Review: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

Developer: Silicon Knights
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform
: Nintendo GameCube
Release: November 7, 2002

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, as the first and only game Nintendo has ever published to receive an M rating by the ESRB. The game takes on the style of the Resident Evil games, though rather than being a standard survival horror game, Eternal Darkness serves as a psychological horror, and probably one of the most renowned ones in recent generations.

Inspired by the literary works of H. P. Lovecraft, the story in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is not only one of the most unique I’ve witnessed in a video game, but one of the most outrageous. Set in the year 2000, it begins with mathematics student Alexandra Roivas as she is informed of the mysterious and illogical death of her grandfather. Alexandra, eager to find answers, proceeds to explore her grandfather’s mansion and discovers a book known as the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Each chapter of this book details the experience of a person in history who was somehow meddled into plans to bring about the return of an ancient race, appropriately named the Ancients.

The story spans several centuries and locations – from a deep temple in Persia, to a sinister cathedral in France, and even an underground city of man-eating, so-called “Guardians” – as the player slowly unravels the history of the Roivas Family and the Ancients.

In my experience with the game, most characters either ended up going insane, turning into zombies and otherwise dying. It’s easy to become immersed in the storyline, because I couldn’t completely piece together what was happening in the plot until the final few moments of the game. It’s a downright brain twister, but it’s great.

Eternal Darkness is a game with themes ranging from cosmic horror to the occult, and its presentation goes all in to measure up to the game’s inspirations. Without spoiling too much, I loved how the Tome of Eternal Darkness opens every new chapter: with a sense of mystery, and with dialogue that really plays with the mind. I appreciated being able to go back and watch all of the intense cutscenes later on, as it gave me another opportunity to make sense of the storyline. You can even view a detailed “autopsy” guide depicting each enemy, their behaviours and weaknesses.

And what’s that? Is it scary? Well, take a look in the bathtub and you might find out…

I won’t lie – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem doesn’t exactly ease the player into its supernatural world, and so it might be difficult for some players to become fully immersed from the beginning. The game doesn’t offer much of a clue as to what is going on in its earlier moments, or as to where the story is going to wander. All the player has to go on are the puzzles and scenery, which may seem like stock-standard horror fare until about the third chapter when they begin to take a turn for the Lovecraftian. I found myself exploring temples for over an hour before moving into some more visually interesting areas.

The game’s campaign offers about 10 hours of gameplay, but don’t let that send you mad. While it’s not a long game, this is measuredly a good thing, as the game doesn’t try to outstay its welcome. But the only way to get the best, “true” ending is to finish the game three times, so it’s got plenty of lasting appeal for players who want to delve in deeper.

As Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a five-year-old game, playing it after more contemporary survival horror games like Resident Evil 4, you’d expect that it wouldn’t hold up when pitted against such recent releases. In some ways, that is the case. I understand that Eternal Darkness’ controls take inspiration from the movement mechanics of games like Silent Hill, which are designed to be intentionally clunky in order to play into the characters’ inherent weaknesses and the games’ fear factor. But to be honest, it feels inconvenient to play a game like this in 2007 – at least, at first.

The game’s targeting system takes some getting used to and the fixed camera can be bothersome at times, leading to some unfair combat scenarios. All that said, Eternal Darkness has a lot to offer in terms of puzzles, exploration and – when you get used to it – combat. When it comes to the game’s unique insanity system, the game opens up even more, becoming a truly notable and worthwhile horror experience.

Whenever the player’s character sees a monster, their sanity meter will decrease, and the only way to recover said sanity is to either kill the monster or cast a spell. Insanity causes bizarre, fourth wall-breaking effects like blue screen errors, odd background music, wall banging, camera shaking and even TV muting (I had a bizarre experience with that one).

For reasons aforementioned, I found the combat system to be cumbersome at first, but after some time with it, it’s not particularly complicated. In fact, the combat could have gone deeper into complexity if it wanted to be more interesting – if combat were the focus of the game, anyway. While the spell-casting system is unique and engaging, the rest of the combat mechanics are nothing we haven’t seen before. I also have a bone to pick with the boss battles … there’s merely two in the game, and they were hardly challenging.

Despite its age, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem looks superb for the GameCube. It’s beyond me how good these graphics must have looked in 2002; they’re terrific. Facial expressions are believable, and all the textures that fill paintings, walls and floors are intricately detailed. The game presents its brooding atmosphere well, with moody lighting and excellent cutscenes. The only issue I found was with the FMV sequences – the quality doesn’t hold up. Otherwise, the game looks and feels great.

On the other hand, the background music in Eternal Darkness was a little bland. The background music consists of low harmonics, soft whispers, and sometimes religious chants. It’s very moody and well done, but the player tends to hear the same sounds over and over. Perhaps that’s intended to play into the game’s themes surrounding sanity, however the same noises start to become repetitive after a few hours.

Although there wasn’t a lot of variety, the background music and sounds served their purpose, and contributed significantly to the uneasiness of playing this game. Hearing a woman screaming, a baby crying, footsteps in the distance, a zombie’s head hitting the ground; it’s all very immersive, because the player never knows if these sounds are diegetic or not.

What I appreciate about Eternal Darkness is its stark contrast with other games in its field and even other games in general. Unlike its contemporaries in the survival horror genre, Eternal Darkness isn’t about killing zombies, finding ammo for your guns or reaching the next save point. It’s about questioning your sanity, unravelling a grand plot and waiting for the inevitable moment when The Darkness comes.

Final Score: 8 / 10

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