Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
System: GameCube :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Survival Horror :: Released: 24 June 2002
05 October 2006 — If you own a GameCube, chances are good you've heard of this one. It's one of the few titles released for the current Nintendo system that's gathered any sort of industrywide notoriety, and has amassed what I'd almost dare to label a cult following. If you've had a discussion with friends about the more high profile games available on the Cube, or even had a passing conversation with your local EB sales clerk about the console, this game has probably come up. Originally penciled in as a late addition to the N64's library, Eternal Darkness was eventually shifted over to the freshly born GC, where it was meant to be the first of many mature-themed first-party titles brought to the system. Of course, looking back over the years, that string of adult-leaning N-published games never really came to be and the Cube faltered in a similar fashion to its immediate predecessor. But this is now, and for Darkness, that was then. The birth of a new console meant an opportunity for a clean slate and instant anticipation. This game was the product of heightened hopes, a long, detail-centric development cycle and the desire for new beginnings. It's too bad I can't really say I'm overly impressed by the end result.
The storyline revolves around a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, athletic woman named Alexandra Roivas. Constantly haunted by dreams of the undead, she's awakened late one night by a telephone call, informing her of her grandfather's brutal, untimely demise. As the man's only living relative, she's asked to meet with police about the situation, and quickly finds herself drawn into the web of magick, Satanism and otherworldly struggles that had defined her late relative's life. The entire story effectively transpires on the grounds of the old man's mansion, which isn't nearly as dull and repetitive as you'd think, thanks to the inclusion of a single intuitive plot device. Hidden among her deceased patriarch's things, Alexandra discovers the necronomicon, a book bound in human flesh (and instantly recognizable to fans of the Evil Dead series) that holds the secrets of her family's legacy and the majority of the game's variety. Most of the book's pages have been torn out and scattered throughout the mansion, naturally, but upon discovering a new chapter, Alexandra will dive right in — somewhat literally. Each new set of pages tells the story of a different character and his or her interactions with the book itself, and as Alexandra reads, you'll take control of that character, playing your way through their tale. As such, Eternal Darkness feels more like a series of intertwined short stories than a single, game-spanning epic... a welcome change of pace. What's more, it allows players to travel unbound throughout time and space, adventuring through a Roman war expedition one chapter, conquering an Indiana Jones style Aztec temple the next, without the need for a silly, out-of-place object like a time machine (or worse).
Truly, there are a lot of really good ideas at play here beyond the introduction and implementation of the necronomicon to facilitate the storyline. I loved the idea of playing the role of an 18th century noble with medical aspirations, performing rudimentary autopsies on the bodies of demons after a battle. The suggestion of a steep tower of corpses, a sacrifice to an ancient, forgotten god, is an amazing mental image. Even the continued use of the book itself as a means to explain Alexandra's growth as a character and a magician was extremely well-conceived. Understandably, upon reading in explicit detail about a distant relative's discovery of a magical spell, she'd have a fairly good understanding of how to go about casting it herself. Imagination most definitely isn't the weak spot in Sanity's Requiem, it's the execution and realization of those ideas that bothers me.
Take the system of magic, for example, which should've been one of the most important aspects of the game. The idea is that there are three distinct pools of magical energy (red, green and blue pools) that simultaneously have power over one color while falling victim to the other. Green is stronger than red, for instance, while blue overcomes green, and red conquers blue. It's a brilliantly simple idea, but one that falls flat due to being under-explained and overly detailed. You'll know that the boss you're fighting is using a green special attack, and that you should be counterattacking with a blue assault, but exactly which spell you should be using is only revealed through an abysmal series of trial-and-error kamikaze strikes. Even then, half the time you aren't casting at the right time, or you're not standing in the right place, or the boss has shifted to another form. If I had a dime for every time I had to resort to an online FAQ after reaching the point of frustration during this game, I'd be able to buy a replacement copy and hurl the original into the wall, Frisbee style, as stress relief.
It's this maddening sense of frustration and helplessness that really strikes the most damning blow to my overall opinion of the game. After half a dozen hours of gameplay, you'll be so utterly defeated and annoyed that your motivation to continue will begin to pay a heavy toll. As Alexandra learns more and more about what's going on with her heritage and what was really behind her grandfather's murder, you'll find yourself actually comprehending less and less. It's a problem I had with what was formerly one of my favorite comic books, Hellblazer, a year or two ago: because the story is supernatural and underworldly in setting, the writer(s) assume that the solutions to problems don't necessarily need to make sense, so long as they sound spooky and look cool. I'd read through an entire six-issue storyline, close the final chapter and realize that I had no idea what the fuck had just happened. A demon had revealed itself, Constantine had said some nonsensical words and waved his hands, and the world had been saved... never mind how. It's the exact same thing with much of Eternal Darkness: you'll watch a cutscene, see the characters talking and never really comprehend the message that's supposedly behind it all. Almost every major item you'll struggle to attain is like this. You'll have no idea what the main characters intend to do with it (even after they've done it) but you'll know that you needed it, and now you have it — so that's supposed to be enough. Suffice to say, it isn't.
