Being one of the few horror games on the Gamecube, Eternal Darkness is a cult classic game with Eldritch horrors and fourth wall breaks.
|Genre||Action-adventure, survival horror|
|Purchase||Purchase from Amazon.|
The publication of this one review marks the 16th anniversary of the release of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Well, in Japan at least.
Oddly enough, this game came out in June 2002 in North America, so I’m just handpicking a nice little coincidence to talk about this game. To be fair though, I’ve been wanting to talk about this game for quite some time now.
Whenever people bring up some of the most underrated games of all time, it’s pretty likely that Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem will turn up on the list. You might even say that the game is an interesting piece of history.
To begin with, Eternal Darkness is the first Nintendo-published game to feature a Mature rating for the ESRB. Not the first M-rated game on a Nintendo console, mind you, but one specifically published by Nintendo itself. Even Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto gave their support to the game’s development. And for a while, Silicon Knights was a second-party developer for Nintendo.
It is also one of the few horror games on the Nintendo Gamecube, next to some Resident Evil titles (and Luigi’s Mansion, if you count that as horror). There was also Geist, the second Nintendo-published game with a M rating.
Unfortunately, Eternal Darkness didn’t do well commercially during the time of its release. Which is too bad because the game did really well critically. Some people even called it being among the best horror games of all time.
That is quite an achievement for a standalone entry, let alone a game only available for one Nintendo console that is seemingly forgotten to time. And since Nintendo still holds the rights to the game, any hope for cross-platform releases is gone. Maybe if the Nintendo Switch Online service eventually puts up Nintendo Gamecube games in its library, Eternal Darkness will turn up. But… I’m not holding my breath for that…
So what makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem so special? Well, for one thing, it’s one of the few genuinely well-made Lovecraftian horror video games out there. It also had a few tricks up its sleeve that somehow worked so well together. And we’re going to find out what they are, by dissecting this monster…
A Tale Across Time
As you can probably tell, this is not your average Nintendo game. And it’s on the Gamecube of all consoles! You know, that little box with a handle that has a goofy-looking controller that people obsessed over because of Super Smash Bros. Melee? And you can also play this game on the Wii as well, the “family-friendly” game console that you play with remote controls.
The story begins with a narration by the deceased Dr. Edward Roivas, a clinical psychologist who got involved into a supernatural conflict that spanned for about two thousand years. In the year 2000, a mysterious force killed him, leaving him in pieces.
His granddaughter Ashley Alexandra Roivas later learned of his murder at the Roivas Estate at Rhode Island. The local police was unable to find the culprit behind the murder or any clues leading to one, so Alex herself decided to investigate the family mansion and, in the process, uncover a terrible secret.
Eventually, Alex found a hidden room containing the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a strange book bound by human skin and bones—a clear reference to the Necronomicon from H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. The book contains magick spells that can empower tools/weapons, protect the user, attack enemies and even raise the dead. It also contains stories, spanning over two millennia, of people who once possessed it—most of whom encountered a terrible fate towards the end.
Through the tome, Alex discovered that an ancient lich named Pious Augustus plans to resurrect one of the three Ancients, a powerful dark god capable of dooming all life in the universe—also likely a reference to the Great Old Ones from Lovecraft’s stories. To get to the bottom of the murder mystery and the approaching doomsday, Alex must experience the tales of the past owners of the Tome of Eternal Darkness and learn the dark secrets of the Roivas Estate.
Right away, Eternal Darkness starts off with a compelling premise. Not only did the protagonist have a personal stake in the conflict, but there is going to be an Eldritch Abomination attempting to destroy the world in the year 2000. What’s not to love?
An Ancient Conspiracy
Eternal Darkness starts with you playing as Alex exploring the Roivas Estate. The game is a third-person action-adventure game in a similar vein to classic Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil games, but without the tank controls or multiple screens with fixed cameras. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about tank controls—personally, I’m not a fan.
