Second Look: ?should have been called ?Eternal Darkness: Beyond the Hype??
For the sake of avoiding rehashing, I will not be providing a traditional review for Eternal Darkness. This review is more of an editorial, honestly. A little bit of history on the game, a bit of analysis of it's repercussions for Nintendo and the industry in general, and a heckuva lot of more personal narratives. I will shy away from giving away any spoilers of the story or gameplay mechanics. If after reading this, you desire a more technical breakdown of Eternal Darkness, I implore you to peruse my colleague's Eternal Darkness review, which we published late last week.
As I walked back to the office from my lunch break on the early afternoon of June 25, a brand new copy of Eternal Darkness in hand, I could not help but ponder the ending of an era for some of us. I speak; of course, of the eve of a four-year wait for Silicon Knight's much hyped, much anticipated Eternal Darkness. What began its roots as a seemingly professional Nintendo 64 game, ED became subject to delay after delay before its inevitable cancellation and resurrection as a GameCube launch title. The GCN's launch came and half a year of more delays passed before Eternal Darkness finally arrived? After playing the disappointing Cube Club demo, repeatedly, I could not help but question whether my 50 dollars were well spent, despite the endless hype, despite ?confirmation? in the form of unanimously raving reviews.
And so, I found myself in the simultaneously exciting and innerving position of witnessing the end of one of Nintendo's most famous eras of hype and wonder. Eternal Darkness is a 2nd party effort, though published by Nintendo, and for many marks a turning point in Nintendo's history. Negotiating the exclusive release of a high profile, obviously adult orientated game like Capcom's Resident Evil was an unexpected move for Nintendo and in some senses a coup, but to actually fund, publish, and even partially develop such a shockingly ?mature? rated title is a bold move for the software company commonly associated as the gaming industry's incarnation of ?Disney.? How could a game like Eternal Darkness possibly live up to its own hype? How could it ever stand against the game it will always be unfairly compared to, Resident Evil? Yet, after four long years, how could it not?
Some of you are undoubtedly questioning my decision to write this Eternal Darkness analysis (errr, review) in the first person narrative, as it simply is not my style. Gaming has always been somewhat of a personal experience for me, and Eternal Darkness managed to latch onto that concept and proceed to weave a kind of magic over me. The journey that resulted simply required a more personal article than one I am normally inclined to procure. Therefore, inevitably, I embark on this, a spoiler-free analysis of Eternal Darkness, from a more personal perspective I simply cannot avoid.
Allow me to add, before the hate mail begins to arrive, that my objectivity is not entirely out the window. I have never been a fan of the survival horror genre. From Resident Evil, to Dino Crisis and Silent Hill, and its more action-orientated extensions, Onimusha and Devil May Cry, I have retained an unequivocally unimpressed stance. While I must admit that for these past four years, I have found the concept of a psychological thriller game intriguing, the actual gameplay that has been described throughout this time failed to capture my imagination. The broken and limited demo that Silicon Knights put together for last year's Cube Clubs, which I was able to experience on numerous occasions over a three-day period, only served to cement my belief that this game was simply another derivative of the Resident Evil experience. I put aside my own feelings on the subject, and allowed myself to be convinced into purchasing Eternal Darkness despite my reservations. Now that I have (hopefully) eased your minds about my capacity to review ED objectively, how about we continue with this spoiler-free review?
Eternal Darkness is a unique game in so many regards, not the least of which is its story. Very few games outside of Japanese RPGs bother to focus on a story-orientated experience, and even those few rarely manage to transcend the typical narrative clich?s we have all experienced in various other formats, such as books and film. On the surface, Eternal Darkness tells a story that absolutely screams of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, a decidedly unique approach for a console game. It is a story that encompasses a two thousand year long struggle between select representatives of humanity as they attempt to prevent the reemergence of the dormant and intensely destructive Ancients; a story that begins mysteriously enough, with an unexplained murder that takes place only weeks before the story's dramatic culmination. Witness Alexandra Roivas' struggle to assimilate two millennia's worth of conflict, trace the dark and tragic history of her own bloodline, master the secrets of the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and solve the murder of her grandfather. How all of these elements are related is only part of Eternal Darkness' genius. For Alexandra Roivas serves as our vehicle into an epic tale, that transcends all of the clich?s of action/adventure gaming. Featuring eleven other playable characters, not all of which survive with their lives and/or sanity intact, Eternal Darkness is an exercise in story-driven, detail orientated, almost entirely unique gameplay that is fueled by some of the most innovative concepts of 3D adventure gaming.
Forget whatever you've read about Eternal Darkness' graphics, particularly those concerns that the game shows its Nintendo 64 roots. Eternal Darkness, as it existed as a N64 cartridge was completely thrown out when Silicon Knights opted to transfer the project to the GameCube. All resources, particularly those artistic, were dropped with the ill-fated N64 title. They rebuilt the game from the bottom-up for the GameCube, and those that are willing to set aside their nitpicking tendencies might just see that. The game is modeled after the simple, if somewhat classic concept that a game should get prettier as you proceed. I do not suggest that Eternal Darkness is graphically lacking in the early stages of the game, however this a sharp contrast in the quality of presentation from beginning to end, one that becomes more defined as you progress.
