Brow furrowed in concentration you guide your character through the heavy wooden door and straight into a room heaving with grotesque zombies. They turn towards you as one, arms outstretched and moaning. No problem, you’re armed to the teeth with various guns, blades and magical powers. You go to aim your weapon, but your character does not respond. “Your controller is not registering. Please check it is connected properly” reads an official notice on screen. In a panic you dive for the Gamecube and wiggle the plug, hammering the controls. Your character screams and dies horribly under the assault while you curse the fact you hadn’t saved for some time. Then the screen flashes white “This. Isn’t. Really. Happening!!” wails your character and they are once again standing safe and well outside the door. You breathe deeply, sit back down and wait for your heart to stop hammering in your chest. Welcome to the world of Eternal Darkness, where things are definitely not all they seem.
Every new console needs a good horror game to help bring in more mature gamers. Although it sits in the same genre as the Resident Evil series, Eternal Darkness is an altogether more complex creation. If the Resident Evil games take inspiration from various zombie movies and the Silent Hill series from films like “Jacobs Ladder” and “Eraserhead”, Eternal Darkness claims a more literary inspiration. The game begins with a quote from 19th century horror writer Edgar Alan Poe, but the actual concepts within the game are drawn unashamedly from early 20th century horror author HP Lovecraft.
Lovecraft wrote many short stories and novellas that dealt with the ideas of old Gods from pre-Christian times who have woken from centuries old hibernation and are manipulating humanity to bring about their resurrection. With huge cities lying underground and conflicts between the various God’s raging, the whole of human history is a battleground where the servants of each God fight it out to bring their God into ascendance. This is basically the plot of Eternal Darkness. You play 12 different characters, 11 of which are engaged in a struggle across the centuries to prevent the reappearance of one of three elder gods when the planets align at the end of the 20th century.
You start off playing a young woman called Alex Roivas who has been called to her Grandfathers house after he was found minus his head. The rather feeble police investigation leads Alex to begin looking for reasons herself. She soon finds a strange book, bound in human skin called “The Book of Eternal Darkness”. She reads the first chapter and is told the story of a Roman Legionnaire called Pious, who while exploring a temple in Persia makes a pact with one of the three old gods, Cha’ttargua – God of the flesh, Ualyoth – God of magic and spirit or Xel’lotath – Goddess of Madness and Sanity. We return to Alex and must hunt down the next chapter of the Book which has been concealed somewhere in the house by her Grandfather.
Each chapter of the book covers a new character all linked by the mysterious book. The book transcends space and time and everything learned by the previous characters is imprinted into the mind of the next one as they find and read it themselves. As each chapter concludes, we return to Alex, who will use whatever knowledge she acquired in the previous chapter to locate the next part somewhere in the mansion. As the game progresses she learns all kinds of magical spells and skills, which become invaluable in fighting the servants of darkness. The final chapter sees the delectable Alex using all her skills and drawing on the support of all those who died over the years to take on Pious, thwarting his plans and defeating his God.
The game is tremendously refreshing in several ways. First of all the inclusion of magic means that combat becomes much more flexible and satisfying. Instead of hacking up enemies, why not fry them with a magical bolt, or perhaps you would like to summon a three headed “Horror” and send that into a room to do your dirty work for you. magic spells are gained by finding runes and magical circles of power. Runes and circles of power cannot be missed, but spell recipes and rune codex’s can be. However as long as you have the runes, you can construct spells. Place the runes correctly and a new spell is added to your arsenal. You can build many spells a couple of chapters before you find the recipe to make them, and this experimentation is encouraged.
There is also an effective targeting in combat. When attacking a foe you can click between targets on their body, so you can hack off the head, or arms or strike the torso very easily. Whack off a zombies head and they will comically feel around for it, before lashing out blindly hitting anything nearby, hack off the arms and they try and shuffle away from you. Servants of each God also hate each other and will savagely kill each other before starting on you, something you can use to your advantage when you are heavily outnumbered. Because most of the chapters take place prior to the twentieth century, firearms are hard to come by, and even those who have them have only a small amount of ammo (no piles of bullets lying handily scattered about), but using magic you can beef up your melee weapons and make those few bullets count for much more.
