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Eternal Darkness cover

A mysterious tome, bound in human skin and decorated with bones. Ancient, unspeakable evils, casting shadows of chaos and madness over the history of humankind. And, from your chamber door, a sudden rapping, rapping, that might herald the arrival of a lurking horror . . . or might simply be all in your mind.

Welcome to the world of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Silicon Knights' remarkable foray into the burgeoning field of horror games. Combining solid gameplay, graphics, and sound with a compelling storyline and innovative features, Eternal Darkness delivers an evocative, atmospheric experience with an unusually literary slant.

The Darkness Comes. . .

Eternal Darkness screenshot

Mathematics graduate student Alexandra Roivas awakens from a night of unsettling dreams to find herself confronted with the news of her grandfather's grisly murder. Returning to her ancestral mansion in Rhode Island, she soon grows frustrated with the local authorities' lack of progress in solving the case, and launches an investigation of her own. Her first breakthrough gains her a peculiar family heirloom -- the eponymous Tome of Eternal Darkness -- and as she delves into its pages, she begins the process of progressive, dreadful enlightenment. The book, compiled by her late grandfather Edward Roivas, chronicles the workings of the Ancients -- mysterious entities bound neither by natural law, nor by mankind's ethos -- and the frail humans who have chanced to stumble into their arcane machinations over the centuries.

The chapters of the Tome are physically scattered throughout the Roivas mansion, and each contains the account of a different person's contact with the eldritch horror of the Ancients. Rather than depicting these tales via cutscenes, Eternal Darkness takes the unusual step of drawing the player into the Tome itself: the player assumes the role of each character in turn as Alex finds and reads his or her story. The playable characters range from a Roman centurion in 26 B.C. to a Canadian industrial firefighter in 1991 A.D., and each confers a skill, discovery, or artifact to Alex in her search for answers. The overall structure of the game is thus fairly simple -- play the chapter, use the newfound ability to gain access to another area of the Roivas mansion, discover another chapter, repeat -- but the sheer variety among the characters and their environments, coupled with the engaging, gradually-unfolding storyline, prevents this process from becoming stale.

A Damnably Clever Construction Of Its Kind

The controls are intuitive, utilizing the control stick for movement and the buttons for various actions, and some of the early scenarios offer brief in-story tutorials on various useful gameplay aspects -- mastering the targeting system, for instance, will prove to be well worth the effort. The game features a context-dependent action-button system as well, which directs your character to search, open, reload, or examine, as the situation demands. Certain characters may have the ability to execute special actions as well, such as performing an autopsy on a vanquished enemy. Early in the game, magical abilities are also introduced, but these bear little resemblance to the escalating acquisition of firepower common to many games in which magic is an element. Spells are described on scrolls, translated by codices, constructed from runes, and energized by circles of power -- all of which elements must be discovered by the character. In addition, spells must be cast ritually, which requires standing still for a certain length of time -- leaving you vulnerable to enemies -- and in some cases cost sanity.

The animations and cutscenes are smooth, and there is no detectable drop in frame rate even when numerous creatures are moving on screen. The character designs are distinctive and well-rendered, while the voice acting ranges from acceptable to excellent. Particularly noteworthy performances are provided by Jennifer Hale (The Powerpuff Girls, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie) as the brilliant and stubborn Alex Roivas, Neil Dickson (recurring guest roles in Sliders and Gargoyles) as the erudite and inquisitive Dr. Edward Roivas, and Richard Doyal (recurring guest roles in Cheers and Justice League) as the delightfully over-the-top chief antagonist.

The background music is well-tailored to each of the various locations and historical periods, and remains unobtrusive, instilling an almost subconscious unease. The artwork and designs, while not groundbreaking in concept, are beautifully rendered and combine with the music to evoke an oppressive feeling of foreboding. With the addition of well-chosen, artfully-placed sound effects, the game creates a fitting ambience in which to set its story.

Colors Out Of Space, Pictures In The House

The preceding descriptions, of course, do little to distinguish Eternal Darkness from other games of its type. Comparisons to the most well-known games in the horror genre, Resident Evil and its sequels, are inevitable. Although Eternal Darkness does offer its own share of shambling corpses in need of a decisive in pace requiescat!, it achieves its greatest success by taking the horror genre in quite a different direction from its predecessors. Whereas Resident Evil offers survival horror in the grand fashion of a classic George Romero splatterfest, Eternal Darkness conjures a mystical tale of equal parts physical and psychological dread, in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and Clark Ashton Smith. Similar elements are present; the difference is in the implementation.

