Review: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GCN)

[image title=”edsr” size=”thumbnail” id=”442″ align=”right” linkto=”” ]There are dark corners of this earth which remain unexplored, even in our enlightened modern age. In these secluded areas, powerful entities lie in wait. These creatures once roamed the earth, but in ancient times they were trapped into magical prisons from which they can only watch as the human race crawls like a virus over their planet. Only their influence is felt, as events through time are gradually shifted to the point where they will once again have the power to escape their shackles and reign in a new era of darkness over this meager little planet.

This sort of idea has been the work of fantasy for many years, and is especially prevelant in HP Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu’ mythos. In 2002, Nintendo released “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem”, a survival horror game which explores these dark notions in a novel and compelling way. It is the first ‘mature’ game which Nintendo has released (a welcome change from moustachioed plumbers and sentient pink balls), and is the first Nintendo game to be designated with a ‘Mature’ rating by the ESRB. It is, in this author’s humble opinion, the greatest game which has been produced by Nintendo to date.

The story is set in the year 2000. Alex Roivas, a young student from Washington, is called to her grandfather’s home in Rhode Island. There the police have made a shocking discovery – her grandfather has been murdered in a most brutal way, and there are no clues as to why or how he was killed. All that is left is the spooky old mansion, which she endeavours to explore in an attempt to retrace her grandfathers last days and perhaps uncover the reason for his death. During her search, she discovers a hidden study which is loaded with strange paintings and occult items, one of which is a mysterious book which is bound with human skin and bone. She opens the book and begins to read from the beginning, where a Roman Centurian is commanding his troops.

From here, the key mechanics that drive the story unfolds, as the player is asked to assume the role of this Centurion, Pious Agustus. Over the course of the story, which is almost entirely linear, you’ll be asked to assume the role of a dozen characters, each of whom controls differently and possesses special abilities. Pious, for instance, has the endurance and strength to wield his sword against the undead who rise up against him. Other characters, such as the Francenscan monk Paul Luther have much less endurance thanks to his academic lifestyle. Age also plays a role, and you’ll find that the Indiana Jones-esque archeologist you’ll get to control in the 80’s to be much more long winded when running than the portly Dr. Max Roivas in the 1820’s.

Each character has their own stats as well, granting them varying levels of mana, health and sanity. Mana, obviously, powers your spells, but the means by which you acquire them is fairly unique. The Tome of Eternal Darkness is a means by which humanity may fight back against the Ancients, as it can grant normal humans the ability to channel supernatural powers. Before you can access these abilities, you’ll need to collect several key items. Primarily, you’ll need a collection of runes that may be combined to create magical effects. As a secondary need, a wide array of codexes are available to decipher the meanings of the runes, such as Protect, Area and so forth. Also scattered throughout the story are a variety of spell recipes that outline the rune combinations that will actually create an effect. For example, the combination of the protect and area runes will create a field around the caster that damages anyone opposed who tries to approach.

Experimenters will find their efforts rewarded, as there are several ways to break the mold when using the spell system. Some powerful spells, for instance, require more than the standard three runes and there are some that appear in no scrolls in the game, instead awaiting your experimental touch. Further encouraging dabbling are power runes that may be added to the larger magical circles, which range from three to seven spots for runes. These can turn a light enchant weapon spell into a devastating enhancement to even the most simple of attacks.
No matter the size of the magical circle you elect to use, one rune is key to the effect of your spells. Remember where we mentioned that three Ancients existed, and were trapped by the fourth? Well, it turns out that beings of immense, malignant power don’t get along from any era of time, and these beings are no exception. The Tome, it should be noted, doesn’t allow humans to create their own magic, per se, instead it allows them to channel some small measure of the Ancients’ power, and you may specify any of the four alignment runes behind your spell, affecting its Colour and its effects. The Red Ancient, by way of example, is particularly strong against its green counterpart, meaning a red enchant weapon spell will let you clobber a green zombie in a single stroke. A blue spell will still help somewhat against the green zombie, but in nowhere near the same scope.

Colour coding also extends to the three statistics, and a recover spell used with a red rune will restore your health, while the same spell powered by the Green Ancient will restore your sanity. Of course, this begs a return to the discussion of each character’s sanity meter – the truly unique part of Eternal Darkness’ presentation. Unlike the Redfield family’s ability to shrug off any event save for the occasional scare during the cutscenes, the characters in this release react in far more human ways. Whenever an enemy spots you, its eyes will glow green, and your character’s skin will shimmer to indicate a sanity loss. It’s not surprising that watching the dead and horrific approach you would fluster even the most seasoned of humans, and as their sanity starts to slide, so do aspects of the game.