After you explore the mansion and solve a couple of puzzles, you will discover the Tome of Eternal Darkness. And that is when the real game starts.
You continue the game as a Roman centurion in 26 BC known as Pious Augustus, and that is when you learn about the game’s combat system. The targeting allows you to attack four specific areas on an enemy: the chest, either of the two arms or the head. It’s no good to just hack away at an enemy relentlessly. You need to cut off their limbs to either subdue them or weaken them.
But for pretty much every enemy, there is NO EXCUSE not to target the head. It will either kill the enemy outright or make it harder for them to attack you. Because of this, the common zombie enemies are very easy to deal with.
That’s not to say that the combat system is always easy. Ultimately, it depends on your playable character’s stats and your equipment (and magick, if applicable). And of course, the types of enemies you face.
Eventually, you will come across a room with three artifacts. Each artifact represents an Ancient, one of the otherworldly gods:
- Red – Chattur’gha
- Blue – Ulyaoth
- Green – Xel’lotath
And this is one of the cool parts of Eternal Darkness. The artifact you choose will make the specific Ancient one of the main antagonists for the rest of the story. And by extension, determine which enemies you will encounter most often.
But that is just the beginning of the significance of the three Ancients.
After completing Augustus’s chapter, you will return to playing as Alex. For most of the game, Alex’s main purpose is to search for the missing pages of the Tome of Eternal Darkness. But to do so, she must acquire specific abilities or learn specific puzzle solutions from reading each chapter. Then she’ll be able to retrieve the next chapter page.
And this is yet another cool aspect of Eternal Darkness. Every chapter follows the tale of a new character; people from the past who stumbled upon the Tome of Eternal Darkness and became involved with the conflict between the Ancients. People of different time periods, locations and walks of life. You could play as a Khmer dancer, a Canadian firefighter, a Venetian architect, a Franciscan monk, etc. And every one of them has different stats and even unique abilities.
This… Isn’t… Really… Happening!!!
As the game continues, the upcoming chapters introduce new mechanics that soon become mandatory. For example, sanity.
Eternal Darkness popularized the Sanity Meter mechanic in video games, as well as being the trope namer. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Darkest Dungeon would also use a similar mechanic in the future.
Certain monsters have the ability to “glare” at your character (indicated by glowing green eyes), causing the character’s sanity to drop. When a character’s sanity becomes too low, interesting things could happen and the characters will even take physical damage to their health.
And what kind of interesting things, you ask? Well, for starters, you will hear whispering voices, crying and maniacal laughter in the background. Sometimes, you will hear loud footsteps nearby or someone violently banging on a door.
As your character’s perception of reality breaks down, he/she will start seeing hallucinations as well: moving statues, dead figures, paintings with hellish landscapes, and distorted rooms. Doors will randomly lock by themselves and a horde of enemies will wait to ambush you in another room. You might even take your own life with a weapon or a magick spell would completely backfire on you. And to further make you question what the hell is going on…
The game targets YOU. You, the player. Eternal Darkness is willing to go that extra mile to convince you that you’re playing a haunted game, like the ones you read about in creepypastas based on video games. Sometimes, your controller just stops working as zombies proceed to murder you. The game may prematurely end, showing you a fake advertisement for a fake sequel. It even fools you into thinking it’s going to delete your save files!
I played some games that had a sanity mechanic or something similar before. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game going this far just to fuck with you. And it’s awesome.
The only real problem with this mechanic is that you only see it in action as long as your sanity is low. So if you want to play things safe, you won’t encounter one of the game’s most interesting aspects too often. Luckily, restoring sanity is really easy in this game (either by finishing off monsters or using a magick spell). Still, it’s a pretty weird flaw when you consider that the game sort of encourages you to witness the different sanity effects.
Regardless, this is such a clever and innovative way to make players feel uneasy, by making you think that the hardware is cursed of all things. It makes you wonder why later horror games don’t go this far in implementing a sanity mechanic. Well…
The main reason for that is because Nintendo owns the patent to the sanity meter, as described here. And to use a similar game mechanic, you’d have to pay Nintendo a fee or risk getting sued.
