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.