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Feature: Nostalgia vs. Eternal Darkness

Posted by Jon Wahlgren

Jon celebrates the 10th anniversary of this cult horror classic by losing his mind, in more ways than one

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is one of those games whose cult status has snowballed since it hit in 2002, and with good reason. As a fairly innovative horror game from Silicon Knights and Nintendo, it kept players on their toes for its gruesome tale of humanity's struggle across time against hopelessly destructive old, angry gods — mixing the best parts of Resident Evil and H.P. Lovecraft — drenching its world in creepy atmosphere and with clever use of its signature Insanity effects, which altered your perception of the world.

That's how I remember it, at least. With the 10th anniversary of the game upon us, Thomas punched me over the head and told me to revisit what may very well be the last good original game from Silicon Knights — perhaps only, if you want to be cynical about it. I have really fond memories of this game, having played through it a number of times — although, according to my old save file (which, yes, I still have, thank you very much), not enough to get the "true" ending that still eludes me — and I was curious to see how well it held up after all this time. Would the insanity effects stand tall as a real landmark in the genre, or would my jaded eyes see right through them as tacky and stupid? There are minor spoilers from the early part of the game ahead, so don't blame me if you read them.

What I do remember is a moody, creepy, pretty game with lots of swords and people getting brutalized by demon things. I also recall greatly enjoying the insanity effects, although I remember feeling a little disappointed that they didn't go far enough. Perhaps they were over-hyped at the time, and perhaps years of cult status has kept the hype level unrealistically high.

I was hopeful that our re-acquaintance would be like that with an old friend, and shortly after popping the game in, Eternal Darkness greeted me with a welcoming embrace, triggering insane amounts of nostalgia with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" to so eloquently set the stage. "Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering...fearing...doubting..."

Creep factor: wholly intact and gripping from the start. We are introduced to protagonist Alex Roivas in a nightmare sequence where she is locked in a small room filled with approaching demonic corpse-looking things. The room acts as a small introduction to panic and combat, but also as a 'safe' sandbox for players to tinker around with the controls, despite the apparent imminent danger of shambling enemies wanting to munch on your soul. It took a few moments of playing keep-away until I remembered how to shoot their stupid faces off, and by the time I had blasted everything away the phone rang to wake Alex from her slumber. She learns that her archaeologist grandfather has been found dead under mysterious circumstances (psst, it's demons), and so she heads across the country to his mansion to find out what happened. As she wanders around his creepy mansion, the layout comes flooding back to me, except I distinctly remember the "hub" to be a lot larger. It's less of a Resident Evil-style sprawling mansion and more of a spacious house with a few spooky rooms. Oh well.

The setup is similar to what I remember, but graphically it's looking a little long in the tooth. I was surprised to see that the game supports widescreen, progressive scan and Dolby surround sound, although I'm well aware that the 'Cube is more than capable of such things — perhaps I was expecting less from a first-year game. Even with these nice flourishes, its fairly evident looking at it now just how rooted the final build of Eternal Darkness is in its long-developed N64 beginnings — coincidentally,the developer's less-well-received Too Human also began life in the 64-bit generation. Character models and environments are somewhat simplistic, and the mansion itself feels designed with more constraints in mind than the GameCube actually has. So too do the environments across time that our 12 characters inhabit, frequently linear and narrow with very basic, well, I hesitate to even call them 'puzzles', as they amount more to finding the right doodad to open the next door. Textures, on the other hand, vary wildly, but generally the more demonic they are the better as the human environments tend to look a bit workmanlike. I certainly don't feel as impressed with it as I remember, especially with regards to character models. Stupid nostalgia.

But as I play I grow to enjoy the limitations and their inherent charms — I'm not dead inside, after all — and actually admire them in a way. While its simplicity keeps your brain from working too hard, minimizing having to worry about direction allows me to just go with the flow and soak up the world, which remains chilling even after all this time thanks to sharp art direction and some genuinely scary audio. I wish I had a surround sound setup, or even headphones, to fully enjoy the whispers and bumps in the night. I don't think I paid much mind to how Eternal Darkness sounded in my first go around, but with sharper ears and a better-sounding television it's clear that Silicon Knights and Nintendo went the extra mile to disorient and scare your pants off.

