When Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem was released, there was a glut of Mature-rated horror games on the market from which to choose. Between the endless sequels to Resident Evil, Silent Hill and others, it was easy to overlook this newcomer. But developer Silicon Knights had a few secrets up its sleeve that made Eternal Darkness not only worth playing but feature a creative new spin on the genre as well. In fact, the game is so original that it has a patent to prove it.
Opening with a haunting quote from Edgar Allan Poe, Eternal Darkness establishes itself right away as a horror game and makes no bones about it. If you think you don’t like to get scared, Eternal Darkness will teach you the joys of feeling terrified. Perhaps best known for its “sanity meter," Eternal Darkness introduces a mechanic that causes the game to change depending on how strong your grip on reality is. The more insane you become, the more crazy things you will observe. And the more immersed you as a player become in the story, the more startling these events can become. Nintendo calls this a “Sanity System," and it's so unique that it's filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as patent #6935954. As a consequence, no other game has since played quite like Eternal Darkness, nor will one until the patent expires.
Examples of this sanity system in practice include simple nuances, such as the sound of footsteps or whispers alerting the player to nonexistent danger, as well as more seriously deranged incidents, such as having to fight monsters that are not really there or experiencing a cheap and unpreventable death only to discover that it was just a hallucination. You lose sanity as your character becomes frightened by onscreen monsters, so the longer it takes you to kill them, the more insane you become. As you descend further into madness, the game plays tricks on you to the extent of actually torturing you with your most deeply ingrained fears as a gamer. The intended response from the player is panic, which is a very reasonable reaction when the game creates the illusion that it has crashed in the middle of play. At the same time, many of these sanity effects are actually quite funny after you figure out that you have been fooled again.
Although it is a truly unique and an enjoyable aspect of the game, the sanity system is by no means all that Eternal Darkness has to offer. The real reward comes with the gameplay and storytelling. Although the main character is a young woman trying to solve the mystery of her murdered grandfather, the actual narrative is told in the form of chapters of a book that she finds hidden throughout his mansion. You play each chapter she reads as a level in the game, which have an epic feel to them, spanning multiple characters over the centuries. Each chapter is a self-contained section of the larger story, and the survival of your character is not always necessary to the advancement of that story, so you never know how it's going to end. Each segment has consequences that play out later on, even affecting the present-day protagonist’s world.
In this way, players not only get to experience a story with generational consequences, but they get to play as different, unique characters as well. In one chapter you’ll become Roman centurion armed with a short sword. In another, you're a spry teenage girl with a dagger. In another still, you're a fat middle-aged man armed with a pistol. The way that you move and your available equipment change from chapter to chapter, making for a unique experience each time. To keep you interested, in some later chapters you will revisit the same locations you visited in earlier segments, and part of the fun is in seeing how things have changed centuries later in terms of décor, level design and puzzles. Although every stage features essentially the same goal of exploring and solving puzzles while fighting monsters along the way, each feels fresh as the puzzles are unique, the play style of each character is different, and you’ll learn new magic tricks along the way.
One of the rewards for all of your exploration is a robust magic system that builds upon runes that you discover which, when combined, create magic spells. You don’t discover simple spells like "healing," however, but instead locate the appropriate noun and verb runes that match up to create the desired effect. And those same two runes that formed the healing spell may also be components of other spells if they can be joined with other runes that you obtain later. The result is that discovering a new spell instils a feeling of great accomplishment in the player and encourages experimentation. And that accomplishment is not lost at the end of the chapter, as you may continue to use your spells in later segments.
Offering a good length for just one playthrough, Eternal Darkness has excellent replay value. At the beginning, you are offered three choices with no explanation; what you are actually choosing is a path. Each option (red, green, or blue) as well as altering the difficulty level features different monsters, magic and cut scenes. As a result, to experience the entire story, you must actually play through the game three times. Only at the end of the third playthrough will you be treated to the true final scene.
These features make for a spectacular game, but what seal the deal are the little technical touches like good, responsive controls and haunting sound effects and music. The graphics are colourful and detailed, featuring some creepy sanity effects such as eyes in paintings that follow your movement. And, lastly, the talented voice acting must be acknowledged as this is all too often a substandard feature in games. Here, all of the actors assigned to each part do an excellent job of making their respective characters believable.
Eternal Darkness can safely be called one of the GameCube's best titles, with beautiful visuals, deeply rewarding gameplay that encourages one to return, and a superb story that puts most horror movies (or, for that matter, most video games) to shame. Play it with a friend to show off how good the GameCube can be. Play it by yourself to appreciate this classic one more time. But, whatever you do, don’t play it in the dark.