Monday, 17 October 2011

Horror Season - Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

Eternal Darkness, developed by Silicon Knights for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002, was and still is one of the most inspired and unique gaming experiences ever conceived. Massively inspired by the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, it tells an epic and harrowing tale of good vs. evil; in which you take control of twelve people whose interlinking stories span over the course of two thousand years. Each character finds him or herself inexplicably linked to a centuries-long battle against a vast, extra dimensional evil known as the Ancients – prehistoric monstrosities that, once banished, now threaten to return to our universe and utterly annihilate all living things – and their fateful involvement may well come at the cost of their lives... or worse.

As a form of storytelling, I have yet to play anything else quite like it. The game begins with university student Alexandra Roivas receiving a call from the Rhode Island police, who inform her that her beloved grandfather has been brutally murdered in his own home, the Roivas Mansion. Alex travels there to identify his mangled corpse (mangled as in: chewed up and spat back out), but with no clues as to how the grisly crime even happened, she decides to stay and find out for herself. It’s not long before she discovers her grandfather’s secret study, and inside it, the human skin-bound Necronom – sorry – The Tome of Eternal Darkness.

It is this book which recounts the terrible experiences encountered by those chosen to battle the Ancients across the ages, with each chapter focusing on a new character in a different time period, while in between chapters you search the traditionally creepy mansion for missing pages of the tome as Alex. Each character you play as is a fully fleshed out personality, bolstered by exceptional voice acting, and considerably different from the last. Among them are Pious Augustus, a Roman centurion who becomes an Ancient’s undead servant and the game’s main antagonist; Dr Maximillian Roivas, an ancestor of Alex’s who discovers that the family mansion hides a great deal of evil beneath its foundations; and Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk who gets caught up in accusations of bloody heresy. They’re just a few examples, and the locations you visit (and revisit) with them range from an ancient Persian temple (both before the birth of Christ and during the Gulf War) to Amiens Cathedral (at the time of King Charlemagne’s rule and then later set against the backdrop of World War I), with their appearances shifting to reflect the relevant time.    

Gameplay is simple, but ultimately satisfying. Unlike most other horror games of the time, your character doesn’t move with all the grace of a tank looking for a spot in the supermarket car park on a Monday afternoon. Rather, you’re actually able to smoothly manoeuvre them through the various environments. The camera is fixed, however, but it rarely causes any I can’t see what I’m fighting!-type difficulties. When it comes to combat, Silicon Knights devised a neat little targeting system which let you lock on to either a creature’s torso, arms and head for you to accurately shoot/slice at with a wide range of period-accurate weaponry.

In addition, you could also utilise the unconventionally spelt “Magick” to your advantage. As you progress through the game, you uncover a multitude of ancient runes used to create spells which allow you to cast certain helpful effects as enchanting your weapon to make it more powerful, conjuring a shield to protect you, or summoning an enemy to help you out in a battle. The overall strength of your magick is upgraded over time, and you can even mix and match runes to experiment with creating your own spells (preferable to just waiting to conveniently discovering them at a later point).

Eternal Darkness is perhaps most fondly remembered for its frightening sanity effects. Rather than relying on jump scare and monster closet horror tactics, this game presents us with something totally new. In addition to your health and magick bars, there is also the “Sanity Meter”, which gradually depletes as you come into contact with the various inhuman enemies. The lower it gets, the more your character’s sanity is affected, and you will begin to see... things. I probably shouldn’t give ANY of them away, but I’m sure a handful won’t hurt. Their effectiveness varies depending on how low your sanity meter gets, so early on you’ll only likely be hearing the agonised screams of some poor off-screen soul, or maybe the furious banging on a nearby door. A bit later, though, and the walls and portraits will literally start bleeding, while large flies may begin to crawl over the inside of your TV screen. And when you do eventually hit rock bottom, the game might even go so far as to make you think it just deleted all your save data. You know how there are certain moments in gaming that stick with you? Well, the first time your head spontaneously explodes in Eternal Darkness is probably gonna be one of them.

Oh, did I mention this was a Nintendo exclusive? Chyeah...

The only way you can recover your sanity is by violently finishing off defeated monsters. And just what are these creatures you face? The minions of the Ancients come in all shapes and sizes, such as moaning zombies that can be easily dismembered, scuttling lizard creatures that have the ability to transport you to another dimension (yeah, better watch out for those), and gruesome scythe-armed beasts that hide inside the bodies of unwilling victims before (chest)bursting out to attack you. Much tougher adversaries, like the three-headed “Horrors”, which can fire off health-draining bolts of dark magick, are just around the corner.

But the exact type of enemies you’ll encounter will depend on which of the three Ancients Pious aligns himself with at the end of the first chapter. So, if you pick “Chattur’gha” (the red one) then you’ll have to deal with much tougher foes, including zombies that can re-grow their limbs. Choose “Xel’lotath” (the green one), and some monsters won’t even have heads, the sight of which will further drain your sanity. Lastly, “Ulyaoth” (the blue one) creatures will specialise in attacking you with magick and, err... exploding zombies.

As you can probably guess, those changes do add incentive to play through the game multiple times, and if you complete Eternal Darkness with all three Ancient alignments, then there’s a small bonus lying in wait after the credits that hints at more to come. But that was almost ten years ago, so today a sequel is looking less likely. Silicon Knight’s recent track record hasn’t been too good either...

It’s not perfect, sadly. Despite the multitude of time periods, there are really only a handful of different locations (temple, church, mansion, temple again), and you’ll likely be thinking ‘Oh, HERE again’ from time to time. Also, you’re going to be fighting a lot of zombies, and most of them are very easy to kill (the game doesn’t become very challenging until you’re surrounded by monsters). Hacking off their head, followed by their arms time after time gets repetitious (never thought I’d write that), and by the end you’ll be sick of them. Visually speaking, it’s not the best looking game of its time, too. It’s by no means ugly, and there’s an admirable level of attention to detail, but compare it to the Resident Evil remake which was also released on the GameCube at around the same time, and you’ll see what I’m getting at.  

But it’s worth it for the atmospheric, one-of-a-kind experience alone. A fantastically imaginative story, coupled with rock solid gameplay and legitimate chills make Eternal Darkness a bona fide classic of horror gaming. Lovecraft fans in particular are bound to lap up its tales of macabre horrors, doomed protagonists (there aren’t many happy endings here) and gigantic cosmic beings from the space between spaces.

In fact, I’m fairly sure the only thing missing is Cthulhu. But you can't have everything.

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