It takes a while for the game to pick up proper, as the opening Centurion and Temple stages are pretty simplistic affairs that serve the purpose of easing you into the game, seemingly one mechanic at a time, introducing close-quarters combat and magicks respectively. Once the third chapter rolls around, where a messenger intercepts a cursed message meant for Charlemagne, this is where Eternal Darkness comes to life thanks to the feature we've all been waiting for: INSANITY.

Such a simple idea, really, but one that has gone surprisingly underused in the decade since its introduction. Your insanity level plays a huge role in how you perceive and interact with the game world: as enemies spot you the insanity meter drains a little bit, and the less sanity you have the more inexplicable things get. The diversity is quite impressive, ranging from minor things like skewing the camera or making the walls bleed to altering the controls, blacking out the screen or, a personal favourite, spontaneous combustion. For a game that otherwise plays it pretty straight, the insanity effects work wonders to provide a sense of identity; its no wonder that they have become synonymous with Eternal Darkness. Oftentimes these changes don't greatly influence the way you play, either providing a neat effect or doing something radical that is then essentially rewound back to a harmless place, and so the 'game changing' hype around them may be a little excessive. However, knowing their presence kept me on the lookout for weird stuff, and I did in fact go a little nuts because of them, but only because something messed up that happened was for real, and I didn't know it.

By chapter four, I got so swept up in the atmosphere and the story that I completely forgot what era of video game I was dealing with — an era without autosaves. And boy howdy is that a lesson you do not want to doze off for, because Eternal Darkness doesn't mess around. In fact, it doesn't do anything with your memory card unless you explicitly direct it to. No autosaves, no chapter completion saves, nada. To top it all off, dying pops you back to the title screen and not an earlier checkpoint (because haha, checkpoints!) or the start of the stage. So as I was running around as Karim, losing my mind left and right from an onslaught of demon things that I just chopped in half in a rush of adrenaline, I get a little too bold and go after a three-faced, electricity-blasting monstrosity. At that point my insanity meter was completely empty, the walls were bleeding, and the game decided it would be hilarious to invert the controls right as I'm trying to dodge the big dude and a stray minion in close quarters. With all that crazy stuff happening, I'm knocked down like a house of cards and kicked back to the title screen. Forgive me for thinking that the game was playing tricks on me by not sending me packing back to the beginning of the chapter, but when it dawned on me that, hey, this is from 2002, I went to load my game only to discover that not one single thing had saved. Because I'm stupid. Because 2002 was stupid.

The in-game insanity effects didn't do nearly as much of a number on me as this mind explosion. I hadn't sworn this much at a video game since Kung Fu Funk. I looked at the time and saw that it was "screw this o'clock" and punched out for the night, defeated and shamed by my own stupidity.

My expectations for revisiting Eternal Darkness were a bit mixed going in: I had very fond memories of what many now consider a horror classic, but I wasn't sure whether those original feelings came from the moment in time when I first challenged the darkness or whether they were rightfully earned by a genuinely amazing game. From a strictly mechanical standpoint, I found the gameplay to be very by-the-numbers, by 2012 standards, and even a bit dull looking at what else was going on in gaming at the time. In my view nostalgia is second only to bath salts as a drug, lifting me to atmospheric highs and chewing my face off with an archaic save structure. As long as you keep your expectations in check, Eternal Darkness is absolutely worth revisiting — or visiting for the first time, if for some reason you missed out on it the first time around.

Just remember to save early and save often.

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User Comments (41)



sketchturner said:

Nice article. Personally I could never understand the hype around this game. I played when it came out and found the graphics and gameplay clunky back then.



Kirk said:

I really think you have to play a lot more of the game to remember how deep and involving the game actually was with all the different runes and magic and stuff. It was a very cool system that was used brilliantly throughout the game.

It's still one of the best horror games I've played and despite it's limtations I still think it actually controls and plays far better than all the "Tank" control based Resident Evil games for example.

It was never perfection but I think a modern remake or sequel to this game could be brilliant because it's only real limitations, from today's perspective, are due to the limitations of the technology of the time imo.



hYdeks said:

Yay i couldn't get into this game either, BUT my one friend had the game and PLAYED IT ALOT! He loved that game! And I'll never figure out why lol



JonWahlgren said:

I had fully intended to play through the whole game until that save snafu happened and I lost the first three hours of progress. It was at the point where it was getting at its most "Eternal Darkness" too, as I had picked up a spell and the insanity effects were in full swing. I'm happy to have revisited it now though and now I have a more complete image of why I've wanted a sequel for so long. It wasn't just something that sounded cool and eventually got locked in my brain that it would be a good idea, I think with greater power and the new types of input available it would work incredibly well.

