Sunday, April 26, 2009


If you like video games, or reviews of video games, or reviews, check out my review* of the Silicon Knights classic "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem" in the Reader Reviews section of It's long, but it's pretty good.

In other news, I find it interesting how little tweaking I've had to do to get this page to look basically the way I want it. I may add more pictures or applications later, but this is really all you need, isn't it? You can probably take the hard hat off, but keep an eye out for falling quote/picture generators.

*This link? It's no good, you see, because the forum got deleted. So you can just read it here:

I haven't played too many new video games lately, but I do have a decent collection of older titles to review, so I figured "why not?" Watch out, maybe spoilers.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

This Game Will Make You Crazy

One of gaming history's genuine cult classics, Eternal Darkness is a landmark title for the Gamecube. Itself not a financial success, it nonetheless paved the way for games like Resident Evil 4 to appear on that console, by lending legitimacy to high profile mature games for a Nintendo audience. Unfortunately, its status as a path breaker and its peculiar approach to the horror genre led to its marginalization. Nonetheless, Eternal Darkness is an artistic gem that should be cherished by what audience it had; and of course, with the Wii's backwards compatibility feature, it's never too late for the uninitiated to give it a first try.

Eternal Darkness is known for its unique approach to psychological horror, as opposed to the "hell hound jumping through random windows" school of fear-making made famous by Resident Evil. Not being a connoisseur of the genre, I couldn't tell you how unique ED is or was in focusing on subtler shocks, but one feature is worth isolating for consideration. That feature is the sanity meter, a critical gimmick in the experience of the game.

It must be said that the majority of monster encounters are not particularly frightening. They tend not to jump out in a surprising manner, apart from the bonethieves who pop out of people's chests, Alien-style. However, the appearance of a monster will cause a drop in the character's green sanity bar. The extent to which the player allows the sanity bar to decrease dramatically effects the atmosphere of the setting. If the player diligently restores his sanity via magic or special finishing move after each encounter, then the game is a straightforward dungeon crawling experience. Allowing for a little insanity, however, makes the situation genuinely scary: the music swells into a horrifying cacophony of wails and shallow breaths, the screen becomes increasingly tilted and off-center, and most famously, a number of visual and auditory hallucinations are experienced. These range from goofy and amusing to positively shocking and grotesque, becoming more frequent and more terrible as the sanity bar decreases. The effects combine perfectly with the already dark, grimy, and foreboding art. It's very tempting to let the sanity bar sit quite low, but be careful; keeping it too low eventually harms your life force, and playing this way at night is likely to give you the willies.

The interactive nature of the sanity bar is ED's most interesting game play feature, in the way it accurately simulates the way real humans experience fear. Our worst terrors and frights are usually the result of tricks our minds play on us, and the depths to which we succumb may be mitigated by a kind of mental discipline. ED will often force you into situations where maintaining your character's composure is exceedingly difficult, often forcing you to choose between health and sanity (and if you want to play the game right, health is the correct choice).

When it's not throwing monsters at you, the game offers a quieter kind of horror, the kind which accompanies you as you explore the malevolent mansion of the Roivas family in Rhode Island. The house is full of unusual rooms which, like those of a real house, are of a tangible character. To name a few, there is a library, a Civil War-themed guest room, a dining and music room, and a set of secret rooms which guard the house's dark secrets. You may explore the mansion as level-headed or unbalanced as is your pleasure, and either way the discoveries to be made are fascinating.

The game's other settings are likewise interesting, but are usually infested with monsters, so you may find less time to enjoy them. Intriguingly, they are all religious compounds, reinforcing the themes of the game, namely the relationship of mankind to both positive and negative supernatural forces. They are a jungle-covered temple in Cambodia, an abandoned temple complex in Persia, and an imposing Cathedral in France. The game allows you to explore these settings a number of times at different points in history, and the level designs change each time, as the progress of time erodes old paths and new ones are built. There is a mysterious fourth level, intimately connected with the secret of the Roivas house, which ties the game together. Repeating levels in most games amounts to tedium, but ED usually changes things up enough to keep things interesting, and in any event it never compels you to stay in one place for very long.

