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by Nintendo / Silicon Knights

screenshot9-01.jpg (4550 bytes)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.

screenshot10-01.jpg (4633 bytes)Eternal 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.

screenshot8-01.jpg (4679 bytes)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 gamer’s attention to how much more Eternal Darkness offers than Resident Evil or its many clones.

screenshot4a-01.jpg (4715 bytes)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.

screenshot12-01.jpg (4878 bytes)The narrative skips time and the effect is outstanding. One moment toting a shotgun in a mansion, the next you’re a Roman centurion, gladius in hand. Later you will play in many different time periods and places—a monk in the Spanish inquisition, a firefighter, a knight, an architect, a peasant, more. You’ll 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-loaders—usually each character has a few weapons appropriate to their time period. They also have different ratings for speed, health, sanity, and magic.

screenshot13-01.jpg (5303 bytes)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 rooms—they’ll see, and by extension you’ll play, these hallucinatory nightmares. You’ll see blood dripping from the ceiling, you’ll imagine you walk into a room and you’re too big to fit through the doors so you can’t get away. Or you’ll be so small that you’re easy meat. Voices will whisper and crackle with evil; you may even see your character spontaneously ripped in half for no apparent reason.

screenshot2a-01.jpg (6028 bytes)It’s all in your head of course—your character’s head that is, although at times you’ll wonder—and when the vision ends you’ll find yourself back standing where you started, no worse for the experience. It’s a bit hard to imagine, I know, but the effect is superb and it’s beyond anything that’s ever been attempted in a videogame. There’s more. As insanity melts away, the game engages you, the gamer, in fields never before attempted. I don’t want to spoil too much, but new territory is blazed in metagaming that involve the player in real, tangible, and brave new ways—fortunately without ever annoying. Eternal Darkness is a game that knows you are playing it and seeks to return the favor.

screenshot11-01.jpg (6173 bytes)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.

4.jpg (54875 bytes)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 aren’t 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.

8.jpg (58533 bytes)Eternal Darkness 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.

2.jpg (70636 bytes)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 you’re 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. It’s 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.

10.jpg (77835 bytes)Yet for all this brilliance, and that’s certainly what it is, there are moments where the lack of vision is obvious and disturbing—especially since it looks so out of place next to the many remarkable achievements. Let’s start with the story. As Alexandria recovers the Tomb of Eternal darkness, we are whisked on a journey through time—not 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 bit—spells and skills could come and go depending on whether or not they’ve been discovered. Instead, we’re sold out to a tired RPG convention—progress 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 gamer’s 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.

5.jpg (83461 bytes)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. There’s another flaw as well, however, and I found this one more disturbing. The levels, whether they’re houses or temples or ruins of any sort, are much too linear. Straight lines, more or less, from beginning to end felt tired and didn’t 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 necklace—it’s laying in the path, sparkling for a reason. Quite frankly, I’m 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" –it’s asinine and I think it’s about time someone did something about it. We can start by changing the vernacular. This isn’t puzzle solving, it’s 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 doesn’t 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. It’s 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 doesn’t take perfection to make history. 

Jeff Luther   (08/20/2002)


Ups: Amazing new innovation in 3D gaming; absolutely a must-play title; excellent visuals; great sound; just dang fun.

Downs: Some disturbing failures to follow through on innovation.

Platform: Gamecube