It's tough to say whether a new ED would be good now though. With SK long in the tubes and now having lost a moronic and unnecessary lawsuit against Epic, clearly someone else would have to step in to take it. Outside of Retro or perhaps the Amnesia team I'm not confident it'd be done well. I'd love to be proven wrong though (or right about Retro).



Kirk said:


Actually, I think Retro could potentially make a brilliant version of Eternal Darkness, if they used basically the same team and had the same passion and commitment to building something that was as respectful of the original and source material as they did when making the Metroid Prime games.

Man, now that you've said that I'd actually really love to see that happen.



Gold_Ranger said:

My favourite (re: most hated) Insanity device is a tie between:
Blue Screen of Death

  • and -
    Your controller is unplugged.
    Close second is also a tie:
    walk into a room and you become more and more dismembered with each step
  • and -
    The game freezes making you get up to hit reset only to realize that the game just screwed with you...badly!


JonWahlgren said:

@Red_Kinetic I remember that last one, which is why I thought the game was messing with me with the title screen nonsense! My favorite intended random insanity moment was when I tried to cast a healing spell and just exploded, as if the spell went horribly horribly wrong. Great time.



MAB said:

The TV volume turning down got me because that was exactly how it looked on my old set 'green font with bold bars' I thought I was sitting on the remote



XCWarrior said:

I thought this was going to be a feature on the game Nostaligia for DS vs Eternal Darkness, which made no sense to me. This made more sense.



Hokori said:

On wii U how can new comers who haven't heard of these tricks react to the controller being unplugged trick with the wii U game pad or even the new Gamer Contoller



ajcismo said:

What a fantastic game and such a unique experience from the usual FPS or Mario-esque platform. The "true" ending is cool, but it does take some time since you gotta beat the game 3 times.
We've all done that "not-save" thing, but it is kinda funny hearing about somebody else doing it.



Gold_Ranger said:

I know i beat the game at least twice. I know i was on my third go, but i can't remember if i actually got the TRUE ending.
What was it?



Omega said:

I also enjoyed the game very much in 2003. I have decided to play through it again (three times) last year. Once with the red- , then with the blue- and finally with the green alignment. Every round the cutscenes, where Pious talks to his master, are different. And the black guardian in chapter 9 is different. Affter finishing the third round you get that cutscene where all three ancients are defeated simultaneously.



Willerz said:

I've always wanted to try this game. But instead I just watched one of the best LPs ever.



AcidFox said:

Eternal Darkness is still one of my favourite games. I've always been a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft's literature, and this game lifts heavily from his stories, so that along with the incredibly awesome insanity effects (Finally a game that REALLY understands how to inflict fear on the player), great narration (Maximiliam's autopsies are great, it's amazing just listening how he progressively loses his mind), great characters and amazing music made me love this game.
I was a little dissapointed by the "God Mode" that you unlock after finishing the game three times, because part of what really makes the game fun are the insanity effects. I always felt that Silicon Knights should've gone instead with a mode that caused you to constantly feel the effects, but without lowering your energy. Unfortunately once you've seem them all they kind of lose their punch, but that is obviously to be expected.
My favourite tortures? When the game FORCES you to delete all your saved files, Window's Blue Screen of Death (that was hilarious), and the "Eternal Darkness 2 - Sanity's Redemption" message.
Fun Fact: Back in 2003 this game caused my Gamecube to actually break down twice, forcing me to get it repaired. After that I never felt really comfortable replaying the game, but I still did.
After his game I always thought that Silicon Knights should've handled a remake of Silent Hill 1 (Probably my favourite horror game). When they remade Metal Gear Solid 1 I thought the moment was close, unfortunately it never came.



TheGreenSpiny said:

So your main reason for disliking this game now was the lack of auto save/checkpoints? You should know better Jon. Have people become to lazy to stop and save these days? The lack of auto save is an important feature as there was a few times that I had to restart from an old save file because I screwed something up along the way. This game was all the subtle things. Events you do in one time period effect the rest of the time periods. There are so many little touches added to this game to make it awesome. The narrative is one of the best in gaming. I wish Nintendo would put SK to work on a sequel for the WiiU. That would make the system an instant buy for me.



sinalefa said:

I would like to play this one to see if it is as awesome as they say. I never played it when it was released. Now it is expensive as hell.