At roughly half mast on the sanity bar, Eternal Darkness will play a bit differently: the camera will slump to the side or pull an obscure angle, you’ll notice trickles of blood dripping down the walls or from the ceiling and your character will start to gibber phrases like, “This can’t be happening to me.” It would be an injustice to ruin too many of the effects that occur when your sanity bottoms out, but suffice it to say your character becomes harder to control, and the game will pull stunts on you occasionally. One memorable trick that caught me fully unprepared was the muting of the sound accompanied with a large, green block-lettered MUTE in the corner of my TV. One doesn’t usually expect a game to break the fourth wall in this way, so it can catch you totally off guard.

Of course, there has to be a mechanic to regain sanity, and in Eternal Darkness, it’s all about the finishing move. Perhaps proving that their fears can be destroyed is all it takes these characters to keep their heads together, but hacking the head off a downed zombie will prove a wise tactic. Of course, getting them to stay still has always proved a notorious problem in all aspects of video gaming, and you’ll spend a good chunk of time investing in your character’s survival. Melee combat’s fairly involved, as you can elect to slash in a wild combo with whichever weapon your character has, though this often leaves you open to counterattack. The more precise way to approach the problem of a rampaging horror or zombie is to hold in the right flipper and aim at the torso, arms or head of your target. Obviously, these have different effects and require different timing, but the more limbs you can remove in this manner, the more likely you are to survive the encounter. Taking the head from a zombie, for instance, will leave them disoriented and let you circle around to finish them from behind. Ranged attacks can also be aimed, and targeting the head is always a wise idea if you can manage it.

People may wonder at the lack of extensive time devoted to the puzzles. Unlike its contemporaries, Eternal Darkness spends much less time on collecting items and backtracking. The magical system often serves as the puzzle catalyst, meaning you’re usually carrying the needed ingredients, but simply need to think of a way to use them properly.

Graphics:  While I resisted mentioning it in the body of the review, it must be brought up here: Eternal Darkness started as an N64 project. There are very, very few indications of that in the finished product, though. Some of the textures might seem a bit muddy when compared to what we know the Cube can pull together, but Luigi’s Mansion suffered from the same malaise. Texture problems are but a touch of grey, as the characters are beautifully rendered, from the shuffling gait of the zombies to the wounded limping of the heroes. The characters are imbued with incredibly lifelike motions in particular. Watching a zombie fumble for its head is cool, but has been done before; noticing that your character’s head whipped around to look when a log burning in the nearby fireplace cracked under the heat is absolute genius.

Another area in which Eternal Darkness manages to transcend many other offerings is in its simple sense of style. The cutscenes are exceptional moments of cinema that bring the horrors of the Ancients to life, often by explicitly showing a grisly end to those who oppose them. The visuals here stop just short of shock horror, and this restraint makes them all the more chilling through what’s implied, but not shown. Couple this excellent cinematography with visual effects that haul your hindbrain into the game, such as the panic I felt when that giant MUTE popped on my screen. Similarly, the camera is so good and carefully placed the majority of the time, that you’ll be very disoriented by the rapid and uncontrollable shift of angle as your character’s sanity wavers. Taken all together, this makes for a visually enthralling game that’s not afraid to deal with horrific images when necessary.

Interface:  You can save, load, adjust your options, experiment with your spells and manage your inventory all from the same menu system by paging through the screens using the shoulder buttons. In theory this should work very well, but the overall effect is slightly too cluttered to be efficient. You can adjust everything you’d want to, including changing the sound balance and adjusting it between stereo, mono and Dolby Surround. The rumble feature of the Nintendo controllers gets a bit of a work out in Eternal Darkness as well, but you’d not want to turn it off, since it serves as yet another means to pull you into the action. One laudable aspect of the visual interface is that the status bars are context sensitive, meaning you’ll only know what your mana is currently at if you either actively check it, or in some way spend or lose mana from an attack. This means that the meters can be fairly large and clear, and then disappear so as not to clutter the interface overmuch.