The character models are somewhat blocky, particularly during close-up scenes, though I prefer the term ?angular.? I say angular because after playing through the game repeatedly, it has become quite obvious to me that the relatively low polygon counts of the character models is not a result of technical compromises but an aesthetic decision. I found that the relatively harsh and angular designs of the main characters perfectly complimented the horrific experiences they struggled to live through. Claims that either the GameCube's hardware and/or Silicon Knights were somehow incapable of rendering a game with near ?perfect? visuals are belied by the fact that the game manages to pull off aesthetically beautiful and entirely believable representations, at a frame-rate that is locked at a consistent 60 fps, complete with one of the most impressive combinations of beautiful textures, lighting effects, and volumetric fogging I've ever seen in a video game. Finally, specific areas later in the game, involving depictions of an entire city almost completely rendered in real-time prove that the character models are not a result of Silicon Knight's inability to properly harness the GameCube's technical power. The only real technical gripe I have about the visuals involve the pre-rendered FMV cinematic sequences, which feature a totally unnecessary amount of artifacting that is a direct result of the need to compress them to fit on one disc.
Bluntly, Eternal Darkness' audio is perfect. Many so-called horror games tend to focus on ambient sounds, or even a definite lack of any audio, in order to accentuate a possibly dramatic atmosphere. This quickly becomes tiresome, and always struck me as incredibly lazy. That is not to say that ED does not have its share of ambient-styled music, it is simply that Silicon Knights has generally managed to succeed in compiling an audio experience that perfectly meshes original musical tracks with a surprisingly varied selection of audio almost entirely composed of pathetic moans, banging doors, unearthly wails, and tortured screams. Even more astonishing? it works. Of course, not all of the sounds you will be hearing are truly ambient? and this helps to augment the experience. Not only will you be questioning some of what you see, thanks to the insanity effects, you'll be forced to stop and determine if what you are hearing is a reflection of your character's slipping sanity, or an actual aural representation of events that are affecting gameplay.
It also bears mentioning that while the number of unique tracks that can be considered legitimate music, in a more traditional sense, are somewhat limited, those tracks are magnificent, perfectly suited to the time periods and locations they are meant to represent. Having been exposed to Middle Eastern music, I found Karim's theme in chapter 4 to be not only highly enjoyable, but also surprisingly authentic. Silicon Knights played it safe with the voice talent. Aside from their impressive decision to feature approximately five hours worth of voice acting, they chose most of their talent from actors who starred in the Metal Gear Solid and Soul Reaver games, two series of games considered to have the best voice acting this side of Hollywood. Like the story and gameplay, the audio experience of Eternal Darkness has more than its fair share of original (though more subtle) elements.
Finally, we come to the discussion of ED's story and gameplay. Admittedly, the two sections I mentioned above I would be spending the least amount of time in this review. My reasons for avoiding discussing these aspects of the game are two-fold. While I can give you vague assurances that the gameplay is mostly original, and the insanity effects are the next-best-thing in horror games, I can't give you any specific examples of brilliance without ruining them for you. Similarly, the best indicator of the story's ?flavor? is my reference to the Cthulhu Mythos, anymore would be spoiling that as well, if even partially. Finally, much of these aspects of the game were discussed in Chris' excellent review, whose hyperlink I provided above.
However, if indeed you seek vague assurances, then consider them yours. The sanity/insanity system is a brilliant gameplay twist that is only partially marred by the fact that there is an actual sanity meter, and that it can be magically restored at will. Being able to track your sanity on the fly somewhat destroys the element of surprise once the insanity effects kick in. Being able to magically heal any insanity inflicted upon your characters' psyche similarly serves to relegate the sanity effects as a side-gimmick once you acquire the relevant spells. However, the sanity affects themselves range from inspired to brilliant. Their variety also is a thing to behold. Some affect gameplay by distorting your characters' senses. The more original effects attempt to trick your own senses! Some simply help to add to the ambience. Yet, others attempt to trick you into believing that your hardware, not necessarily centered on your GCN or peripherals, is malfunctioning.
Two additional gripes worth mentioning involve length and difficulty. It has been advertised that one of the three branches of Eternal Darkness alone could take a gamer 20-40 hours to complete. Ten to eighteen hours would probably be a much more accurate approximation. Repeated play-throughs of the remaining branches will take you significantly less, guaranteed. Furthermore, the game is not particularly difficult. While it is true that the puzzles and combat sequences vary significantly from branch to branch, the combat is never particularly difficult nor will the level layouts change. Only rarely will you be challenged sufficiently so as requiring you to resort to the more exotic magickal strategies to survive a particular encounter. Just how much these issues will affect you as a gamer relies entirely upon your skills and style of gaming, of course. I have personally tallied two play-throughs of the game to fewer than 22 hours. To be fair, with three sufficiently varied story branches, three distinct endings, a bonus ending for completing all branches, and a series of unlock-able modes, Eternal Darkness contains more than its fair share of replay value.
Finally, the entire package is wrapped up by a combat engine that manages to rise above the standard engines that adventure and survival horror games settle for. You are given the ability to target specific parts of your enemy's bodies, and this is used to great affect to vary the gameplay. Eternal Darkness' magick system, as Silicon Knights refer to it, is probably the greatest kept secret in recent gaming history. ?Brilliance? fails to cover it. The magick system is deep, complex, ever expanding, and highly interactive. Furthermore, your spells will interact with every element of gameplay, from combat, to character upkeep, to exploration. It is a successful, logical, innovative, and highly satisfying method for meshing each element of this game into the cohesive and complete experience that Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem offers.
Despite all of its many successes, and significantly fewer failures, Eternal Darkness manages to accomplish a feat that no game remotely similar to it ever could? Eternal Darkness plays you, the gamer, as much as you, the gamer, play Eternal Darkness. Every aspect of Eternal Darkness, from the graphical, aural, and cinematic elements, was deliberately handcrafted to weave you, the target audience, into the experience. Few games can claim this ambitious level of immersion and originality, and fewer yet manage the careful balance of gameplay and narrative required to successfully form such a cohesive experience.