I have played some games years after they were released that received tons of praise in their time, and came back disappointed. One case is Super Mario Sunshine, the other is Shadow of the Colossus.

On the other hand, Super Metroid deserved all the accolades it garnered, imo.

When I play a new game, I always check how saves are handled. If the game needs to be saved, I still do often. I remember how when I got a UPS I thought I did not have to save that often, until my Bioshock 2 froze the console, and made me lose quite a deal of progress.



TheGreenSpiny said:

@sinalefa: Super Mario Sunshine and Shadow of the Colossus were never that good to begin with. Eternal Darkness sells for less than $20 these days, unless the price has spiked in the last year or so.



Sabrewing said:

SK needs to stop jerking around and give people the sequel that people have been clammoring for.



JonWahlgren said:

@TheDarkness: Nowhere do I say that I dislike the game, in fact I'm quite fond of it. I was annoyed that I didn't realize how the game handled saves at the time and got frustrated at my own stupidity, not over anything the game itself did. I've likely played more games in my life without an autosave feature than ones that do, so it's not like I'm unfamiliar with the concept — I was just so engrossed that I completely forgot to check!



TNLGUY said:

It's only been a couple of years since last I played it, I recall it being quite swell. Never had saving issues, just dying issues... Revisiting a lot of the locations was often a little boring, and there were some chapters I would've preferred to skip. I still love the manor, it was definitely the creepiest area.



ReaperX30 said:

That game was the reason I got a Gamecube. I played the crap out of it. To get the best ending you had to finish it with all the different gods so three times if I remember correctly. One of the best gaming experience I had since I started playing on intellivision during the 80's. If they would do a remake or a sequel with todays consoles or PC I would be the happiest man alive.



k8sMum said:

i know this is kinda random, but picture of the roman centurion made me think of poor, always-dying rory from doctor who...



Chunky_Droid said:

Yeah I played through this again last year, and while the atmosphere is great, I thought it got really repetitive about half-way through, and to finish it three times to get the special ending ended up being very grating.

All-in-all the atmosphere is top notch, and was a great first year Gamecube title!



IanUniacke said:

The insanity effects were great and so memorable. One of the funny ones was the game would suddenly end and put up a screen saying something like "Thanks for playing! Stay tune for the sequel coming soon".

On the other hand I'd forgotten about many cool aspects of the game such as the extensive locales and time periods, also the magic system and the different enemies that you could play through multiple times. Such a fantastic game and a shame that some relics from ages past (eg no autosave) are holding it back a little now a days.



Gameday said:

i loved this game nice to see another article emerge , game scared me so thats a thumbs up baby.



Expa0 said:

I played Eternal Darkness for the first time about one and a half year ago and it truly was a masterpiece, I'm always surprised when a western game rivals japanese games in quality.



Mayhem said:

Definitely worth playing, and back in the day I went through the game three times to get all the cutscenes and the extra ending. By the third play through, it was running on auto almost, and it was like I was one with the game to know what to do to beat everything. Still wasn't easy though heh.



Weavius said:

I loved this game! A sequel was teased as an Insanity Effect but never happened.



Ren said:

I remember always seeing this, even when it came out, looking at the box and being like "really, that looks pretty lame". Then finally after reading all the hype about it got it about a year ago and it's really one of the best games I've ever played. Totally amazing story and mechanic behind it. never played anything so original and scary since. I have surround and a massive set on Progressive so it's really creepy in surround. I'd love a sequel, but seriously if you haven't tried it theres nothing like it, it will still hold it's own for a long time. It is cheap too, I got it used for a few bucks at a thrift store.



Fang said:

Love this game, I especially like Paul Luther's chapter (funny ending). I agree with whoever said Retro should make a sequel. After Silicon Knight's recent failures, they're probably not up to making a sequel and would ruin Eternal Darkness' reputation.



MeloMan said:

I don't remember dying so I guess the saving feature didn't even occur to me. Other than that, I will say the game is worth a play especially to anyone who's never played it. I was pretty satisfied the couple of times I beat it for the best ending, but similar to how I treat Chrono Trigger, I continue to spread the gospel to any and all who have never played it. Nostalgia-wise, I'm good. Now, if a sequel were to come around..........

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