Friday, 12 August 2011

Flashback Friday!

Yes, excessively clever title out of the way, let's take a look at an old favourite of mine.  Hailing from all the way back in 2002, exclusive to Nintendo's silly little purple box, it's Silicon Knight's...

And let me just get this out of the way before I begin with my trip down memory lane.  This game is not just great; it's a bloody masterpiece.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is one of those games that, at the time, I didn't exactly play to death, but now, 9 years later, I constantly think back to as something rather special.  And it really was; few games today are this original, this immersive, and this disturbing.  Now, don't mistake my use of the word 'disturbing' for something blood-smeared with adrenaline-pumping, in-your-face moments of terror like Dead Space or Amnesia.  True, Eternal Darkness has its fair share of blood, gore and violence, but that takes a backseat to something really unnerving.  And that, ladies and gents, is the way this game messes with your head.  The 'Sanity's Requiem' subtitle is not there just for show; sanity plays a crucial role in this game, both on a mechanical level, as well as how it affects you in real life.
Pretty much sets the tone perfectly.  

But just what am I on about?  Is it supposed to be so scary that you lose your mind?  Well no, and it isn't.  Truth be told, at a glance, it's not the scariest horror game out there (technically this is more adventure horror rather than survival horror).  Enemies rarely tread into Silent Hill or Resident Evil level of scary, it's not nearly as atmospheric as modern horror titles, and you're generally well equipped for combat, unlike most survival horror games where you're forced to conserve ammo and health fastidiously.  The real disruption of your brain cells comes from the sanity mechanics within the game.

See, sanity is one of the three bars you have within the game, alongside health and magick (mana, effectively). I honestly cannot remember how you regain it (likely through killing enemies), but as you lose it, you become more susceptible to the game's numerous 'sanity effects', and the game becomes much creepier, with added ambient sound effects and relentless audio and visual trickery.  This is where things really get interesting, and where Eternal Darkness starts to separate itself from the pack.  These effects are effectively hallucinations of sort, which can cause the character you're playing to spontaneously start walking on walls and ceilings, or have their limbs start falling off for no apparent reason in a bloody display, or...well...I don't want to ruin some of the really great stuff if you've got any notion of trying this game.  But, for those of you who love spoilers, there are some examples below.

You've got your fairly tame sanity effects...

And then you've got the stuff that will cause your grasp on reality to slip far more than you'd think a video game had any right to do so.

Now, just watching the effects in succession, or reading about them, might make you think that they're nothing special.  So they throw in some shock value, who cares?  Thing is, it works; it really really works.  You need to play the game to truly understand, but the long and short of it is, when you're this immersed in a game (and Eternal Darkness is that immersive), these randomized sanity effects hit you like a hammerblow.  It is, so far as I know, still to this day completely unique in the world of gaming.

The cast of characters really is impressively diverse, and the
story...the story is unlike anything, in gaming or otherwise.
But the brilliance absolutely does not end with these jarring moments of confusion and fright.  No, because Eternal Darkness has an incredible story to tell.  A story spreading out over the course of 2000 years (that is the correct number of zeros), and tells the story through the eyes of 12 characters, all of which play somewhat differently.  All these characters are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging from a Roman soldier to an Indiana Jones inspired explorer, from a young squire from feudal Europe to a Canadian firefighter cleaning up after the Gulf War.  It's a really great cast of disturbed characters, but what's greater is how their stories intertwine and connect over time, and how it all concludes.  The story is actually extremely complex and mind-bending.

Sure, it's 9 years old, so it's quite dated...but actually, it
rather holds up even by today's standards.  Imagine an
HD version.
Perhaps as fascinating as the story is the gameplay.  While the combat is certainly good, it's not the focus of what I'm talking about here.  What's so interesting is that a relatively blind decision you make very early in the game determines how the rest of the game will play out for the next 15-20 hours.  No seriously, of the three choices you have, enemies will be entirely different, the story will be told in a different manner, and your strengths and weaknesses in combat will be altered.  It's a sort of 'rock paper scissors' system, basically meaning the three choices you have represent the 3 pillars of gameplay and combat; health, magick and sanity.  Whichever you chose, you will suffer the most in that area.  It's just so...mind-blowingly different from games of today.  The fact that the game branches so drastically immediately is telling of just how much more gutsy game developers used to be.  I'm not saying there are 3 different games here, but in terms of replay value, it's one of the most compelling for a single player game that I can think of.

So, although this title was not a blockbuster, and although I did not actually play it beyond one playthrough (albeit fairly meaty at 20 odd hours), it's one of those that has really stuck with me over the years.  Much more so than many more 'big' games of the time.  I mean, if game publishers and developers are so insistent on 'remaking' games into HD versions, for the love of god, turn your attention to Eternal Darkness.  Even if this game was just ported to XBLA or PC digital distribution like Steam, I would be ecstatic to play it again.  Not only that, but I would be excited for others to be able to experience it, no doubt for the first time for many of them.  It's brilliant, it's stunning, it's's classic.

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