"Turn on your console and you’re greeted with a grainy, evil-voiced quote from Edgar Alan Poe. As this rather cheerful quote suggests, Eternal Darkness takes its influence from that of the great literary horror novels, especially those of H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, Eternal Darkness blatantly rips off much of Lovecraft’s Cthulu novels, and this is no bad thing for a survival horror game seeking distinction. "
Turn on your console and you’re greeted with a grainy, evil-voiced quote from Edgar Alan Poe. As this rather cheerful quote suggests, Eternal Darkness takes its influence from that of the great literary horror novels, especially those of H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, Eternal Darkness blatantly rips off much of Lovecraft’s Cthulu novels, and this is no bad thing for a survival horror game seeking distinction.
The game starts off with a young woman named Alex Roivas, who is summoned to her Grandfather’s (Maximillian Roivas’) house to identify her dear grandfather’s corpse. The police are finding it hard to identify the body. There’s no sign of an intruder, a break-in or a murder weapon. They can’t even check the dental records; because the head is missing. After identifying the family ring on her grandfather’s remaining finger, Alex is left alone in the house to investigate, with the police leaving her to it after a rather pathetic investigation of their own. In her grandfather’s study she finds a book bound in human skin called the Tome of Eternal Darkness. She reads the first chapter, which is the journal of a Roman Legionnaire named Pious Augustus. The player is now transported into the mind of Pious in his exploration of some Persian ruins in which he is possessed and makes a pact with one of three Gods – the Gods of flesh, spirit and sanity (this choice that you make secretly represents the three difficulty settings). Once done, the action returns to Alex in her grandfather’s study, and you regain control of her. From here on, Alex must search the rest of the mansion to try and find other chapters of the Tome of Eternal Darkness. In these, you will play out the actions of other characters from history which have possessed the Tome and you will begin to learn of the rise of a great evil and ultimately of the death of Alex’s grandfather.
Much of the game’s plot mirrors that of many of Lovecraft’s short stories and novels. These tell of the conflicts between rival Gods in which their servants’ (monsters and possessed humans usually) manipulation of humanity is intended to bring their masters into ascendance. Eternal Darkness spans twelve chapters in which you act out the roles of certain individuals in humanity’s struggle against the oppression of the three gods. The reason for this conflict is that the alignment of all the solar planets brings about one god’s resurrection towards the end of the 20th century. It’s an epic (if a little clichéd) concept that works brilliantly because of the exquisite way in which the narrative is structured. The experiences read by Alex in the Tome span over 2000 years of history, giving you a sense of being just one part of a great mythos and the fact that each chapter takes you to all kinds of different locations all over the world gives the impression that the fight against evil is one of the entire race, and not just a few individuals. Indeed, the characters you play themselves represents all manner of human life, from several different backgrounds and occupations (from peasants to priests to archaeologists).
This feeling of being part of some higher purpose can be overwhelmingly so, and the level structure has been well-formed to emphasise this feeling. You’ll often revisit locations at a later period in history with a different character. Despite seeming a little like lazy level design, this carries the narrative along nicely and gives a fine sense of time and history. Texts found in these locations later on explain the significance of previous characters’ actions in the grand scheme of things. It gives a sense of depth and dexterity to the storyline and allows the pace of the game to move along nicely without resorting to long-winded cut-scenes. Another aspect of this structural revisitation which creates a sense of history is the way in which areas that were previously locked off become open to you. The Church in Amiens, France, for example, which you first visit as a messenger boy in the 4th century, allows access to new areas when you revisit in 1917 because of the way the church has been ravaged by war. This sense of a growing evil over time manages to create a great amount of intrigue in the storyline. Such depth is there in the storyline that some of the most notable characters’ nature becomes apparent by the actions of others. You may even come to notice how some characters’ names hold some significance (e.g. ‘Roivas’ being backwards for ‘Savior’ and ‘Pious’ meaning ‘Of God’).
Once you finish a chapter, the action returns to Alex in her Grandfather’s mansion. She will find that a memento from that chapter is left in the mansion which allows her to access new areas. This is another way in which the narrative manages to interest the player; by suggesting that the key to defeating the evil is found by your investigations of this mansion. Despite the fact that the game is quite obviously linear, it merely expands the sense of intrigue that the game exudes so expertly. Part of the joy of Eternal Darkness is finding out how the plot develops by virtue of your actions. Coupled with some excellent voice-acting and a script which oozes personality into each character, Eternal Darkness has one of the best narratives ever created. There’s an outstanding sense of vitality and emotion and it’s hard not to really feel for each character’s plight and struggle against an all-encompassing evil. It never jarrs or stutters like many scripts do and the voice-acting complements it superbly by not resorting to “ye olde time” clichés, cringeworthy quips or poorly attempted accents. Instead it relies on the emotion of aural fear and how each character’s voice slowly seems to show a fading sanity. This is easily the benchmark of how to develop a strong narrative for a game such as this.
