I have to admit that I was one of the few GameCube owners who wasn’t hyped about Eternal Darkness. The game simply didn’t interest me. I didn’t care if it was “mature” or not; all I cared about was how it played and Silicon Knights really hadn’t done much. A few days before ED came out, I had decided to give Silent Hill 2 a try. The game was disappointing, to say the least. Sure that atmosphere was nice but the game played simply terribly. There was simply no excuse for the lame combat, poor control, irritating camera, and generally weak gameplay. Sure I enjoyed the game’s disturbing style but any enjoyment I got from that was utterly destroyed by the poor play mechanics. I simply couldn’t understand why SH2, and survival horror games in general, had to play so poorly. I decided that I would give the genre a break and I was all set to buy GTA3. Then, reviews started coming in and everyone proclaimed ED to be the best game on the system. On a leap of faith, I decided I would give the genre one more chance and wait until GTA3 became a Greatest Hits title and dropped to $20. Now it’s over a week later and all I can say is that I am very glad I listened to the reviews. ED not only has restored my faith in the genre, it has taught me that Survival Horror fans no longer have to tolerate the problematic play mechanics that have plague most entries in the genre. Eternal Darkness has allowed me to say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
Gameplay: What makes Eternal Darkness so revolutionary is that it fixes almost all the problems that have plague survival horror games for the last six years. First of all, the camera is one of the best I have seen. Like RE, it is fixed and is always put in a dramatic position but instead of cutting from one shot to the next, the camera gently pans to its next position so the player is never disoriented. The controls are also vastly superior to other examples in the genre. Instead of using the classic RE control scheme like Silent Hill, Fear Effect, and numerous other Survival Horror games do, ED uses a free control scheme like The Devil May Cry.
ED also manages to avoid much of the tedium found in many Survival Horror titles. The game has a cast of 12 characters and you switch between them every hour or two. Each character has a different story that is connected to the main plot and also has different weapons and attributes. This constant changing of characters keeps the game fresh. It’s also nice that the puzzles are fun for once. Yes, there are a few stumpers but most of the puzzles are totally logical and don’t require any backtracking. Also, the game rarely gives you more than one puzzle to solve at a time.
Probably the most hyped thing about Eternal Darkness is its Sanity system. As you progress through the game, your character will lose Sanity whenever he/she sees a monster. The only way to regain your Sanity is to kill the monsters. The Sanity effects greatly enhance ED’s atmosphere. As the character goes insane the camera will start to tilt, weird music will start to play in the background, the walls will start to bleed, and you will hear people laughing and crying. There are also other Sanity effects for when the character is really nuts. In one case I walked into a room and I realized I was on the ceiling. Another time the game pretended to reset. I won’t spoil some of the better ones but let’s just say that you’ll end up purposely letting yourself go crazy just to see what weird effects they can come up with.
Since the Sanity system forces the player to fight just about every monster he/she sees, the game runs the risk of becoming seriously tedious. I for one would have killed myself if I had to fight every one of the monsters in Silent Hill 2. Thankfully, the combat is amazingly fun unlike most other games in the genre. The player can lock on and target individual body parts. Also, since the characters are easy to control, the player will have no problem dodging the blows of the monsters. In one room, I ran around and chopped off all the heads of the zombies. They proceeded to walk around swinging their arms and ended up killing each other. In another room, I chopped off both the arms of a Zombie. Not being able to attack, he just walked up and started rubbing up against me (Monty Python style). You can also choose not to lock to the enemies and perform a combo. Finally, each player has a different finishing move for every weapon they possess. While the combat in Eternal Darkness may not be as deep as some action games like The Devil May Cry, it’s far beyond anything else in the genre.
One thing that Silicon Knights has kept pretty secret about ED is the magic system. This is surprising since, I think, it’s probably the best part of the game. The magic system is perhaps the best aspect of the game. Not only is it deep but it also affects almost every aspect of the gameplay. You can use it to imbue weapons with magical energy. You can use it to put a force field around yourself or to heal yourself. You can even use it to summon monsters. The magic is also an integral part of most of the game’s puzzles. As the players progress through the game, they collect runes. Players will find scrolls that tell players how to mix certain runes to form spells. Players can also experiment and create some spells before they find the necessary scrolls. As the game goes on players will be able to find items that allow them to make more powerful versions of their spells. Finally, each spell can be cast using one of three elements (and there is a hidden fourth one) and this changes the spell’s effect. For instance, if you cast a recover spell using red magic, it will recharge your health while if you use green magic, it will recharge your Sanity. In short, the magic system is so deep that it could be in an RPG.
Graphics: The graphics are probably Eternal Darkness’s weakest point. It’s not that the graphics are ugly, far from it, but compared to the polish of the rest of the game, they are somewhat lacking. The problem lies in the characters. Most of the characters are fairly low-polygon and have somewhat blurry textures. To their credit, the characters’ facial expressions are very good and their lip-syncing is quite well done too. Unfortunately, the designers did not use motion capture so their movements are rather awkward. However, the game more than makes up for the shoddy characters with its environments and effects. The levels are simply breathtaking. They are filled with some of the most detailed textures and prettiest lighting effects I have ever seen. The game also has some very nice particle effects and the volumetric fog is among the best in any game around. It’s a shame that the characters look so poor because the rest of ED makes for one of the prettiest GC games around.
Sound: As with the gameplay, Silicon Knights went above and beyond the call of duty in this category. The soundtrack is the best I’ve heard in a long time. In some levels, such as the mansion, it serves to heighten the tension while in other levels, such as the temple, it really enhances the atmosphere. The voice acting is also some of the best around. It easily eclipses Resident Evil and Silent Hill’s best efforts. What makes it so good is that, for the most part, the actors don’t ham it up.
Story: Except for the Sanity system, the story has been what Silicon Knights has hyped most. Thankfully, it appears that Silicon Knights delivered on its promises. The plot is epic in scope, covering 12 characters and two millennia. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s nice that the game doesn’t mind killing off your characters or worse (you’ll see what see what I mean). The story also manages to be complex without being confusing but still rarely resorts to taking you by the hand through it. It’s also rather interesting whom the main villain turns out to be. The only thing that stops ED’s plot from being on par with Square’s best efforts (such as Final Fantasy 7, Xenogears, or Vagrant Story) is that the game lacks any real mystery. The story is presented in a very straightforward manner. It’s a shame because many elements of the plot could have made some amazing revelations but SK just tells you the background in the instruction manual. Still, despite its straight forward manner, ED has one of the better plots I’ve seen in quite some time.
Rent or Buy: One of the age-old in this genre is whether the games are worth buying. Like most survival horror titles, ED isn’t that long. The game will run most players 10-20 hours depending on how good they are. It’s only slightly longer than Resident Evil for the GC. Once you finish the game, you have the option to play again on a different path. The levels will be the same but the enemies have different strengths and weaknesses and there are some new cutscenes as well. Each of these paths also has a different ending and if you get all three you’ll receive an “uber” ending. If you wanted to, you could beat ED on a rental but to get all the endings will take 30-60 hours.
There is no doubt that ED is a very polished title. Nintendo and SK have obviously put a lot of effort into the game and it shows. However, ED’s polish isn’t what elevates it above other titles in the genre. What makes ED so great is that it doesn’t use the fact that it’s a survival horror game as an excuse for poor play mechanics. It shows us that a game can still be scary and involve without making the sacrifices such as poor combat, camera, and controls. Eternal Darkness has shown me just how good a survival horror game can be and I hope that this game will force other makers of games in the genre to examine how their titles play as well as how scary they are.