Much of the gameplay is in keeping with that same ongoing trend: stupendous ideas, lame execution. Probably the most unique element of the game is its fright meter, which slowly drains as the on-screen individual sees freakier and freakier things. I know I'd be a little weirded out if a rotting hunk of meat and bones suddenly climbed out of the wall and started lurching toward me. We're conditioned to expect our heroes to immediately continue their quest without missing a beat, so it adds a new dimension to the proceedings when you realize that video game characters can get scared, too. If your fright meter gets too low, you'll even start to experience some hallucinations and so-called horror effects, which are a real blast and range from the minute to the absurdly out of place. Sometimes you'll see something moving in the corner of the room, other times you'll actually foresee your own death, but the hallucinations will always subside at some point. Unfortunately, due to a gamer's natural tendency to want to keep all statistical meters filled to the brim, most experienced players will miss out on the majority of these effects in their drive to actually finish the game in optimum condition. Refilling the fright meter is usually accomplished by casting a spell, or if that's unavailable, through the use of a few courage-inducing items. My personal favorite was the liquid courage some of the guys would indulge in. The horror effects are a lot of fun, but they're really nothing more than garnish. They don't move the plot along, like the amusing asides in the original Metal Gear Solid did, and only seem to exist to provide a few extra "Holy shit!" / heart-skipping moments. Which is par for the course with a horror game, I'll concede.
As the game carries on, though, you'll start to hate the existence of that fright meter. Particularly the way it actually begins to drain your character's life away if it hits empty, and your enemies' tendencies to "scare" you at every possible opportunity. All a creature needs to do to sap away a bit of your fright meter is stare in your direction. It doesn't matter if it can't reach you, if you can't see it or if it's lying on the floor in a pool of its own fluids, gasping for life — if it's looking at you, you're scared and you're going to start going crazy and / or losing life. I can't say how many times I'd stride into a room, confidently level a monster in one swipe, and then watch my character grow scared as they move in for the killing blow. It just doesn't make sense.
Gameplay in general is fairly slow-paced and monotonous, with few action-heavy sequences and a whole lot of aimless wandering and exploring. Even the boss battles are usually relegated to long sessions of striking, wandering around avoiding attacks for a few minutes and then striking again... like a hilariously slow chase scene. There's a wide inventory of era-authentic weaponry in the game that just screams of quality research and great attention to detail, but it's all rendered null and void by the fact that most enemies are extremely flammable and can be easily wiped-out with a single swipe of a torch. Why should I master the two handed sword when I can jab with a flaming stick and have a greater rate of success? Still, perhaps curiosity and a search for variety would have motivated me to experiment with the other weapons a bit more if actually using them weren't such an incredible headache. For a game that's so overflowing with narrow corridors, doorways and exquisite surroundings, you'd think that collision detection with the walls wouldn't be such a handicap, but in Darkness it quickly becomes your worst enemy. If your weapon should happen to strike a wall in mid swing, your character will immediately halt their attack and stumble backwards for a few moments, giving your enemies all the time they need to either attack or angrily stare to their heart's content. Attempting to fight a single enemy in a hallway is often like threading a needle: you'll miss half a dozen times before you get it right. Fighting more than one at a time is downright suicidal.
In the same vein as the Resident Evil series, the teenage bonding moments that are used to fill out a blockbuster horror film are replaced here with a series of riddles, puzzles and tricks. I expected as much, but couldn't have anticipated how easy and linear most of Darkness's riddles really are. With only a few exceptions, every item is miraculously found just before it's needed, to the point that the pieces basically solve the game's problems for you. If you find a statue, chances are good you'll find a peculiar, statue-shaped hole in the next room.
Controls harken back once again to that theme of an unrealized original vision, specifically in regards to the title's original limb-targeting attack system. By holding the right trigger, you're given the opportunity to target a specific region of an incoming enemy's anatomy, be it his head, chest, right arm or left arm. Some enemies have specific weaknesses in certain regions of their body (which are pointed out by the wannabe doctor's "autopsies" midway through the game, which is a nice touch), and lopping off an arm would, in theory, make it that much more difficult for a bad guy to hurt you. In action, removing an arm, leg or even a head doesn't make much of a dent in most creatures' damage-dealing potential, because it apparently hurts just to touch them. That's one thing I've really had a problem with over the last few years... titles that cling to the idea that enemies secrete some sort of mysteriously damaging substance that causes instant pain upon contact. It made sense in the days of the NES and even the SNES, when the hardware wasn't up to the task of animating a variety of different movements and attacks. In today's market, where the sky is basically the limit, I have a hard time dealing with something like that.
Each character you'll take control of throughout the game functions vaguely differently than the others, whether it's a fatter character moving noticeably slower than his distant relatives or a religious man having difficulty with weaponry, and that's something that was nice to see. Such nuances definitely helped to establish a discernible identity for every personality in the tale, which is no small task considering the relatively large cast. Unfortunately, one thing that everyone's control scheme included was a tendency to tire very quickly when running, which meant they'd need to slow down for a few minutes to catch their breath. As I'm sure you can imagine, this made exploring the game's various dungeons and passageways a lengthy experience, and the continuous backtracking a chore.