Orson Scott Card writes of the three ways in which literature instills fear: dread, terror, and horror. By his definitions, dread is the strongest, capitalizing on the fear of the unknown -- for instance, the sudden clutch as you notice the open back window upon returning home late at night. Terror arrives with the revelation of the foe -- the fiendish beast bursting from the upstairs closet. And finally, horror, the weakest, concerns itself with the explicit details -- savage disembowelments and mutilated corpses. While, by necessity, Eternal Darkness contains elements of all three types of fear, it hews to the traditions of its literary forebears by concentrating mainly on the development of dread, punctuated by brief moments of terror, in its artful use of imagery, sound effects, and introduction of several innovative game mechanics.

One of the game's most distinctive features is its sanity system. In addition to the conventional health and magic rating meters, each character also receives a sanity meter. Confrontations with monsters reduce your character's sanity, whereas delivering a coup de grace upon vanquishing them regains a small amount. Of course, the latter maneuver loses much of its efficacy in relatively short order, as your characters confront ever more mind-blasting horrors. As your sanity meter drops, the hallucinations begin -- phantom sounds, laughing voices, floors tilting oddly, a statue turning its head to follow your movements. Ongoing loss of sanity results in progressively more severe visual and auditory effects -- walls begin to seep blood, your character enlarges, sinks through the floor, or suffers an inexplicable gruesome death only to "wake up" in a previous room. In a particularly wicked twist, some of the more severe insanity effects are directed at the player, rather than the character -- for instance, during one of my games, an incident with a low-sanity character caused an onlooker to leap to his feet, thinking he was sitting on the television remote. Continued mental assaults on a completely insane character begin to drain health, although by that point it may be difficult to tell whether the health loss is due to those fifteen attacking zombies -- or whether you're simply imagining everything.

Acting in synergy with the wide range of hallucinatory effects are the artistic choices and literary influences of the game developers. For example, as Alex explores the mansion of her ancestors, the player is given the option (via the action button) to examine many of the numerous paintings on the walls. Some are accompanied by flavor text, but many simply receive a more detailed view, displaying a diversity of artwork reminiscent of numerous sources ranging from Dürer to Van Gogh, Goya to Doré. Other areas offer the characters the opportunity to pan over a larger view, whether it be an ancient mural, an eerie cathedral, or the moribund flesh of the Corpse God. Even the loading screen is decorated with a Giger-esque motif and bears the words "The Darkness Comes. . ." The attention to such details, which have very little direct bearing on the plot, infuses the overall game and contributes heavily to its sense of atmosphere.

Eternal Darkness screenshot

Where the game truly shines, however, is in its overall literacy and fidelity to its particular genre. A distinct Lovecraftian feel is evident from the very beginning, and some outright homages are apparent. For instance, a police inspector, Legrasse, bears the same name as one of the protagonists in the classic story "The Call of Cthulhu," which also begins in Rhode Island. For that matter, the Roivas mansion itself demonstrates a remarkable conceptual similarity to Exham Priory in another Lovecraft story, "The Rats in the Walls," and the fates of many of the characters described in the Tome of Eternal Darkness are worthy of most of Lovecraft's protagonists. However, lest it appear that the game's creators stuck too close to a single source, it should be noted that the game's particular cosmology bears more similarities to the Mythos contributions of August Derleth, and the game's opening screen features a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." Several characters' stories, including that of Alex herself, have been updated to more modern sensibilities; while Dr. Edward Roivas resembles an archetypal Lovecraftian narrator, the game also features heroic characters of both sexes and several ethnicities, perhaps an intentional challenge to Lovecraft's infamous prejudices.

A Shadow Out Of Time

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is a well-crafted and imaginative game that will appeal not only to horror game aficionados, but also to fans of the weird fiction penned by Lovecraft and others. Through its fascinating and eerie storyline, as well as its innovative game mechanics, this game may be the closest anyone can -- or would want to --approach living out one of Lovecraft's tales of dread. And, like any good story, the game should be experienced more than once: an additional completion unlocks new options and different cutscenes, while a third offers new insight into the storyline and Alex's role in humanity's long struggle against the Ancients . . . a role that can be encapsulated by a simple anagram of her distinguished family name.


Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is available for Nintendo GameCube, and requires a Memory Card with 1 free file and 15 free blocks. It has an ESRB rating of M (mature, 17+) for blood, gore, and violence.

 

Copyright © 2003 Dennis Hwang

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Dennis Hwang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he mainly writes pathology reports. Regrettably, he has yet to perform an autopsy on any eldritch horrors, but he assumes it will simply be a matter of time.



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