Eternal Darkness was one of
the most intriguing titles of the 2001 E3 show. It was scheduled to be released shortly
after launch, and was the title I was looking forward to the most on the Gamecube. Launch
day came and went and delays mounted, as such things do in this industry. The 2002 E3 show
arrived and I got a bit more time with Eternal Darkness. It still looked good, but a year
is a very long time in this industry. Yet now the wait has passed and the verdict is in.
Darkness suffers from a conflicting binary: at once an extraordinarily ambitious title and
one lacking vision; the bravest game in recent memory, yet failing, fearing, to take this
title where it wants to go. Eternal Darkness revitalizes the 3rd person action
adventure, dare I say "survival horror" genre, while still managing to put tired
conventions where brilliance and vision should be. Eternal Darkness is a good game that
could have been, begged to be, one of the truly legendary titles in the blossoming field
of interactive art.
A girl in a mansion. A mystery to solve, and undead to slay. The start is
anything but innovative, but perceptions are often deceiving and never was this more true
than in Eternal Darkness. I am willing to forgive the girl in the mansion routine because
it is a self-aware, ironic use of the convention that cloaks much depth and draws the
gamers attention to how much more Eternal Darkness offers than Resident Evil or its many clones.
Soon we find our heroine, Alexandria Roivas, in the midst of an ancient
struggle spanning thousands of years. At the center of the conflict is the Tomb of Eternal
Darkness--a book of dark power and darker secrets. Alexandria begins reading the book,
recovering one chapter at a time and retracing the struggle as it stretches across
recorded history. Meanwhile you, the gamer, are thrust into the role of the many
characters, twelve in all, who are recorded in the ancient manuscript.
The narrative skips time and the effect is outstanding. One moment toting a
shotgun in a mansion, the next youre a Roman centurion, gladius in hand. Later you
will play in many different time periods and placesa monk in the Spanish
inquisition, a firefighter, a knight, an architect, a peasant, more. Youll find
yourself in classical Rome, medieval Europe, ancient Asia, and colonial America, for a
start. The characters all wield different weapons ranging from shotguns to swords, maces,
crossbows, torches, muzzle-loadersusually each character has a few weapons
appropriate to their time period. They also have different ratings for speed, health,
sanity, and magic.
Sanity and magic. These are two unique features that take Eternal Darkness in a
whole new direction. The sanity meter decreases every time your character comes into
contact with the undead, and it goes up a bit when you successfully dispatch the baddies.
When your sanity meter gets low, things start to get really interesting. Characters start
to hallucinate about walking into roomstheyll see, and by extension
youll play, these hallucinatory nightmares. Youll see blood dripping from the
ceiling, youll imagine you walk into a room and youre too big to fit through
the doors so you cant get away. Or youll be so small that youre easy
meat. Voices will whisper and crackle with evil; you may even see your character
spontaneously ripped in half for no apparent reason.
Its all in your head of courseyour characters head that is,
although at times youll wonderand when the vision ends youll find
yourself back standing where you started, no worse for the experience. Its a bit
hard to imagine, I know, but the effect is superb and its beyond anything
thats ever been attempted in a videogame. Theres more. As insanity melts away,
the game engages you, the gamer, in fields never before attempted. I dont want to
spoil too much, but new territory is blazed in metagaming that involve the player in real,
tangible, and brave new waysfortunately without ever annoying. Eternal Darkness is a
game that knows you are playing it and seeks to return the favor.
The magic system is a nice touch too, though significantly less ambitious than
the sanity effects. Players recover ancient spells, via the Tomb of Eternal Darkness, as
they hop through time, and they soon become the focal point of battles. Protective
barriers, shields, summon spells, detect, and dispel are some of the spells at your
disposal. The effects are fantastic, as are the casting sequences themselves.
The visuals in
Eternal Darkness are outstanding, rivaling anything on the Gamecube, which means it can go
toe-to-toe with any game on any system. The graphics arent as stunning as Resident
Evil, particularly the character animations, but on the whole they are comparable quality
and run much smoother than the jerky Resident Evil counterparts.
also features outstanding sound effects; great care was taken with the insanity effects,
voices in your head, and other creepy noises. Eternal Darkness supports Dolby Pro Logic
II, and a good sound system delivers outstanding sound effects, as you literally swim in
the middle of nightmares and worse. The voice acting is solid, particularly the narrator,
especially when compared to the frightfully lame voice work often found in videogames.