And it is utterly frustrating because Nintendo owns both this patent and the trademark to Eternal Darkness, making it pretty much impossible for a sequel or a similar game to happen anytime soon. And although patents do expire, Nintendo actually went through the trouble of claiming it again. Adding to a long, long list of dumb shit that Nintendo pulled in its history as a game company…
Just… what the hell, Nintendo? You’re not even going to bother putting out more games with the sanity mechanic, so you’re going to try to make money off of it from smaller developers? That’s just sleazy. I hate it when a game company does this squatting tactic just to make extra moolah. It discourages smaller developers from even trying to begin with.
Even later in the game, you will come across another interesting mechanic: the magick system. When your character possesses the Tome of Eternal Darkness, you can use magick as long as you have the proper materials:
- Circle of Power – there are three in total you can collect. These determine how strong your spells are and how many runes you need to use. Mandatory to collect.
- Runes – the basic building blocks of spells, each denoting a word. You can create new magick spells with the right combination of runes. These are mandatory to collect.
- Formulas – used to translate the names of spells, making it easier to obtain them without manually combining runes. Optional to collect, but very helpful.
- Codex – used to translate runes, making it easier to determine what they’re used for. Optional.
Starting with Chapter 3, you can find these items scattered throughout levels. As mentioned, the ones you need the most are Circles of Power and Runes. Then through a crafting window, you need to assemble a combination of runes in hopes of creating a new spell.
Generally, the magick system is necessary to solve certain puzzles and also help with combat. Using magick, you can repair broken items, empower weapons, heal and even summon monsters to do your bidding.
When casting a spell, you would have to stand still until the rune sequence is complete. Moving during casting or getting attacked by an enemy will cancel the spell. You would have to consider that when confronting tougher enemies.
It all looks complicated at first, but it becomes second nature to you as you continue to experiment with new spells.
But beware, certain enemies are also capable of using spells too. Proceed with caution.
The Sights and Sounds of the World
Seeing as how Eternal Darkness is a 3D game released in 2002, it’s very likely that it will show signs of age. And probably the biggest dead giveaway is the graphics.
The character models for the humans aren’t particularly great for the Nintendo Gamecube, though there is a good reason for that. It might interest you to know that Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was previously developed for the Nintendo 64 before transitioning to the Gamecube. And even considering the low sales this game had in the past, it was probably the smart move for the time.
When a new game system comes out, it’s very likely that people will move on to it and ignore the new releases for the previous generation console—a fate that a well-made platformer like Shantae had, for the Game Boy Color. And when you’re not caught up to the new technology, well… expect to be left behind. Had Eternal Darkness remained on the Nintendo 64 at the end of the console’e life cycle, it might have received even less attention.
I will at least say that I do like the monster designs of Eternal Darkness. What really sells them are the autopsies performed by Maximillian Roivas, where he describes their bodies as being impossible in biology but are somehow alive anyway. This contributes to the whole “fear of the unknown” theme often seen in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
The environments also look pretty good for the time. If Eternal Darkness were to remain on the N64, it’d probably be one of the most immersive games on the system. It certainly did its job well on the Gamecube.
Though I do have a small point of criticism here. The game reuses the same five main locations as levels, though with some small changes to the environment in each chapter. And due to the game’s narrative, a span of around 2,000 years passed over the course of the story.
As an example, you start off at the Forbidden City area in 26 BC, also known as the earliest time period in the game. Later on, you get to revisit the Forbidden City as a different character in the year 1991. The variation of the level in 1991 hadn’t changed much in about 2,000 years, which is really odd. As another example, you first visit the Angkor Thom in the year 1150 and will later return to the location in 1983. Aside from some structural damage here and there (and spider webs?), the temple was in remarkable shape after over 800 years.
