Lovecraftian horror has been a long-lasting trend in horror games, as witnessed by the recent Sinking City. That said, you may not have heard of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, released back in 2002 by Nintendo and the now defunct Silicon Knights. It didn’t sell particularly well, but critics loved it, and it has influenced a number of subsequent games, such as Amnesia or Metal Gear Solid.
The game’s main claim to fame are ‘sanity effects’, which usually trigger when your character’s sanity metre is low. The effects range from hallucinations, such as the character’s head falling off and starting to recite Hamlet, walls bleeding or bugs crawling over the screen, to ‘technical glitches’, such as the game pretending to delete all of your saves, lowering the sound on its own or bringing up a BSoD. It’s quite startling when it happens, and it was definitely groundbreaking at the time. Whether it’s actually scary is a different matter.
The main character is Alex Roivas (read her last name backwards), and the game starts with her grandfather, Edward, being murdered. While investigating his manor, she finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Inside are stories detailing the fates of 11 different people throughout history, and you proceed to play out each chapter as its protagonist, with interludes where you play as Alex.
The first chapter serves as an introduction: while on a mission in Persia in 26B.C., a Roman centurion called Pius (the game spells it as “Pious”, but “Pius” is the proper Latin spelling) stumbles on an underground temple containing three artefacts, each representing a malevolent deity. Once Pius chooses an artefact, the associated deity turns him into a lich to do its bidding and summon it into the world. The red artefact represents Chattur’gha, the God of Matter, who looks like a mix between a lobster and a Langolier; the blue one represents Ulyaoth, the God of Magic, who looks like a jellyfish; and the green one represents Xel’lotath, the Goddess of Insanity, who looks like…uhh…an eel ? With four arms? And a single eye?
The choice of a deity essentially serves as a difficulty selector, as it determines the main type of enemies you face throughout the game. Chattur’gha enemies are red and deal twice the damage. Ulyaoth enemies are blue and deal damage to both health and magic, and some can also explode if you don’t promptly chop their heads off. Xel’lotath enemies are green and deal damage to both health and sanity, although your character will gradually lose sanity simply from seeing enemies anyway. Subsequent playthroughs force you to pick a different deity, and once you’ve picked all three, a final stretch of storyline will play out. A fourth deity called Mantorok, the Corpse God, which looks like a Lovecraftian shoggoth (a blob with lots of eyes and mouths) and is associated with the colour purple, is also featured in the game, but it’s more or less a neutral party and won’t actively try to harm the characters.
The three main deities have different personalities and a different relationship with Pius, which is a refreshing detail and helps to make replays less tedious. Chattur’gha is not very bright, so Pius does all the planning for him. Ulyaoth, on the other hand, has some major smarts, so Pius serves as his obedient lackey. With Xel’lotath, they have more of a ‘partners in crime’ vibe, even though she doesn’t fully trust him. All three deities are also voiced by Metal Gear Solid actors: Chattur’gha shares his VA with the original Grey Fox, Ulyaoth shares his VA with The Fury from MGS3 and Big Boss from MGS4. As befits the Goddess of Insanity, Xel’lotath speaks with two voices, which often say different things, making her the most entertaining of the three. Both VAs are superstars: one is Jennifer Hale (MGS’ Naomi, among others), who also voices Alex; the other is Kim Mai Guest (MGS’ Mei Ling, among others).
The three main deities also have a rock-paper-scissors relationship: Chattur’gha is vulnerable to Ulyaoth, who is vulnerable to Xel’lotath, who is vulnerable to Chattur’gha. Their minions share this vulnerability, and it also affects the story. Alex’s goal is to summon the deity which Pius’ one is vulnerable to, so that they can fight it out, then banish the one she summoned, but she needs its artefact to be able to do that, and the other two for safekeeping. The book describes them being passed down through history by three different groups of characters, to eventually end up in Alex’s possession. The weaker artefact passes through the hands of Karim, a Persian swordsman; Roberto, a Venetian architect; and Michael, a Canadian fireman. The stronger one passes from Anthony, a Frankish messenger; to Paul, a Franciscan monk; to Peter, a British WWI soldier. Mantorok’s artefact is dealt with by Ellia, a Cambodian slave; and Edwin, an American explorer. The final two characters – Alex’s ancestors, Max and Edward – explore the secrets of the Roivas manor.
The problem with having so many characters in a horror game is that they end up being very one-dimensional. The only ones that stood out to me were those who actually achieved important stuff in their chapters: Max and Peter. The rest? Carboard cutouts. I could mention Ellia though, who drew my attention for all the wrong reasons. First of all, she’s shown reading a book at the beginning of her chapter, despite being a slave in medieval Cambodia. Secondly, her name doesn’t sound Cambodian. And thirdly, she’s basically a scantily-clad token female character, as everyone else besides Alex is male.
The gameplay is simple: explore, solve puzzles, fight enemies. The game makes your life a bit easier by allowing you to save anywhere, as long as there are no enemies nearby. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as three metres, indicating health (red), magic (blue) and sanity (green). Ellia is the weakest, but fast. Conversely, Roberto and Max are both slow. Anthony is de facto immortal. Karim has the best health and is also fast, and Edwin has the best sanity, while Paul, Peter, Edward and Alex share the best magic. Each character also has access to different weapons. You can target different enemy body parts to make things easier (e.g. removing their head will blind them). Once an enemy is downed, you get a prompt to perform a finishing blow. This will also replenish your character’s sanity metre, while their magic metre will slowly replenish on its own. No such luck for health though: your only options are some very rare healing items or a spell.
Magic in this game is based on runes. One set of runes represents a spell’s effect (e.g. “protect” or “absorb”), another its target (e.g. “self” or “area”), and a third its alignment to a deity, and you need one of each to cast a spell. All runes need to be found; as do codices, which identify the rune; spell scrolls, which describe spells; and circles of power, which determine the spell’s power (three, five or seven runes). You can discover a spell on your own by experimenting with runes, but it won’t have a name until you find the corresponding scroll. For five- and seven-rune spells, you simply add two to four “power” runes to make the spell more powerful.
The alignment runes change the effects of some spells. For example, with the Chattur’gha rune, the Recover spell replenishes health, with Ulyaoth magic, with Xel’lotath sanity, and both health and sanity with Mantorok. The Shield spell protects your character against the alignment you use, and the Enchant Item spell, when used on their weapon, can be aligned to target the enemy’s weakness. Spells can also be assigned to a controller button for speedy casting.
The music, by Steve Henifin, is mostly of the ‘occult chanting’ persuasion. Some tracks stand out: “The Gift of Eternity” and “Ram Dao”, from Karim’s chapter, which both have a dark Oriental groove to them. There’s also “Black Rose”, from Max’ chapter, with its eerie flute and tolling bells, the heavily percussive “A War to End All Wars” from Peter’s chapter, and the thwomping synth of the final boss theme, “Gateway to Destiny”.
To sum things up, the gameplay is quite fun, some of the music is good, and the whole concept behind the game is interesting. But I didn’t actually feel scared at any point, due to easily being able to defend myself, which is a bit of a letdown for a horror game. I also found some of the ‘technical’ sanity effects a bit gimmicky. Couple that with the lack of interesting characters, and I felt that the game was functionally accomplished, but rather hollow. Then again, YMMV, and I would still recommend you give it a go: it’s a landmark of the horror genre for a reason.