Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a psychological-horror / action game made by Silicon Knights for the Nintendo Gamecube. The game centers around an estate in modern day Rhode Island, inhabited by the Roivas family. Protagonist Alex Roivas is called to Rhode Island following her grandfather Alexander Roivas’ grisly and unexplained murder, which leaves her the only surviving member of the family. There she finds the “Tome of Darkness” a mysterious book which bears the accounts of eleven other individuals who have become entangled in the story she is about to enter.
Central to the plotstory of Eternal Darkness are the Ancients, three Lovecraftian (for the uninitiated, freaky alien) beings of nearly supreme power which were locked away long ago and now seek to return to the modern world and turn humanity into slaves/food. They in turn command the loyalty of various human cults and lesser otherworldly creatures aligned to their purposes. The players in this story are 12 people, including Alex Roivas, who are each in turn controlled by the player as Alex finds more torn pages of the Tome of Darkness hidden in the household and pieces the book back together.
The game includes not only a health and magic meter, but also a “sanity meter.” As monsters, zombies, and generally frightening scenarios are encountered, the sanity meter drops. It can be refilled by magical means or by killing enemies. As it drops, the game starts to mess with you. The walls ooze blood. Running footsteps are heard. Inarticulate chanting, sometimes by women, children, or inhuman voices, bursts from the speakers. The camera tilts to an uncomfortable angle and refuses to return to a stable position. The volume mysteriously lowers. Enemies appear that are not really there. In one instance of play when my sanity meter dropped to almost nothing, I entered a room only to have my limbs and head fall from my characters body. He reappeared with a flash standing at the door he had just entered, and stuttered, “What…is…happening!?”
The three Ancients mentioned earlier are diametrically opposed to one another. In the first story chronicled in the Tome, we see the Roman legionnaire Pious Augustus enter a forgotten temple dedicated to the Ancients sometime around 20BC. (The story covers the last 2000 years) The player has the option of choosing which Ancient he allies himself with.
Pious becomes the avatar of the given Ancient, and due to the rock-paper-scissors dynamic setup, most of the spells available to the player on the other characters will be of the opposing Ancient. This gives the game three potential playthroughs (if you care to do so), because the story becomes slightly altered, the types of enemies encountered changes, and the type of resource (health, magic, sanity) mostly utilized changes.
The ensemble cast covers a diverse group, ranging from a Franciscan monk in the 1400s to a firefighter-Marine in the Gulf War. This is where the mechanics come into play so expertly. Enemies in this game can be targeted sectionally with weapons, achieved by simply holding down the R trigger and moving the joystick towards the offending limb or torso (Some creatures have many). Hacking and slashing like mad does not work in Eternal Darkness. Combat is is about micromanagement. Say you encounter three zombies. One is the “Chattur’ga” type, meaning it is bright red, larger, and more dangerous. The other two are generic. The room is small in size, meaning you need to strike one quickly or you’ll be surrounded. Eternal Darkness is full of moments like this, similar to quick-time-events in their !!! factor, but much more entertaining and rewarding because they do not tear control from the player.
To add even another layer to this system is the physicality of the given characters themselves. Depending on their lifestyle, and profession, each character has a different maximum health pool, magic pool, sanity pool, and endurance level to start with. Take Paul Luther, a monk. His chapter is particularly harrowing (taking place in a cult-controlled cathedral in 15th century France) because he has an extremely low health pool and very little endurance. A few sword swings will tire him out. Running for more than 30 yards will reduce him to a panting trot, right hand against a stitch in his side. Note that there is no “meter” or indicator on screen to tell you what your character’s endurance is like. Only by playing them will you be able to understand their limitations. By the end of a given level, you will probably just be able to eyeball how many more attacks or how much longer your character can run.
Many survival horror games impose terrible controls on the player to a) “enhance” the horror by artificially putting constraints on the game mechanics and b) to excuse poor design. God bless Silicon Knights for making a challenging survival horror game without leaving the controls clunky and useless.
By just altering each character’s play style the game is discreetly revealing story to the player. Karim, a Persian swordsman who’s story occurs 565AD (pictured under the header), is a fit, intelligent, and combat-ready character who’s level and playstyle (two Persian curved swords) recalls more of an action game than a survival-horror (His level is immediately followed by the aforementioned Paul Luther, jettisoning the player back to a more frightening gameplay experience). Karim’s dress and manner indicate that he is probably of Persian nobility, but his undertaking, a pledge to capture a relic from a rumored temple in the desert (the same one Pious entered) to impress a young woman tells us that perhaps he has severed his ties to his home and family. Each of the twelve characters in the game, some from means, some poor, some powerful, some weak, are all players in the ensemble cast arrayed across two thousand years and drawn together, often by chance, in the unknown fight to save mankind from the Ancients.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is not game of the year material, nor is it even the best game on the Gamecube. It is, however, a simple marvel by the merits of its story, by turns frightening, sobering, grandiose, and unpretentious in its reach. And it is perhaps even more importantly a marvel because Silicon Knights chose not to neglect good design, to fall into the traps of the survival-horror genre, and to create a mechanically sound, challenging, and enjoyable game that works with its story to create a fine gem in the gaming canon.