I have always been something of a Nintendo loyalist. Over the years, I’ve been briefly tempted away by the allure of a shiny PlayStation 1 or 2, or the occasional Game Gear, but I always find myself coming back to the Big N. Primarily this is because of the simple platforming and colorful, approachable games, but in recent years it has been for another reason – I absolutely the love mature games that wind up on the system. I’m sure some of you are laughing right now, but hear me out. I have found that the rare horror or mature game that reaches a Nintendo console is generally outstanding. There is no better evidence of this than Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, developed by Silicon Knights for the GameCube back in 2002, started the trend of unique, rare, mind-blowing games getting released for Nintendo consoles. I still remember reading about it in my Nintendo Power, and being disappointed that it was originally intended for the N64, but instead got delayed until the GameCube came out. Luckily, Eternal Darkness was well worth the wait.
Eternal Darkness chronicles the 2,000 year battle between humanity and the three Ancients, Chattur’gha, Xel’lotath and Ulyaoth, a trio of eldritch horrors from beyond our plane of reality. Specifically, the game focuses on 12 different, and generally unwitting, champions who must battle these forces of Eternal Darkness. Though the game only features a handful of locations, they are greatly changed over the course of history, so returning to a familiar area with a new character never feels stale. Three of those protagonists are from the Roivas family, most notably the main character, young Alex Roivas. She is called to her grandfather Edward’s massive Rhode Island estate in response to a gruesome murder, and events quickly spiral out of control from there. While investigating the murder, Alex uncovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness, which is where things get really interesting. Not only does this Tome provide the user with access to the collective memories and experiences of those who had previously possessed it, but it also allows the user to cast Magick.
The game is split between 12 chapters and sub-sections in which you control Alex and progress by finding chapter pages from the Tome. Once you find them and Alex reads them, you get to play through a chapter and experience a specific segment of history as one of those 12 champions. Over the course of these chapters, you will gradually uncover new abilities and unearth revelations which you then apply practically in the sub-chapters to unlock more of the mansion and find the next chapter page. The game does rinse and repeat this pattern a bit, but I found the gradual process to be greatly rewarding.
One especially key element that underlies this process is that of the Insanity Meter and accompanying Sanity Effects. Each character has 3 meters, a standard red Health Meter, a blue Magick Meter and a green Insanity Meter. As characters withstand unimaginable ordeals and confront ancient horrors, the Insanity Meter is gradually depleted. Most enemies even deplete it as long as they stare at you, quickly reducing you to a babbling mad man or woman while they advance on you. This is not all that the Insanity Meter affects, however. Once it dips below the halfway point, your character starts to hallucinate various Sanity Effects. Some are as innocuous as blood dripping from the walls or hearing loud thumping sounds or the sounds of children and women wailing inconsolably. Many are much more exciting, however. I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, since I found the Insanity Meter to lend the game much of its unique flavor, but I do want to give one vivid example of a particularly cool effect.
I entered a room and found it crawling with zombies. As I started to run towards them with sword upraised, a message appeared on screen telling me that the controller was disconnected. I fumbled with the controls for a bit, realized they weren’t responding and desperately sprinted toward my TV. As I unplugged the controller and plugged it back in, my character was annihilated by them, and in dismay I almost reset my game. Luckily, a moment later the screen flashed white, and I found my character to be perfectly fine. This is the sort of mind game Eternal Darkness constantly plays with you, and I found it to be glorious and highly entertaining.
Now if you’re thinking that the Insanity Meter is just a constant fake-out with no repercussions, you’d be wrong. There is a danger in letting your character get too crazy. For one thing, the more depleted your meter gets, the slower to respond and move your character becomes. Worse, if the meter ever becomes completely empty, any further depletion of your Sanity gets subtracted from your Health instead. In other words, insanity can literally threaten your character’s life. Luckily, you have artifacts and later Magick at your disposal to recover your Sanity. You can also do so by performing a Finishing Move on a downed enemy. Overall, this whole balancing act was quite well done.
Speaking of Finishing Moves, now is probably a good time to discuss exploration and the combat system in the game. Movement is handled with the primary left joystick. By using it with a combination of buttons you can either walk, creep with the X button, or sprint by holding down the L button. The amount of time that characters can sprint varies greatly depending on their build. The slight or muscular characters can sprint all day, while the more rotund heroes are often forced to only sprint when necessary, lest they start breathing heavily and get overtaken by hordes of monsters. When you encounter an object that you can investigate, you do so by pressing the B button. When you encounter an enemy, you can select it by holding down the R button, or select another enemy by letting go and hitting R again. Then by moving the joystick you can select various body parts, such as the enemy head, arms or torso. By then pressing the A button, you will attack the selected body part with your equipped weapon.
Although I enjoyed the initial complexity of this system, over time I started to abuse it to constantly chop off a monster’s head, rendering it blind and flailing until I finished them off. This was especially useful when my character got surrounded. After all, why bother chopping off their arms when you can render most zombies completely ineffective by decapitating them? Granted, enemies found later in the game, such as Bonethieves and Horrors, were much sturdier and thus couldn’t be decapitated with a single swing, but for much of the early game I found myself doing this almost exclusively, as it made handling the various enemies found early on much easier. Most characters also gain access to ranged weapons, such as pistols, blowguns or crossbows, allowing you to snipe at enemies from a safe distance.
