Underrated Games: Eternal Darkness

Console wars. We’ve all been embroiled in them at some point in our lives whether we wanted it or not. I was first dragged into them twelve years ago in high school. All the other kids bullied me because I didn’t own a PlayStation 2 or Xbox… I owned a GameCube. According to them (and I quote), the “GameCube’s rubbish” and anyone who owned one was fair game. We all know kids can be cruel, but to call my high school colleagues cruel and narrow-minded wouldn’t cut it. Though it’s true the GameCube wasn’t as commercially successful as the PS2, it did have stellar titles - and not just Mario or Zelda. One of them was a game unlike anything else on the console, and unlike any game we’ve seen before or since: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

Released in 2002, Eternal Darkness was a unique but obscure addition to the GameCube’s library - a psychological horror that draws on classic horror writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. It was developed by Silicon Knights and published by Nintendo, and became the first game published by them to receive a Mature age rating. Yes, you read that correctly - Mature with a capital M (or 15+ in the UK). The game’s story begins with Alexandra Roivas; a Washington student called to her ancestral home in Rhode Island after the death of her grandfather. Dissatisfied with the police’s efforts, she decides to investigate his death herself. Alex’s search leads her to find a strange book bound in human flesh and bone - the Tome of Eternal Darkness - and draws her into a war between unearthly horrors. It’s a premise unlike anything you usually get from Nintendo… and it’s just the beginning.

At first glance, you might think you were looking at a poor man’s Resident Evil; there are monsters to kill/run away from, weapons to collect, ammunition to ration and puzzles to solve - but Eternal Darkness was a different kind of horror. Instead of pre-rendered environments and static camera angles, Eternal Darkness was wholly rendered in real-time with the camera always in motion. While not as gorgeous as the GC remake of Resident Evil released that same year, the characters and environments were rich in detail and supplemented by visual effects that screenshots wouldn’t do justice. Better still, the game ran at a perfect 60fps (frames per second) in widescreen from start to finish. Such things may be par for the course today, but in 2002 they were a rare luxury for any game.

The enemies are also different; rather than zombies and B.O.W.s, you face creatures more grotesque than anything Umbrella can produce: eldritch abominations called the Ancients. Three wage war within the universe of Eternal Darkness and seek to enter our world through Pious Augustus, a Roman centurion turned eldritch emissary. Which Ancient he allies with at the start of the game is up to you, determining which enemies you’ll face the most and the strategies you need to survive. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses and relates to each other in a rock-paper-scissors pattern. This is important because, as well as guns and bladed weapons, you’ll need to use magick (as it’s spelled in-game) drawn from the Ancients’ power to defeat them. Even then, however, you’re encouraged to avoid most fights if you can help it. One reason is the magick system - far from being a simple trump card, magick is a complex, integral element of the game. As you progress, you’ll find runes and codices which allow you to cast spells. The runes you choose determine the type of spell and its use, from recovering health to summoning a monster you control to fight and solve puzzles. Magick is an all-purpose tool in Eternal Darkness and essential to survive… but casting spells takes time and space. Both you need to make for yourself, so you can stand still and complete the spell without being attacked.

The second reason to run rather than fight is a unique feature no other horror game has: the sanity meter. Patented by Nintendo, the sanity meter is a green bar that depletes whenever an enemy detects you. At first it doesn’t seem to affect your character - but as it drops lower and lower, horrible things begin to happen. The screen tilts. Blood covers the walls. You hear the cries of children and women sobbing hysterically. These are just a few of the things that happen when you start to lose your sanity - but the worst is yet to come. Suddenly, the television cuts off. Your controller stops responding in the middle of a fight. The game resets to the title screen without warning. And worst of all… it asks if you want to delete your game instead of saving it. And deletes it anyway. But wait - your character screams, “This isn’t really happening!” Your television’s working again; your controller is fine; your hard-earned progress is on your memory card completely intact. Your sanity, however, remains in tatters… and your real heart’s beating more than a few ticks faster. If my descriptions had you going, that’s nothing compared to the feeling of experiencing these scares yourself. It’s a different brand of horror from Resident Evil and Five Night’s at Freddy’s - an immersive, steadily-rising horror that isn’t only out to scare you, but play with your sense of reality in both the game world and the real world.

In another change from most horror games, the perspective and setting change constantly throughout the course of the game. As Alex’s search for the truth deepens, you’ll be thrust into the shoes of twelve different characters (incl. antagonist Pious). Each has his/her own chapter set at a different point in history from the Inquisition to World War I, which feeds into the bigger story and the chapters that follow. Except for Pious, none of the cast are battle-hardened heroes or badasses, but ordinary people caught in the Ancients’ crossfire - often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like your enemies, each character has his/her own strengths and weaknesses requiring you to play in different ways to survive. One may be strong enough to stand up to a horde up close, while another may need to retreat. Some can keep a strong grip on their sanity, while others are more emotionally fragile. No two characters are the same in Eternal Darkness, but all share three things in common: they all acquire the Tome of Eternal Darkness and thus can use magick; each one has a vital part to play in the story; and you will feel for them as the story progresses. Like an eldritch Game of Thrones, things go from bad to worse for Alex and co. and no one is safe. Even in rooms that aren’t crawling with monsters, you never feel truly secure (the sanity meter and haunting sound design make sure of that). Their normality and mortality makes them all the more relatable, and their fates all the more tragic. If you want to find a copy after today, be ye warned - both blood and tears will be shed.

Sadly, Eternal Darkness didn’t get the recognition it deserved. Although it was critically acclaimed and earned many awards, the game sold less than half a million copies worldwide. Its commercial failure was down to two reasons: a lack of public awareness and its exclusiveness to the GameCube. I’ll level with you all - I didn’t buy Eternal Darkness until long after the GameCube’s lifespan ended. I was ten when it was released, so even if I knew of its existence I wouldn’t have been able to buy it. It’s a pity, because now Silicon Knights has closed its doors, we won’t see another game like it any time soon. I’ll close by sending a message to all those people, like the bullies I grew up with, who sneered at the GameCube: “May the rats eat your eyes, for you missed out on something special.”

Were you fortunate (and brave) enough to play Eternal Darkness when it was first released? Or are you tempted now to hunt down a copy for the first time? Whatever your thoughts, sound off in the comments below or on our Twitter and Facebook!

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