of particular alignments. At the beginning of the game you're asked to choose one of three artifacts. The artifact you choose determines the dominant magic alignment, which will determine which creature and enchantment alignments you encounter as you play, and which alignments you'll cast to counter the dominant one. And if you play the game through three times - one for each alignment - you'll unlock a hidden ending that ties the three together.

I watched the hidden ending on YouTube, though, because I'm not really inclined to play through the game twice more. I know the solutions to all the puzzles and didn't love the combat, so merely altering the magic and enemy colours doesn't provide enough replayability incentive to spend 20 more hours unlocking a two-minute cutscene.

That said, despite the clunky combat ( and frustration at having to re-watch unskippable cutscenes), I thoroughly enjoyed Eternal Darkness' style of horror and storytelling, as well as the variety in characters and settings. And the sanity implementation just blew me away - the meta scares got me more worked up than any other game I can remember.

Recommendation: play it.

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