Eternal Darkness' visuals have aged even worse than the rest of the title, and I'm not entirely sure they were ever really up to snuff. Sure, there's always the argument that these graphics were "stunning when they first came out," but I didn't play this game when it was first released. And even though it's just four years old, today they look shoddy as hell. Human skin textures are particularly bad and lumpy, but even the environments and items suffer from weak textures and a ragged, blocky basic structure. The one exception to this rule is with the creatures themselves, which are all brilliantly designed and extremely well-executed. I'd compare the lot of them to most of the bad guys in Silent Hill and perhaps the most gruesome baddies of Resident Evil. It hurts just to look at most of these guys, the way their flesh seems to stretch and strain to withhold the ugliness that's going on underneath. The only thing I could wish for is a wider taste of variety, since the rogue's list seen here is extremely shallow. Start to finish, there are maybe half a dozen flavors of enemy you'll encounter, excluding bosses, and that's a shame considering how well-conceived they all were. Perhaps gathering some inspiration from the title, almost every room in this game is dark to the point of handicap, and while that does add a sense of spirit and mystique to the events as they unfold, it makes actually exploring this world painful and unappealing, especially when you're asked to find an extremely small, yet vital item somewhere amidst the blackness. One thing I will praise the graphics engine for is its decision to work with an entirely 3D world, rather than the static, photographic background-oriented realm of most previous survival horror titles, particularly Resident Evil. And while that does add a little flexibility to your explorations, the lack of any system of camera control is sorely missed at times.
A lot of emphasis obviously went into the attempted lip-matching you'll see throughout the game, and it was a noble effort considering the amount of dialog that actually goes down, but the illusion is rarely successful. The only real difference between these characters' expressions and the expressions of other games, where characters seem to continuously mouth "babababababa," is Darkness' cast seems to know how to pronounce vowels. Likewise, the in-game cutscenes — few and far between as they may be — are hampered by an overly ambitious visual goal. The basic idea of the game is to allow the player to choose a particular magical color to have an affinity with early in the game and then to allow that choice to dictate the events that actually happen in these cutscenes. The goal seems to be that, to see every potential event, the player would need to go through the entire game three times. Instead of teasing you with the potential of more stunning visuals, however, these scenes look no better than the live-rendered scenes that usually precede them, accompanied by a few ugly compression artifacts. Even more infuriating, the transition between the two styles of storytelling are so jerky and unexpected, you'll feel as though the disc is actually just skipping and cutting out whole sections of story. It'll seriously go from a wild, visual explosion of magical power, complete with subwoofer-thundering noise, and then cut away mid-blast to near silence and moody music as your character reacts. The first couple times it happened, I really thought it was my disc, but as it continued I realized it was because they were cutting away before revealing any of the other magical colors' effects.
Considering all that came before it, Darkness' audio is surprisingly well done. The Cube does everything in its power to deliver a solid surround sound experience, and those effects come as close to accomplishing the spooky vibe these developers were obviously shooting for. Musically, the title's soundtrack is uneventful. It swells and sways as necessary, and occasionally gives a nice bit of mood to a location. It isn't repetitious, which is probably my greatest pet peeve about in-game music, and it doesn't get in the way, but it also doesn't stand out on its own. Let's put it this way: I wouldn't rush out to the stores to buy Eternal Darkness: The Original Symphonic Score. The voice acting in general is very good, with a few exceptions, and though the dialog the actors are asked to deliver is usually stilted and unbelievable, they go beyond the call of duty to give their roles a personality and motivation that was sorely lacking in the script. Especially good are the noises, shallow screams and ambient ticks of the insanity effects, and each character's resulting reaction to them. While the same phrase is sometimes repeated at the conclusion of one of these sequences, it's not something that ever really bothered me and actually took steps to reveal the characters as more honest and true to life. If you're freaked out and seeing things in an unfamiliar mansion, I doubt the first thing to enter your mind is "come on, let's at least get a little variety into the dialog." You're going to scream whatever comes into your mind, whether you've said it before or not.
To summarize, this feels like a series of very good concepts that were just drawn too thin, which is odd because the game itself, clocking in around 12 hours, is fairly short. There were so many superb, imaginative concepts that died on the way to the screen here that it really became something of a sad theme for the whole picture. Whether it was the truly surprising insanity effects, the unique limb-targeting system or the original system of magic, no matter how good the idea, the execution straight-up killed the potential for me. Despite the lingering invitations for replay value here (there's supposedly a super-secret ending if you finish all three potential paths), I just didn't find myself motivated to go through it all again — especially considering how slow, plodding and ultimately dreary the majority of the actual gameplay was. I got the sense that this game was essentially Nintendo and company trying so hard to be cool, hip and edgy that they sabotaged themselves and came off as overdone and lame. Considering the amount of people that had pimped this game to me, and the incredible reputation it seems to have gathered in the years since, I found myself more than just a little disappointed. As a "must-have" title for the GameCube, Eternal Darkness is nothing but a major league letdown.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.2