There are other
highpoints as well. The fully analog control puts the stilted, jerky, control pioneered by
Resident Evil to rest. The control here is excellent and smooth, whether youre
creeping across the floor or sprinting down a hallway. Combat is equally effective, as a
targeting button allows you to target torso, limbs, or head with relative ease.
Decapitation is the tactic of choice, and you can even whack the heads off of a room full
of undead and watch them stumble around attacking one another. Its amusing and a
good tactic to boot. Once they are down you can execute a finishing maneuver, unique to
each character, to put them down permanently and gain some precious sanity back.
Yet for all this
brilliance, and thats certainly what it is, there are moments where the lack of
vision is obvious and disturbingespecially since it looks so out of place next to
the many remarkable achievements. Lets start with the story. As Alexandria recovers
the Tomb of Eternal darkness, we are whisked on a journey through timenot
necessarily in chronological order, which is a good thing. You might explore a temple at
one point in time, and then find yourself as another character in the same location a
thousand years later. You might be, say, in the year 1700 one moment and then the year
1200 a bit later. This is an outstanding technique. Each character unlocks more knowledge
within the Tomb of Eternal Darkness, which is available to the next character to find the
book. Yet there is no regression in skills based on time. For example, if you find a spell
in the year 1700 and then move to another character finding the book hundreds of years
earlier, you still have the spell. The problem here is that the gamer is the center when
the story ought to be. The story creates marvelous potential to mix it up a
bitspells and skills could come and go depending on whether or not theyve been
discovered. Instead, were sold out to a tired RPG conventionprogress forward
at all costs. If we are to truly appreciate the unique power videogames have to tell
stories, we have to be brave enough to remove the gamers perception from the center
of the narrative and allow the story to develop without the enslavement to the chronology
of viewer observation. In short, if the story is not linear, the gamer need not experience
it that way.
Still, we can look
past this as potential never realized; after all the RPG convention says you always ought
to be moving forward. When the story of RPGs as a genre stopped moving forward, no one
realized that perhaps this convention ought to be reassessed. Theres another flaw as
well, however, and I found this one more disturbing. The levels, whether theyre
houses or temples or ruins of any sort, are much too linear. Straight lines, more or less,
from beginning to end felt tired and didnt do much to excite me. I never felt like I
was exploring, just walking forward.
The "puzzles" leave a bit to be desired as well. Though we have significant
improvement over RE "puzzles" here, there is still far too much find
"A" and bring it to "B", repeat. A game that so successfully dispels
convention, ironically at times, while blazing powerful new territory, delivers the worst
of the "puzzle-solving" monotony of gaming conventions. Of course I want to pick
up the damn necklaceits laying in the path, sparkling for a reason. Quite
frankly, Im tired of this garbage. "Do you want to put the SQUARE CRANK in the
SQUARE CRANK HOLE"? What the hell is that? No thought goes into this kind of
"puzzle solving" its asinine and I think its about time
someone did something about it. We can start by changing the vernacular. This isnt
puzzle solving, its errand running. Alexander the Great untying the Gordian knot is
puzzle solving. These mindless tasks are unworthy of great games. Sure, a few tasks here
and there are fantastic. Go recover the Golden Fleece, rob that bank, shoot that notorious
evil person, whatever. But dont make mindless errand running the only way to move
forward in a story. It insults the intelligence of the audience, and it does the game a
disservice by tainting it with idiocy.
To be fair, changing these flawed conventions is the burden of an industry and not the
responsibility of any single game. Its just disappointing to see an otherwise
brilliant game fail to address so many tired routines that have gone unchallenged long
enough. In the end though, my tirade doesnt change the fact that this is one of the
most ambitious, brave titles to ever be made. I would rather play one Eternal Darkness
than any of the foreseeable wave of Resident Evils. If you own a Gamecube you should play
Eternal Darkness, no question. Its a turning point in how 3D adventure stories will
be told, and you were there to see it; no one without a Gamecube can say that. It
doesnt take perfection to make history.