Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Nintendo Gamecube, 2002
Developer: Silicon Knights
Eternal Darkness is the rare game with both a stellar critical reputation and a rabid cult following. Ask anyone who played the game at the time of its release, and they’ll more likely than not proclaim it to be one the Gamecube’s best titles. It’s considered one of the crown jewels of Silicon Knights’ catalog, and widely thought of as one of the best horror games of its console generation, if not of all time.
I didn’t get the opportunity to play Eternal Darkness in 2002, so when I saw it for sale at a flea market a few weeks back, I pounced. As someone with more than a passing interest in both the horror genre (and old video games in general), I was eager to finally dig my claws into this consensus classic.
The verdict? It’s just okay. No matter how much slack I try to cut Eternal Darkness, no matter how hard I try to view the game through the lens of historical context, I simply can’t escape the conclusion that it is, at best, just an average game. Eternal Darkness is certainly ambitious, but it ultimately fails to properly execute on any of the novel concepts it presents.
The plot of Eternal Darkness spans nearly 2,000 years, and incorporates 12 distinct playable characters. At the onset of the game, the player takes control of Alex Roivas, a college student who has traveled to her family’s ancestral home in Rhode Island to investigate the grisly murder of her grandfather. As Alex explores her grandfather’s mansion, she stumbles upon the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a Necronomicon knock-off that serves a framing device for the game’s story beats. As Alex unearths the tome’s apocryphal contents, she slowly reveals an ancient demonic plan for world domination. Each section of the tome Alex reads is presented as a new gameplay scenario, told through the eyes of one of the book’s prior owners. It’s an entertaining narrative trick which allows the game to span hundreds of years and incorporate a wide-variety of playable characters. While the game’s script is nothing to write home about, it has held up quite well, thanks to top-notch voice acting and excellent cut-scene direction:
Eternal Darkness is also quite visually striking. The environments are beautifully rendered, and stylish lighting is employed to great effect. Bright flames and phosphorescent magic spells contrast beautifully against the game’s dark and and oppressive set-pieces, creating a mysterious and dreadful atmosphere. The character models are beginning to show their age, but as a complete package, Eternal Darkness still looks fantastic. That it holds up as well as it does in 2015 is a testament to Silicon Knights’ wonderful art direction.
So, yes, Eternal Darkness has a well-constructed story and beautiful graphics. Unfortunately, this intriguing facade quickly crumbles into the rickety foundation of Eternal Darkness’ questionable gameplay. Eternal Darkness is fundamentally imbalanced to such a level that it fails to serve as either a compelling horror or action experience.
With a few exceptions, each playable character in Eternal Darkness has three status meters: stamina (red, signifying health), magick (blue, signifying arcane power and stylistic misspellings) and sanity (green, signifying ambitious but poorly conceived game design). The stamina and magick meters are self-explanatory, but the sanity meter? That’s the wildcard that’s supposed to serve as the linchpin of the Eternal Darkness experience.
As you your character witnesses traumatizing events and encounters any of the game’s numerous eldritch horrors, his or her sanity meter will slowly deplete. As the sanity meter depletes, you’ll begin to experience “sanity effects.” These effects range from subtle (skewed camera angles), to silly (shrinking your character to a minuscule size) to outright bonkers (pretending to delete your save files). My personal favorite sanity effect features your character’s head falling off and delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet:
Ask any fan what they liked the most about Eternal Darkness, and undoubtedly, the sanity effects will be near the top of that list. The sanity effects were one of Eternal Darkness’ most highly touted features; indeed, they are identified as a key feature on the game’s packaging. To be frank, they’re one of the chief reasons I wanted to play Eternal Darkness to begin with. Unfortunately, if you play the game in a halfway competent manner, you’ll almost never see them.
There are two ways to replenish your sanity in Eternal Darkness. The first is to deliver a fatal blow to an incapacitated enemy. Encountering an enemy usually reduces your sanity meter by a moderate amount. By incapacitating your foes (Eternal Darkness has contains a simple limb targeting system that allows you to reduce most of your foes to headless amputees with relative ease), you earn the opportunity to perform a finishing maneuver. Each successful finishing maneuver will allow you to earn back most, if not all, if the sanity that enemy drained from your character.
For the most part, combat is a relatively simple affair, so regaining your sanity in this manner is not terribly difficult.
The second method of recovery, though, is what breaks the sanity mechanic entirely. Very early in the game, you’ll learn a recovery spell which allows your character to recover their lost sanity at the cost of a portion of their magick meter. While this sounds like a fairly routine trade off, it’s really not, as all the player has to do to replenish their magick meter is move. Not even far. Simply spinning the control stick in a circle will do, actually. As long a you’re somewhere safe, you can simply whirl your character around like the Tasmanian Devil until you’ve fully recovered your sanity. Safe havens are not in short supply, either – as long as you can backtrack a room or two, you’ll make it through Eternal Darkness with a firmly sound mind.
As such, you’ll only really see the sanity effects if you’re actively looking for them. If you’re the type of person that enjoys wandering around a game looking for things to unnecessarily impede your progress, great – you’ll have a blast. But if you enjoy playing games in even a remotely competent/functionalist fashion, you’ll rarely, if at all, encounter any of the interesting sanity effects. Sanity effects barely rise to the level of window dressing, and never impact the game in a truly meaningful fashion.
Combat is similarly hamstrung by the aforementioned recovery spell, which can also be used to replenish your health meter. It’s rare to encounter an enemy that you can’t flee from in Eternal Darkness, and as long as you can retreat to a safe place, there’s no reason why you simply can’t replenish your health ad infinitum. Additionally, as you acquire additional offensive and defensive spells, your damage output exponentially increases and your character becomes nigh-invulnerable. As these painfully apparent gameplay holes manifest themselves over time, the game loses all sense of challenge, particularly when one considers that you can save your progress at virtually any point. The below footage, taken from the game’s penultimate chapter, demonstrates just how easy it all becomes:
This poorly conceived combat loop removes any sense of danger or tension from the game, preventing it from delivering any truly potent scares. If you’re not spoiler averse, I’ve included footage from the game’s final battle, which serves as the perfect microcosm of the Eternal Darkness experience: an effortless war of attrition interspersed with a few decent story sequences.
Eternal Darkness isn’t a bad game; it’s just an extremely disappointing one. While Eternal Darkness’ complex narrative is engaging enough to keep you playing, its ambitious sanity system is completely crippled by deeply flawed gameplay mechanics which render the game impotent as a horror or action title.
Gamecube fans often hold out Eternal Darkness as one of the system’s finest titles; they seem baffled as to why this game suffered from lackluster sales. I can honestly say that I am baffled as to why they are baffled.
Played through a d-terminal connection on a Nintendo Wii, upscaled to 1080p through a Micomsoft Framemeister.