It is, then, unfortunate that the same attention to detail has not been applied to the combat aspect of the game. When fighting your way through hordes of torturous monsters, you really don’t want to have to be fighting the controller to get your character to start slashing away with that all-important melée weapon, but it is something you will experience often with Eternal Darkness. There is, however, a nice targeting system which allows you to attack certain areas of your shambling foe. It allows you to chop up your foe how you want, but mostly, you’ll be doing little more than holding the shoulder buttons and pressing up to target the enemy’s head. It also becomes useless when you’re faced with multiple enemies bearing down on you. It becomes far more effective to just point the analogue stick and start madly mashing the attack button – any attempt to use the targeting system can be just thrown out the window at this point. It rarely feels as if you’re in proper control of your character’s fighting abilities properly and just mashing away at the attack button feels a little unsatisfying, but it is unfortunately the most effective way of dispatching those monsters. Another nasty problem are the finishing moves that your character can do. Once you’ve knocked an enemy to the ground, you can finish it off, but the animation for doing so is so long-winded it’s painful. You’ll often be cut to pieces by encroaching zombies and horrors while trying to kill just one of them. Then we have the quite dreadful ballistic weapons. The targeting for this couldn’t be clumsier so you can be grateful that ammunition is in short supply. It rarely feels that you’re aiming properly and getting a solid hit on your enemies can be a matter of luck above all else. Whereas in other survival horror games (especially the Resident Evil series), the unwieldy aiming controls enhance your state of vulnerability to create panic, here it feels much simpler and more effective to whip out a melée weapon and get slashing.
Luckily, there is some redemption in the comically misspelled Magick system (the ‘k’ makes it sound cool). By discovering magical (sorry, magickal) runes and ‘codexes’, it is possible to create all manner of havoc. You can use these spells to increase the effectiveness of your weapons or summon demons to do all the hard work of fighting off monsters. You’re even allowed to experiment with combinations of runes to discover a vast range of spells and enchantments. This allows a nice degree of customisation and experimentation not normally found in most survival horror titles and it relieves a tiny bit of the game’s linearity at least. The three gods’ different magick alignments also allows for an interesting array of quite inventive puzzles. You can choose the alignment of each spell you cast, so by, for example, bolstering a weapon with green magic, it will have greater potency against monsters of blue alignments, but less against those of the red alignment. It isn’t the most revolutionary system, but it means that a greater deal of thought is required than just hacking and slashing away randomly. However, this “scissor, paper, stone” system isn’t just confined to the combat aspect of the game. The puzzles involving manipulation of alignments also require a degree of thought. If you’re summoning a monster, you must make sure that it is suitable for the job you want it to fulfil. It won’t fight against monsters of its own alignment or break seals that it is weak against. If you have a key that won’t work on a certain door, then looking to see if the door has a particular alignment could be the key (see what I did there?) to opening it, so putting an ‘enchant item’ spell of a trumping alignment could open the door. Rarely are these puzzles challenging, but they’re a nice diversion from monster slaying and are quite enjoyable.
Thankfully in Eternal Darkness’ case, combat and magic systems aren’t what define a survival horror. You could have a great game on your hands, but the raison d’être of a survival horror is to cause fear. If survival horrors were alive, they would surely be quoting a variation of Descartes’ famous saying. “I scare, therefore I am”. The greatest failing of a survival horror is one that simply doesn’t manage to inject any of the emotions related with fear, but Eternal Darkness excels at creating these emotions at every turn. It is far creepier to be afraid of nothing than of something, as your mind becomes quizzical – taunting your perspective of reality. This is something the developers have truly taken advantage of and is what makes Eternal Darkness such a masterpiece of horror. Ethereal background whispers cause an irrational sense of fear as the musical score, with a combination of pulsing and damning sounds, distant bells and paranoid mumbling, uses the power of suggestion to create a definite sense of panic and anxiety. You’ll often hear distant noises and turn around instinctively only to find nothing there. It’s disorientating, but the game rarely gives you room for relief. A large increase in volume for the soundtrack may be followed by complete silence or a single solitary rattle or shuffling sound effect, or perhaps even a sharp and overwhelmingly dense orchestrated chord. The mood varies randomly, thus forcing the player to try and expect the unexpected. This constant expectation and forbodement causes the tension to grow throughout each chapter until a creeping dread causes the mind to seemingly cave in on itself. The logic here being that, as the player becomes more tense and stressed over this forbodement, so the in-game character’s sanity decreases. Your nerves will shred, your palms will sweat, and then, just as you get used to the level surroundings and audio trickery, the game throws something new into the fray – a mind-blowing insanity effect.