Lest you get the erroneous impression that the game is a breeze from my above description, let me spend some time talking about the Magick system. Although it is gradually unlocked in subsequent chapters, Magick eventually becomes one of the more useful tools in the game. To cast a spell, you have to find a Circle of Power, first 3 point, then 5 point and finally 7 point. Next you need to find at least one Alignment Rune, as well as 2-6 various other Runes. You will find these gradually as you progress, and by finding a codex you can decode what each Rune does. The game does allow you to tinker with the Runes before you have translated them, but in general you should wait to try out a spell until you find the final component, which is a Spell Scroll. These list the name of a spell, the effect and which Runes are necessary to activate them. Once you have all these, you can go to the spell screen and select a spell name and alignment (Chattur’gha, Xel’lotath or Ulyaoth) and cast your Magick Spell, which then depletes your Magick Meter. You can also go to the spell screen on the pause menu and assign up to 4 spells to the D-Pad for easy, quick spellcasting in a pinch. To balance out your Magickal prowess, the game does utilize one catch – you can only cast spells while standing completely still. If you move, or are attacked by an enemy, the spell fizzles out. So it is best to cast spells before you enter a new room. Once you’ve depleted all of your Magick Meter, it will gradually refill over time, and by walking around an empty room for a few minutes, it will usually be filled up again.
In essence, spell casting is a case of fighting fire with fire. You are basically using the power of the Ancients as a tool against them. This is significant since the 3 Ancients are represented by a Rock, Paper, Scissors vulnerability to each other. Chattur’gha, represented by red, has physically strong minions and is stronger than Xel’lotath; Xel’lotath, represented by green, has sanity devouring minions and is stronger than Ulyaoth; Ulyaoth, represented by blue, has Magickally strong minions, and in turn dominates Chattur’gha. So if you cast a spell Aligned with Chattur’gha, it will be especially effective against a minion of Xel’lotath. I can’t describe to you how important this relationship is to the game at large. For one thing, it determines the shape and strength of each and every enemy you face in the game. It also is relevant to the overall plot in the game. There is one other Alignment rune hidden in the game which is stronger than all three Ancients combined, but I figure it’s best to let you discover that on your own.
Speaking of plot, I just want to reiterate how much this is a plot-driven game. As you progress you discover more and more secrets, unraveling the tapestry of the Ancients machinations a little bit at a time. Characterization is also very well done in the game, as each and every character is exquisitely detailed and well defined. Their brief story arcs are compelling, to the point and often tragic. This somber mood blankets the entire experience, and is peppered with strong doses of despair and melancholy. Combined with multiple endings, the multiple story arcs gave the game much of its appeal as well as lending it some legitimate replay value.
While I could spend all day telling you about the combat system and exquisite plot found in the game, I would be doing it a disservice by not also mentioning the incredible sound. Put simply, this is not a game you want to play muted. From the sibilant hisses of Bonethieves, to the sharp metallic clang of a Gladius to the dynamic voice acting, this game is full of amazing, atmospheric sound effects. The music in the game is also practically without equal on the GameCube. It ranges from claustrophobic and eerie to uplifting and energizing to solemn and depressing. There will hardly be any moment where the musical score is boring you, as you can hear for yourself below:
Graphically, Eternal Darkness is a mixed bag. While I found little fault with the graphics the first time around some 10 years ago, my most recent experience with the game did reveal its age somewhat. The level design is generally good and sometimes great. Each of the 5-6 areas you explore are well rendered, touched with shadow and light in such a way as to build your overall feeling of dread. Another nice graphical touch is the way the camera’s movement never gets in the way, so you never have to worry about resetting it. Though the level progression is mostly linear, each area changes with each visit, ably reflecting the mood of whatever chapter you are on.
As much as I love this game, it is not completely without fault. Though I found most of the graphics to be good and enemy and character design interesting, some of the character models were a bit primitive in comparison to others. This likely has something to do with the fact that Eternal Darkness was originally supposed to be a N64 release. Another minor fault is the lack of bosses in the game. In the entire game, you will only find two bosses. The first proved to be an epic but slightly unfair fight, since timing had everything to do with success, and I had to use my official Prima guide to beat it. The last boss fight was epic in scope, but simple in execution. Overall, I would have appreciated more bosses, as well as more intuitive ways to combat them.
Another factor that detracts from the overall package is how the game starts out rather easy for the first few chapters, and gets utterly ruthless for the second half. Though I didn’t mind this, some will likely be turned off by it. Finally, though the game does have quite a bit of replay value, since you essentially need to beat the game 3 times to unlock the secret, true ending, each playthrough will only take 10 or less hours, meaning the determined player could honestly beat the game in a day.
In the end result, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a great artifact from a classic Nintendo system. It successfully started the trend of great horror games being brought to Nintendo consoles, and it was a truly standout title when it was first released. It blended psychological horror with narrative excellence, while adding in unique combat and gameplay mechanics. I would say that anyone who has never played this game owes themselves the opportunity to find this gem and play it. The best way to enjoy it is to experience it firsthand. One can only hope such darkness doesn’t stay at bay forever, as I truly would love to see a successor come to the Wii U someday soon. Until then, beware the darkness, and try and keep a level head…
Note: Make sure to also check out our interview with Denis Dyack of Precursor Games, who are are currently creating Shadows of the Eternals, a spiritual sequel to Eternal Darkness.