It’s just an oddity that breaks immersion a bit, but not too much to be too distracting. Take that as you will.
I’m a bit mixed on the overall sound design of Eternal Darkness. It can be good at times (such as a banging door that makes it sound like it’s coming from your own room). But then you realize the game tends to reuse stock sound effects a lot. Hell, you probably heard this one specific punch stock sound everywhere. Literally everywhere.
And the worst thing about it? It often plays when your melee weapon (usually a big sword) cuts through flesh. That always stood out as odd to me.
The voice acting overall is solid, especially for a game of its era. I found that the narration by Neil Dickson as Edward Roivas really sets the mood quite well, making me feel like I’m living through an old horror tale that is based on true events. While some vocal performances can be hammy, they’re fitting enough when you consider one of the game’s main themes is insanity.
The soundtrack is alright and it has some nice pieces. What really sells it for me are the creepy vocals and foreign instruments.
But overall, there are only several tracks and they tend to play way too often. The biggest culprit is this one specific theme.
I swear to god, this one track plays for every single chapter in the game. And this game can take anywhere from 12 to 30 hours to complete. Have mercy on us.
How It All Comes Together
I think anyone can agree that, for the most part, that Eternal Darkness has very good story progression and pacing. Most of the chapters don’t overstay their welcome (with the exception of chapter 8, in which you play as a very slow character going through a long open-ended level). It’s also interesting to know that all of the playable characters didn’t intentionally seek out the Tome of Eternal Darkness—rather, they were chosen to wield it by one of the Ancients. Though the game initially introduced three Ancients to you, there is a fourth one by the name of Mantorok, the Corpse God.
By its nature, Mantorok is a creature of unfathomable power whose role is to keep the other three Ancients in check. Because of Pious Augustus’s interference, Mantorok will do whatever is necessary to prevent him from succeeding, even if it means manipulating worthy human warriors to achieve its goal. Most of those who wield the Tome of Eternal Darkness will meet an unfortunate end, for it is a tool of destiny and incredible power.
And this is what ties all of the wielders of the tome together, despite their circumstances. The Frankish messenger Anthony only wanted to save his king, Charlemagne. The Persian warrior Karim wanted to earn the affections of the love of his life. The Franciscan monk Paul Luther was caught in a conspiracy by the Inquisition. But they all share one thing in common: they were chosen wielders of the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and their experiences will eventually pass on to Alex in the year 2000.
And it’s cool how the game ties story and gameplay mechanics together to solidify this. Every time Alex experiences the tale of a past wielder, she inherits some of their abilities and even heirlooms. Their magick spells become hers. Their expertise in certain fields end up helping her. Their treasures will eventually come to her in the future. All these people indirectly worked together, until all of their hopes and sacrifices come to Alex.
And that is part of what makes Eternal Darkness into a satisfying experience. Even after finishing the game’s worst chapters, you’re always making some kind of progression, sort of like the satisfaction you feel from playing a RPG.
In addition to Alex’s growth into a warrior, the story also ties in the three Ancients to gameplay mechanics. Chattur’gha represents body strength (health), Ulyaoth represents wisdom (magick), and Xel’lotath represents the mind (sanity). Your three meters in the game; hitpoints, magick, sanity; represent each of these gods.
That is frickin’ awesome.
Even the enemies you encounter have different appearances and attack patterns, coming from specific alignments. Here’s an example: Red zombies are durable and have strong attacks. Blue zombies can detonate themselves to cause physical and magical damage. Green zombies can form phantom limbs that allow them to attack your sanity meter.
Furthermore, there is a mechanic of Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors in effect as well. A trio of elements that keeps each other in check. If you know your Pokémon typings, this one is easy to remember. Just replace the cute little critters with the otherworldly dark gods I color-coded…
Chattur’gha < Ulyaoth < Xel’lotath < Chattur’gha, and so on…
Keep this in mind when you cast magick spells. Depending on which Ancient becomes the main antagonist in your save file, you may want to use spells associated with that particular Ancient’s worst enemy.
