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Review – Eternal Darkness

posted on May 22nd, 2006 by pat

These guys are pretty athletic considering they have no skin.

Eternal Darkness can join Psychonauts and a few others on the list of the Best Games from this generation that no one played. While it is difficult to understand how titles of such high quality continue to be shunned by the public, it is not difficult to see why the few die hards who played Eternal Darkness enjoyed it so immensely.

You start the game as a Roman officer named Pious and at the end of the first level you choose your fate. There are three paths, and the choice you make influences both the storyline and the gameplay. In Eternal Darkness you have three gauges to monitor (health, magick, and sanity — more on this later) rather than the standard two. Choosing one artifact over another at this first of twelve stages determines which of these gauges will be the most difficult to maintain, and tweaks a few other gameplay mechanisms. Also, the excellent plot is affected by the choice made at this point.

The storyline really is the strength of the game. Unlike the early Resident Evils, which were strong on puzzles and startling the player, and RE4, which was an action game, Eternal Darkness expends most of its effort in providing an engrossing and textured story that stretches over much of human history.

Before gameplay begins, we are introduced to Alexandra Roivas, who learns of her grandfather’s grisly death in his Rhode Island estate and goes to investigate. Alex learns of her grandfather’s interest in various occult pursuits and comes across the Tome of Eternal Darkness. This launches us into the first chapter.

Pious, you douchebag. This is all your fault.

Gameplay begins with the player as an officer in the Roman military. This officer ends up in Persia after hearing rumors of powerful artifacts in the region. He eventually stumbles across said artifacts and is forced to choose one. There are three artifacts which correspond to the three Ancients (and the three gauges), a race of beings who plans to unleash the Eternal Darkness unto the world. The choice of artifact determines which ancient Pious serves to resurrect, and which ancient the rest of the characters are fighting against throughout the game.

Since Pious’ actions drive the plot of the game, and the choice of Ancient drives Pious, this is a very important choice (also, choosing the artifact that corresponds to health makes zombies have more health, that which corresponds to sanity makes you lose sanity more quickly, and with magic you lose magic as well as health when hit).

After the end of each chapter the scene returns to Alex who must investigate her grandfather’s house using items, knowledge, or spells transmitted to her via the Tome from the past. She explores the mansion and finds chapter pages, the reading of which plunges her into the next, roughly chronological, chapter of the story. There are several locations in which these chapters take place, and revisiting one in a later chapter may reveal the ravages of time, or improvements made to the previous structure. A Carolingian chapel has grown into a Renaissance cathedral, for example.

The story is deep and well thought out. My only complaint is that it is much easier to see how certain characters have held back the Darkness during their chapter than others. It seems as though some basically failed to do what they set out to accomplish and contributed only a spell they discovered. This makes the fact that Alex has to use that spell to find the next chapter page feel a little contrived.

The Tome of Eternal Darkness is always in some convenient yet stylish container, say someone’s ribcage.

In many ways, the best way to judge a title in the survival horror genre is by how well it creates tension or scares the gamer. It would be reasonable to argue that a game has to be good in the story and gameplay departments to even have the opportunity to be frightening, as otherwise the gamer will not become engrossed enough to fall victim to the mood of the game. Eternal Darkness opens with quotes from Poe, and uses the literary device of “being creepy, and never revealing too much” to sustain a tense atmosphere throughout the game.

The main lever the game uses to scare the player is the sanity effects. Should the character’s sanity gauge drop too low, one of many sanity effects may occur. Examples include the walls bleeding, the character becoming decapitated, or the game flashing the blue screen of death. Overall a very creative element and one that is well implemented along with the more familiar health and magic bars.

The gameplay is simple, but solid. There is a basic rock, paper scissors system of magic set up, wherein there is one ancient that Alex and her compatriots can use to gain an advantage against the monsters doing the bidding of Pious and his Ancient. Weapons consist primarily of various swords and guns (ironically, swords seem vastly superior). Additionally, some spells are offensive, while most offer support.

