Blood and gore sell games, much to the horror of parents and senators everywhere. For proof, you need look no further than the runaway success of franchises like Capcoms mega-popular Resident Evil or Konami's fan favorite, Silent Hill. Despite this, Nintendo has rarely tried to capitalize on the phenomena. Since their earliest days, theyve generally been content to stick with family-friendly titles, and theyve experienced great success doing so. In recent times, however, Nintendo seems more willing to stray a bit from its traditional image. Perhaps theyve been enticed by the huge retail numbers of the growing horror fanbase, or it may be that they're looking to attract consumers who might be put off by colorful mascot games. Whatever the reason, in addition to bringing Resident Evil to the GameCube, Nintendo has also been working with developer Silicon Knights (creators of the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain) to come up with something that can compete on the same terrifying terms as the genre's biggest names. Together, the two companies have produced a unique, literate and somewhat unsatisfying addition to the darker side of gaming.
Eternal Darkness: Sanitys Requiem is the tale of Alexandra Roivas (yes, that's "savior" spelled backwards) and her efforts to unravel dark secrets held inside a book called the Tome of Eternal Darkness. She arrives at her grandfather's mansion upon news of his death and discovers that this book is the key not only to his demise, but also to preventing the devouring of the world. The twelve playable chapters of the Tome tell of fiendish encounters with the occult, each starring a different person from various periods in history ranging from B.C. to modern day.
The game is played from a third-person perspective and seen from camera angles placed strategically throughout the levels. Control of the characters is relative to the screen, meaning that if you press left, you'll go left regardless of which way the camera or your character is facing. Since the overwhelming majority of spooky games follow Resident Evil's lead in the "clunky controls" department, choosing this setup was a very wise move, in my opinion.
The bulk of the game's combat is hand-to-hand. Players will have the ability to lock onto heads, arms and torsos of enemy creatures in order to deliver strikes to key areas. Of your choices, decapitation is by far the most useful, and its no coincidence that the game offers several historical edged weapons to use. You'll occasionally encounter projectile weapons such as blowguns or pistols, but shooting something is much less effective than lopping off whatever seems to pass for it's head.
The magic system in place is simple, though initially appearing to be quite complex. By combining a series of runes and scrolls scattered throughout the game, players can unlock up to twelve spells. The majority of them have three degrees of potency activated by arranging the runes in different combinations. The most useful spells you'll find are for life and sanity restoration (more on this later), but you'll also be able to cast offensive magic and summon creatures of your own.
Much of Silicon Knights past recognition was built upon the shadowy subject matter and complex plot crafted in the disc mentioned earlier in the review, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. It was fame well deserved, since the best feature to be found in Eternal Darkness is a similarly sinister story spanning thousands of years. This time, instead of vampires, the game centers around a fictional mythos quite similar to ones featured in the literature of renowned horror author H.P. Lovecraft. For those unfamiliar with his work, its safe to say (without spoiling much) that themes of ancient evil, unfathomable desires and rapid descents into madness are prevalent.
For a tale that spans as much time as this one, it actually unfolds quite elegantly. Each of the dozen vignettes are connected to each other by Alexandra's further progress into the Tome of Eternal Darkness, as well the exploration of her grandfather's mansion. Each story she reads concludes by revealing one of the mansion's secrets, which in turn leads her to another chapter of the book. The volume begins humbly beginnings with a Roman centurion in ancient Persia and grows in depth and depravity until it becomes a massive web of present-day machinations. I very much enjoyed the multi-layering of the book's chapters, the variety of beautifully rendered areas to explore and the originality in storytelling technique that Eternal Darkness contains. This variety is a double-edged sword, however.
Players aren't given a chance to get to know Alexandra when the game begins, and things soon start jumping back and forward in time with each new page in the book. After completing a scenario and returning to Alexandra's search of the house, its obvious that she only functions as a bridge between levels since she has no real character or personality evident between the episodes. Its an admirably clever device, but one that left me feeling uninvolved and uncaring about her. Additionally, since we spend only one level apiece with the supporting characters, no time is spent on developing them past their brief introductions. With such temporary and shallow links to the characters, Eternal Darkness lacks the cohesion that a strong central character can bring to a game with weaknesses in other areas.
With any significant emotional involvement made unlikely, the game soon becomes a matter of going through the motions due to the fact that the characters all play depressingly alike. Every person you meet can wield blades and cast spells, reducing them to mere palette swaps in terms of gameplay. It also doesn't help that the levels feel just as similar to each other as the characters do, once you look past the impressive background art. Level five's structure copies level four's, and four was merely a duplicate of levels three, two and one. You get the idea. Some of the later areas include puzzles where the magic system must be utilized to progress, but thats of no real significance. Once you see that there are no surprises while you fetch mystical knickknacks and behead a legion of nasties, Eternal Darkness quickly becomes an exercise in repetition. Thanks to the well-crafted intrigue, it remains the type of game where you care enough to see the ending, but how you get there really isnt all that interesting.
Its also worth briefly mentioning that the game has a few other issues as well. Most notably, the hyped "insanity" effects were nothing more than insignificant gimmicks of the sort that were pulled off with more style in both of Konami's Metal Gear Solid games. (These effects also disappear from play completely once you learn the sanity-restoring spell.) Other hiccups I noticed were the fixed camera angles often presenting the player with poorly framed views and the seriously unbalanced magic system making players practically invincible about halfway through the game.
I hate to write such a negative-sounding review of a release that commits no truly outrageous crimes, but the fact is that Eternal Darkness offers very little entertainment outside of the scripts intellectual content. The "borrowing" of H.P. Lovecrafts work and the interweaving of historical settings are admirable, but not enough to disguise the fact that its a dull, average game saved only by solid production values and a strong plot arc. With so many good ideas in the script, Im very surprised by the lack of vision in the gameplay. It's not anything close to what I'd call terrible, but it's not all that extraordinary either.