The Finishing Touches
As I mentioned earlier, every playable character has quite a few differences. While the core gameplay remains the same, everyone has different hitpoint, magick and sanity meters. They can also wield different weapons, making everyone play differently.
For example, Ellia can wield a blowgun, allowing her to shoot poisonous darts to weaken enemies. Karim can wield the ram dao, a powerful broadsword that can easily cleave through an army of zombies. Maximillian can wield dual flintlock pistols.
As for unique abilities, it usually depends on the character’s occupation and the situation at hand. Anthony cannot die, Edwin Lindsey can use his brush to reveal hidden treasures, and Maximillian Roivas performs autopsies on monsters to record information on them as journal entries.
So far, this is all great and I only mentioned a few flaws to the game. Well, it seems like it’s about time I bring up a couple of things.
For one thing, the game doesn’t have any kind of checkpoint system, so you would have to remember to save every now and then. If you die at any point in the game, all you can do is load up your save file. This is not too bad if you remember to save often, but it can be really irritating to lose progress (especially in a pretty long game like this one).
So be prepared to stare at this creepy game over screen every now and then.
The other flaw I can think of is one for the combat system. Every time your character takes a hit, there is a delay before that character can move/act again. So it’s definitely possible to get stun-locked by getting attacked by multiple enemies. This can also be bad if you’re up against the toughest regular enemies and bosses. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen for some of the enemies you fight, so be careful with that.
And that’s about it. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a badass game. Go play it. Seriously. If you love horror games, you won’t regret this one.
There is truly something special about finding hidden gems in different game libraries. And truth be told, the Nintendo Gamecube is an odd place to check for a gory horror game (unless you’re a Resident Evil fan, obviously). And sad to say, you won’t find many games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, even today. At least, not in the near future. Case in point…
A game that we probably won’t see for a while, if ever at all, called Shadow of the Eternals. This game was meant to be the spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness, to be developed by Silicon Knights. But due to past circumstances (including a controversial lawsuit that didn’t end well, a former staff member getting arrested and two failed Kickstarter campaigns), the game might remain in development hell for some time. It certainly doesn’t help that Nintendo still holds the patent for the acclaimed sanity meter.
But this is not to say that it’s truly the end of developer Silicon Knights (they kinda are, but in name only). The director of Eternal Darkness, Denis Dyack, recently announced a new game called Deadhaus Sonata.
And the description from Apocalypse Studios:
Deadhaus Sonata is an cooperative multiplayer, free to play RPG where you are you play the undead fighting the living. As an unstoppable force from Deadhaus, you are a monster among men, dealing death and destruction on a massive scale. Launch enemies in the air and eviscerate them with elegant dance macabre. Consume your enemies to make yourself whole while exploring the grim world of Nogosaua.
A dark fantasy/horror action RPG. Holy shit. Well… I know what I want to play now.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's RequiemPrice Varies
- The combat system is pretty satisfying to use. The magick system is deep and innovative, encouraging you to experiment with different runes to come up with new spells.
- The game's sanity meter is one of the coolest additions to a horror game ever, and most games after have yet to come close to being this devilish.
- The vocal performances are good and the music is dark and atmospheric.
- How the game ties story and gameplay together almost seamlessly,using the experiences of past tome wielders to aid Alex. Also, the Three Ancients as three elements of power.
- The implementation of an Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic, further tying story and gameplay mechanics together.
- High amount of replayability due to three alternate story routes with a hidden special ending for completing all of them.
- You need to have low sanity regularly to witness some of the game's most interesting tricks.
- The game often recycles the same few levels as different variations, with small changes each.
- Overuse of some stock sound effects and only a few music pieces used often.
- The lack of a checkpoint system, meaning you must remember to save often.
- If woefully unprepared, you might get caught into a stun-lock by multiple enemies attacking you simultaneously.