The game works around a “paper, rock, scissors” of magical superiority. Before a spell is cast it must be aligned to a God. To defeat one god’s power you must cast spells in the superior alignment. So “red” beats “green” which beats “blue which beats “red” (there is a fourth totally optional rune, purple the power of Mantarok the chaos god and superior to all). And this power balance is the key to many puzzles in the game, if a lock is concealed by Ualyoths magic, then a Xel’lotath aligned “Reveal Invisible” spell of the same strength or higher is what you need to uncover it. The arcane nature of the subject matter also means that the standard daft survival horror puzzles actually make more sense, chasing around after three gems to open a secret door in a magically sealed temple is not as dumb as trying to find three gems to open a door in a US Police station. The chapter structure and multiple characters means the game moves at a quick pace, back-tracking is minimal and the excellent mapping system means it’s difficult to get lost.
The characters will also turn their head and look at items or areas of interest, this makes a nice change from having to squash a character against the wall and press X on everything. The enemies are appropriately Lovecraftian from the rotting zombies to the huge Boss encountered partway through. When your first character makes his pact with one of the God’s this actually affects quite a lot in the game. Choosing the red path puts you in conflict with Cha’ttargua, whose servants are the strongest, fastest and hit the hardest. Opposing the blue path puts you against Ualyoth, God of magic, whose servants can drain your powers with a touch. Finally taking the Green path sees you fighting Xel’lotath and her servants will drive you insane in seconds.
Which brings us neatly to the most imaginative aspect of this game, the “Sanity” system. Each character has a health metre and a magic metre. Being hurt drains health, casting spells drains magic, so far so predictable. But a third metre contains your current character’s Sanity, or how freaked out they are by their experiences. Each time your character claps eyes on a monster, sanity is drained from them. The more awful the monster, the more they lose. This can be serious as if all sanity is lost, your health will start to drain instead until you literally die of fright. Sanity can be regained in several ways, if you kill a monster you can “finish it” to gain sanity, you can gain a spell to refill it and some characters have items they can use (for example Paul Luther the monk can pray, Edward Roivas can take a swig of “liquid courage!”). Losing sanity also means you become vulnerable to “sanity effects”, the more unhinged your character gets the more the game messes you around.
Drop to one half sanity and the camera begins to pitch and roll, weird noises begin to impinge, women sob, babies wail and cry, footsteps bang upstairs, sound of dreadful torture float down the hallway. Then things get more drastic, you walk through a door human, appear on the other side a shambling zombie. You find your self upside-down on the ceiling or your head explodes when you try and heal yourself. Then the game reaches out past the character and into your brain. The TV goes blank, the volume changes, flies suddenly cluster on screen, the game pretends to delete all your save files. With the sinister music and environments already shredding your nerves, it’s surprising how much these can still make your stomach lurch even many hours into the game. And there is a good 15 or so hours gaming here first time through, lest you think that too little, the game is eminently replayable. If you play it through three times over each time opposing a different God, you get an extra ending, and the ability to play any chapter at anytime.
What elevates this game to a true classic though is the sheer quality of the writing and voice acting. Although the character models look rather crude compared to the detailed ones in Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the high quality script imbues each character with genuine personality. So although we are only with each one for the duration of a chapter, you really feel for each one and their plight. The fact that the characters are not standard heroes is also a bonus. You get to play people as diverse as a Franciscan monk, a temple dancing girl, a chubby Renaissance architect, a medieval messenger boy, Alex’s grandfather and great, great grandfather and a modern day firefighter putting out fires at the end of Gulf War one.
Each character carries weapons specific to their era and vary in strength, magical power and sanity. So while Paul Luther the monk from the middle ages is not very strong or handy with a sword, he is able to deal with the monsters effect on his sanity and handle spell casting much better than Michael Edwards, the beefy fire fighter tooled up with machine guns and grenades. Although the magical book links each character, the action takes place in four beautifully realised places. The Roivas Mansion, a French cathedral and two temples, one in Cambodia and the other in Persia (Iran). As each character becomes drawn into the fight, they may encounter those from the past who you got to play in earlier chapters. This really hammers home the sacrifices made and the large stakes you are playing for.
Even shorn of the sanity effects, Eternal Darkness is a high quality and utterly absorbing game with a superb and gripping plot. The sheer imagination and flexibility on show here puts the tired and linear approach of the Resident Evil games to shame. Being a long time fan of HP Lovecraft I loved this game and had a lot of fun spotting the various tributes to him (the Roivas mansion is found in Rhode Island, setting of many a Lovecraft horror story, the Book of Eternal Darkness IS the “Necronomicon” and if the underground city of “En’Gha” isn’t based on the one found in “At the Mountains of Madness” I shall eat my hairdo), but this is an extra layer of enjoyment for a select few. This is a great looking, amazing sounding and genuinely surprising and scary horror game that any self-respecting fan of the genre should play. So there.