These insanity effects themselves are rather more gimmicky than revolutionary, like much of the game, but it’s a surprisingly sophisticated system that enhances the already chilling atmosphere quite brilliantly. To see your character slowly sink into the floor or to see the walls start wailing and moaning before the screen blurs out of focus is genuinely disorientating. These effects distort the mind and add to the game’s mood in a hauntingly creepy and disturbing manner. But the beauty of the system’s sophistication lies in its ability, not just to disturb the game’s characters but to distort the reality of the player. Imagine the situation – your character enters a room from a long and brightly lit corridor – your health and sanity low after fleeing from a particularly nasty encounter with terrifying horrors. The room itself is quite dark, damp and ridden with deformed corpses, but otherwise empty. All that can be seen is a flickering torch shining on the pools of crimson blood from above. Suddenly, you hear eerie whispers and an overwhelming thud which nearly bursts your ears. The screen darkens. Panicking, you attempt to leave the room the way you came, only to find yourself in an identical room, now with bleeding and moaning walls and four identical-looking exit. You panic once more, anxiety building throughout your body and sweat developing in your palms. The action speeds up, the audio’s pace quickens and mimics your heartbeat in deafening pulses. And then, just as your anxiety reaches new levels of fear, there is a torturous scream and the screen suddenly flashes white. With the screen a bright clean colour, your character whimpers pathetically in the background “Wh...what. Is. Happening?!” echoing your own deeply puzzled yet disturbed thoughts. Slowly, the screen blurs into focus and colour. You’re back in that cosy, brightly-lit corridor with your character clutching his/her head from disorientation. The entrance to that twisted room is revealed to be nothing more than a shadow of your imagination. Quite gratifyingly, there are far subtler insanity effects, and many more disturbing than this.
It isn’t just Silicon Knights’ use of chilling absurdity that can distort your reality to the point of mental breakdown. Eternal Darkness even manages to play on the fact that you’re aware of playing a game. There’s little more that generates panic than facing a pack of hideous zombies, only for a Controller Error message to pop up on the screen – apart maybe from a “Deleting Saves” message appearing at a save point. These progress-threatening ‘hallucinations’ are cleverly implemented and you’d be surprised how often these kinds of trickery cause players to leap towards their consoles in a vain attempt to rectify the situation. Other kinds of insanity effects involve classic cinematic camera trickery such as flies crawling across the screen, screen warps or blurs. One effect has the screen itself pulse in and out to mimic a heartbeat – a pulse which quickens with the appearance of monsters. In tight situations, screen borders will appear on all sides to give the illusion of claustrophobia causing tunnel-vision. These effects aren’t particularly frightening but they can often have a detrimental effect on your concept of reality – something which effectively increases your paranoia and dread. This sense of dread results in a fear of insanity effects to come – thus sustaining a constant tension despite there being very little to be afraid of. You see, the beauty of the insanity system is its psychological effect on the player rather than a physical effect on the in-game character. Despite the fact that most insanity effects pose no threat to your character, they still have the ability to conjure an effusive amount of irrational fear. The greatest achievement here however is the degree of spontaneity that these effects withhold. They aren’t designed like set-pieces or tied to the narrative, so you could be hit by anything at any point. These insanity effects are unexpected and so when you do experience one, it’s a great deal more shocking.
Eternal Darkness puts itself above all other classic survival horror experiences by refusing to dwell solely on big, fearsome monsters. Its greatest quality is that it’s far more suggestive than most games. It won’t try and terrify you by jumping out of an alcove and shouting “Boo!”. Instead, the game seems far happier providing consistent injections of adrenaline by creeping up to you, whispering “boo” in your ear and disappearing before your state of awareness shifts rapidly – leaving you to ponder whether it was an hallucination or not. Where the survival horror genre is concerned, having your mind toyed with is a refreshing (if a little disturbing) prospect. It won’t shock you into chokes and whimpers but it effortlessly exudes stress, panic and anxiety in horrific amounts. Coupled with an epic and imaginative narrative, Eternal Darkness is a fantastically absorbing game – atmospheric and well-structured – with the only drawback being the clumsy combat. Forgive the troublesome combat, however, and Eternal Darkness is easily one of the most subtle and sophisticated horror experiences that games have ever produced.
Community review by ceredig (April 07, 2005)
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