Gameplay:  Ranging from the sands of Egypt to modern day New York state, Eternal Darkness hops across the globe and timeline of history with grace and dexterity. The story unfolds through your characters, cutscenes and mid-game interludes. By hanging the whole history of the war with the Ancients on a peg like the magical tome read by Alex, the game builds to a carefully scripted climax that moves her from the role of scholar and passive reader to active agent; and yet we often see her in that same role as she explores the mansion in between the book’s chapters. In a word, the storytelling that results is exceptional; you’ll be drawn into Eternal Darkness so deeply it’s conceivable that you’ll play it straight through the first weekend you own it. Luckily, there’s some replay value offered, as a key choice early on determines the path of the storyline and modifies many puzzles, encounters and boss creatures later.
Further enhancing the story, of course, are the sanity effects which will plague you throughout the game. No matter how closely you monitor your characters, there will be moments where they end up nearly gibbering heaps, and you’ll hear knocks on doors that can’t be opened, the sounds of children crying and you’ll be treated to some of the most unique effects to ever grace a horror title. As much as the PC’s Majestic aspired, Eternal Darkness succeeds as the game that plays its player.

Beyond the story and its immersion, Eternal Darkness is backed by excellent gameplay. The combat is more precise and less forgiving than the more modern survival horrors, and you’ll find that both the quick reflexes of might and the quick thinking of magic combined will be required to survive the creatures thrown at you. The puzzles are present, but they rarely steal the spotlight. For the most part, the solution will be fairly obvious, or at least readily accessible, and there’s only one part of the game where you have to back track any real distance; even then, it’s to retrieve an optional rune that isn’t strictly required. This keeps the pace brisk and the focus on your characters’ reactions to their situation, whether he be a priest trapped in a corrupt monastery or an architect captured by a warlord and asked to inspect the engineering of a monument dedicated to his glory. Even the controls shift away from the standard “tank turn” we’ve come to expect, and your characters move in relation to the camera, making it much easier to sprint around an enemy to attack from behind.

Add it all together and we have an offering that’s easy to control (like the human pawns), more immersing than a dip in the pool (of the blood of sacrifice), and as affective as it is effective.

Multiplayer: As Eternal Darkness has no multiplayer mode, this criterion has not been rated.

Sound FX:  Not since the Soul Reaver series have I warmed to the actors as quickly as I was seized by Eternal Darkness, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay. The vocal work is quite extensive, as there are upwards of two dozen characters when you account for the supporting cast and the Ancients themselves. For all that the herd of humanity pretends that they don’t exist, this criterion must acknowledge that the lines for the beings are chilling and representative of their characteristics. Building upon their performances in the cinematics, the spells are vocalized depending on the Ancient chosen, meaning every rune is chanted out individually in a properly arcane manner by the Ancient powering the spell.

Ambient effects deserve equal praise, though there’s a definite consensus around the console department that it’s time to dispense with the “stock” door opening, rocks sliding, walls crumbling effects. These complaints are minor issues of aesthetics when compared to the brilliantly jumpy ambiance created by crackling torches, occasional flashes of lightning or forlorn howls of wind. Each area is quickly and effectively given its own personality by the sounds within, be it tortured screams or just the creaky creepiness of an empty mansion.

Musical Score:  Quiet and atmospheric for the most part, the music in Eternal Darkness only barely counts as a score. Certain combat intensive scenes are highlighted with music, and most of the cutscenes have a subtle backdrop that ratchets the spooky factor up several degrees. While it’s surprising that more music isn’t used, the sparing times it is employed, it heightens the effects immensely simply because of the novelty.

Intelligence & Difficulty:  Suffice it to say that the majority of your foes will be zombies and that they’re easily dispatched, especially if you take the time to behead them all before dispatching them at your leisure. This is status quo, but Eternal Darkness throws a few twists into the works with zombies that can still attack you with spectral versions of their limbs, zombies that can regrow lost body parts and those that explode if you can’t cut them down quickly enough. Later enemies develop more advanced tactics that don’t center on walking mindlessly towards you, including the Horrors who can fling bolts towards your character and the Reapers who possess the ability to summon small creatures called trappers. Of particular note, these beasties can send you to another dimension where magic simply won’t work and force you to escape, so they’re a unique foe which must be avoided by moving quietly rather than brute force. Obviously, the next echelon up pits you against boss monsters, and while you won’t be tackling too many of these, especially early on, they require careful use of magic and tactics to defeat.

Overall:  If you have a GameCube or a Wii, you should own this game; it’s that simple. Eternal Darkness not only represents the first Nintendo-published title that’s mature, frightening and strictly for grown-ups, it also happens to shed some light on a genre that’s become a touch stale. No one’s yet tired of the great storytelling emerging from Resident Evil, Silent Hill and so forth, but Eternal Darkness’ mechanics let this title tell its story even better than its peers. A game that plays you with its unique sanity effects, that forces you to adapt to over a dozen characters and that holds no punches when it comes to the horror of Lovecraftian agents plotting our demise, Eternal Darkness will be a significant milestone in gaming for years to come.



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