The game uses a unique narrative structure by hopping back and forth across time and space as main character Alexandra Roivas discovers more chapters from the "Tome of Eternal Darkness," a record of mankind's struggle against evil forces and a repository of magical spells and clues. The player controls a number of characters over comparatively brief periods of time, filling in pieces of the mystery until the inevitable return to the Roivas house. The characters themselves range from innocent to deeply troubled, and are well acted and well animated in the game's many cut scenes. These cut scenes link together with the action to produce a complex story web which converges at the end of the game. There are, however, a few plot holes, specifically the problem of the Tome. Every character encounters (to all appearances) the same Tome, and after a while it becomes difficult to believe that the book would really find itself being carried back and forth from Cambodia, Central Asia, France and Rhode Island on such a regular basis. Are there many Tomes which mystically contain the same contents, no matter what is written in any one of them, or is the Tome a self-sentient teleporter that always knows where and when it is needed? There's no real explanation, and it's a bit irksome.

The graphics are very strong, a fine example of the Gamecube's technical capability. In particular, human faces and bodies are rendered well, coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and in a realistic yet idiosyncratic style. The monsters are unremarkable in their looks, mostly, while the backgrounds are quite good, and the lighting is fantastic (an essential for any self-respecting horror game). The appearance of water and other fluids is not that great, but you don't spend very much time swimming, so I suppose it's forgivable.

The gameplay's nuts and bolts are not its strong suit. Combat is largely repetitive: lock on, attack arms, attack head, attack body. There are only four basic enemy types of three elemental persuasions: hapless zombies, vicious bonethieves, roach-like "Trappers" (who teleport you to a crazy alternate dimension), and monstrous three-headed "Horrors" (sometimes you have to fight three of these at once, and that's just wrong), in addition to the occasional boss, human, or "guardian" sub-boss. Once you've learned to defeat them, the game never figures out a way to make them more threatening apart from sending swarms at you in tight places, and that's disappointing. However, the game is quite generous in arming you with swords, crossbows, clubs and guns (my favorite weapon is the Bastard Sword), as well as a number of magical spells.

The spell system is fairly simple: combine an elemental rune with two action runes to produce an effect. These runes can later be augmented with power runes to produce a more dramatic effect. Some spells allow for healing, others detect invisible objects, others create a stronger defense, and some create powerful mystic attacks. The game will want you to first discover the appropriate runes, then the codices that reveal the names of those runes, and finally the spell scrolls which teach the appropriate combination. In practice you can combine runes as soon as you've found them and create the spells right away, but this requires trial and error if you haven't played the game before.

As mentioned before, the combat is rudimentary and not satisfying in and of itself. The game is much stronger in its puzzle solving and stealth modes. The puzzles often incorporate psychological hallucination effects and macabre elements of the plot, drawing the characters deeper into black mysteries in search of the awful truths at hand. In terms of character control, running is (somewhat archaically) activated by holding a run button, and each character can only run so far or chop up so many enemies at once, before his stamina is gone and he must rest to recover. All of your characters are weak in this way, relying upon their weapons and the protection of the Tome to survive as long as they do. Thematically, I think it works, but it's definitely unusual for what you might be tempted to call an "action" game. The combat is gritty and messy (though not quite "realistic"), and I suppose it would be wrong to ask any more of it given the nature of the rest of the game.

The most infuriating game play element is the lack of an auto-save, or even a "do you want to save?" prompt. I myself have more than once ploughed through a quarter of the game only to die at the hands of some fool enemy, and find that I had not saved once. There are no continues, only the collective middle fingers of the development team kindly instructing you to suck it. I urge all new players to save at least twice a stage; you're not especially likely to die at any given time, but when you do, you don't want to have to go back far.

It should be noted how critical sound is to the Eternal Darkness experience. The music is alright (only a handful of background tracks, all appropriately foreboding), but the sound effects are superb. The pop of a torch (your character's head will turn at the sound of it), the slop slop of a wet zombie's footsteps, the clanking of far off doors and gates, all of these things serve the experience quite well.

The game offers additional secrets and cut scenes if you play through three times, once for each elemental alignment. I'd say the replay value of the experience is at least high enough to cover that, even if the story is most viscerally strong in the first go-around. It's a step forward in the history of video games, and a compelling combination of history, mythology, psychology and characterization that absolutely deserves the rank of classic, "cult" or otherwise.

Rating: A-

No comments:

Post a Comment