The battle system is almost perfunctory. Our heroes are fighting the legions of the Darkness, so they need to actually fight the legions of the Darkness. Simply having the characters walk around discovering what is going on would be insufficient from a gameplay perspective. Thus there is a basic (but effective) battle system. One button targets, another attacks and that is pretty much the end of the story. For most of the game, the designers realized that the story and not the gameplay should really be the focus and acted accordingly. There were enemies, but not so many as to be overwhelming, and boss battles were few and far between.

The game was actually started on the N64 but, like most of Silicon Knights titles, was massively delayed.

Late in the game however, the focus shifts, and the heroes are forced into protracted fights with more enemies. Again, I did not dislike the action sequences, I merely felt that the game’s strength was in its story and general creepiness rather than in hacking and slashing.

All in all, Eternal Darkness is well worth the time (~10 hours per playthrough, and the complete story requires all three playthroughs) and money required to play it, which makes the lack of general interest downright infuriating. (Incidentally, pigs may fly before I stop complaining about people not supporting things I respect.) It succeeds in the most vital respect for a survival horror game, that of sustaining a suspenseful environment throughout its several hours of play. And the gameplay mechanics are good enough to drive the excellent story.

6 Comments

  1. Dan said on May 22, 2006:

    I wonder why people didn’t buy this game. I know why I didn’t: I don’t own a GameCube. The story line and the gameplay (killing zombies) all seem like things people usually buy. Psychonauts was, to put it lightly, a little out there for most people to just pick up and start playing. Eternal Darkness dosen’t seem kiddie or too werid for people to purchase, so how come no one did? Did its constantly delayed release date have something to due with it?

  2. jay said on May 22, 2006:

    Probably not. I was going to say something along the lines of maybe mostly younger people own the system but then Resident Evil 4 sold really well on it. I think it being a launch title may have hurt it.

    Pat, what did you think of the sanity effects that played with you as the gamer and not Alex or the character you controlled? For example, one of the effects was a volume graphic would pop up like you were raising or lowering the volume, and another was a graphic of a fly that was supposed to make you think there was a fly on your TV. I really like a lot of these (I fell for the fly one) but at the same time think it makes them very aware that they are playing something which is bad for immersion. Perhaps more sanity effects that are not metagame would be preferable.

  3. pat said on May 22, 2006:

    the question of whether or not certain sanity effects did destroy immersion is one that i thought about a lot before writing this review and ultimately decided that it was beyond the scope of the review and i didnt feel up to tackling it in this context. for example i think you would first need to determine how possible it is for a game to achieve full immersion when you need to use menu screens and so on from time to time. is a game like ico, which uses no interfaces, better equipped to immerse a gamer than this? or is a good story and character development enough? i would need to discuss all of this before saying whether or not the meta game sanity effects shatter the experience. and when the game showed itself deleting all of my saves i was probably more frightened than at any other point in the game. the whole topic is probably worthy of further debate though, maybe an editorial is in order.

  4. Christian said on May 24, 2006:

    Some complain that Eternal Darkness has too many problems to be any fun. Some of those points I happen to agree with. But I can’t remember any other game that I beat three times, in a row, without taking a break. Despite some issues, Eternal Darnkess manages to take the horror genre and try to steer it in a different and interesting way. The sanity effects just make sense for the genre, and when done right they always managed to catch me off guard. I also consider the dialogue and voice acting in this game to be superb. The whole thing is one big Lovecraftian treat, and I’d like to see more of these idea in the genre. People swear that Silent Hill is the king of intellectual and psychological horror, but ED got into my head far more than the obtuse puzzles and comical enemies of SH.

    If only Silicon Knights was able to add all the content they had to pull for release…

  5. jay said on May 24, 2006:

    Any idea what they had to cut?

  6. Christian said on May 24, 2006:

    Some of the characters in the game were meant to have longer levels, and some characters were cut completely. I’m also pretty sure they wanted to improve the magic system with more spells (after the first playthrough the magic system loses a bit of the …um, magic). Nothing mind boggling, but I think it could have been fleshed out even more. Which is a scary thought, considering how good it is in its final form.

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