Genre: Survival Horror
Format reviewed: GameCube
Developer: Silicon Knights
Find out how Eternal Darkness took survival horror in an exciting new direction.
It’s a brave developer that attempts to step into the survival horror genre, particularly when genre veterans Capcom have already announced several new reiterations of its popular Resident Evil series for the very same machine.
Denis Dyack and the rest of the team at Silicon Knights weren’t scared of the competition in the slightest. The developer had been planning its creepy gothic love letter as far back as the N64 and was determined that it would break Capcom’s stranglehold on the genre; something it briefly succeeded in doing, at least until the release of Resident Evil 4.
First showcased at 1999’s E3 and scheduled for a Halloween release the following year, Silicon Knights’ Eternal Darkness immediately set tongues wagging thanks to its impressive-looking fully 3D engine – which was a world away from the pre-rendered backdrops of the N64’s Resident Evil 2 – clever gameplay mechanics and rich narrative. Halloween quickly came and went, and when Eternal Darkness failed to appear the rumour mill ground into action, with a frenzied internet speculating that Eternal Darkness would move across to Nintendo’s incoming Dolphin (as it was then known).
Those rumours were finally confirmed when Nintendo announced Eternal Darkness as one of the GameCube’s big hitters, and it was eventually released in 2002, some three years after its original announcement. While not a spectacular seller for Nintendo – it notched up just shy of 300,000 units in the US in the three-year period after its release – it nevertheless garnered plenty of critical acclaim and remains a truly astonishing piece of work.
What impresses about Eternal Darkness is its sheer ambition. Silicon Knights had a story to tell and it used every trick in the book to ensure that its clever message came across. A tale spanning two millennia and featuring 12 playable characters sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Silicon Knights handles its Lovecraftian script with amazing assuredness. Denis Dyack has often stated in interviews that the story is always the most important dynamic when Silicon Knights is creating new games, and it’s easy to see in Eternal Darkness.
Although many of the characters are only available for a single chapter, each and every one of them is just as fully fleshed out as lead Alexandra Roivas, a Buffy Summers wannabe whose present-day setting not only acts as a central hub, but ties all the other chapters together. Searching her Grandfather’s huge mansion after discovering his grisly death, she slowly discovers pages of The Tome of Eternal Darkness, which in turn introduce you to the rest of the game’s characters. And what a motley bunch they are.
Pious Augustus is a Roman Centurion whose grim discovery sets the game’s future events in motion, Karim is a Persian swordsman uncannily similar to a certain Prince, Dr Edwin Lindsey is an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist, and Michael Edwards is a Canadian firefighter. All are wonderfully realised and each one has a part to play. The fact that Silicon Knights isn’t afraid to kill a number of them off in order to enhance the story just makes their limited screen time that much more believable.
Another clever touch is the way Silicon Knights revisits the same areas in different time periods. While you’ll find yourself returning to the same locations, their structure is often completely different, with the erosion of time making a huge difference to the overall makeup of each stage.
For many gamers, the real draw of Eternal Darkness was its clever sanity effects, which added immeasurably to its creepiness. Initially, the scares are infrequent and little more than an annoyance – sculptured busts eerily follow your every move, an annoying fly occasionally alights on your TV screen – but as the characters’ sanity weakens the scares become more frequent and sinister. You lose all control of your character, only to see them ripped apart in front of your disbelieving eyes; the TV seemingly switches itself to another channel; an apparent error sees your hard-earned save deleted. It’s a truly ingenious idea, as rather than annoy, the effects just pull you in further due to all the time that you’ve invested into your dark journey.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Although it was superseded by Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, Silicon Knights’ wonderfully creepy title holds up extremely well, and is arguably a different beast to Capcom’s franchise. Eternal Darkness is all about the story and atmosphere. It succeeds in creating an incredibly immersive world, thanks in no small part to the effort Silicon Knights invested to make it as historically accurate as possible (with the odd artistic concession here and there).
While there are large, lumbering beasts to destroy and obstacles to overcome, it’s the psychological horrors that are the most effective aspect of this macabre masterpiece. There aren’t many videogames that have you holding the controller with sweaty palms while your heart pounds frantically in your throat; but Eternal Darkness is one of them. And we love it for it.
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