Retrospective Reviews is a new regular series at PopGeeks that looks back at great games that you may have missed when they first released. The idea is to introduce you to the titles in an honest and frank way with the hope that you go back and play them if they sound appealing to you. We’ll be looking at a vast variety of genres over the coming months so there should be something for everyone.
We’d also love to hear your thoughts about the games in the comments, so if you played the featured title then please share your experience with it below.
First Released: June 23, 2002
Developer: Silicon Knights
Horror games are notoriously difficult to get right. Then past few years has shown just how hard it can be for developers to strike up a balance between frightening the player and not becoming like a B-movie horror flick that simply relies on jump scares. This is fairly obvious by the lack of effective horror titles despite the fact that publishers still push out a large number of games in the genre, with only a select few of them managing to get the balance right. This includes the likes of Outlast, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Alien: Isolation.
It seems strange then that in 1999, Nintendo would begin work on a new franchise that went against much of their previous work. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem wasn’t some colorful family friendly experience that you might expect from the Japanese publisher. Instead, it was a psychological horror game didn’t concentrate so much on the gameplay action but instead on building an incredible atmosphere and telling a deep story. Strange then that Nintendo would go choose to develop such a game considering they have had much of their success with titles such as Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda.
But the company did want to make it and it set about collaborating with Canadian developer Silicon Knights, a company that had previously only worked on games in the action, strategy or role-playing genres. This partnership was strained at times, with the title delayed several times and missing its opportunity to release on the Nintendo 64 and as a launch title for the GameCube. However, when it did eventually hit store shelves in 2002, Eternal Darkness certainly made its mark.
It tells the story of Alexandra Roivas, a character investigating the death of her grandfather. While searching through an abandoned house she discovers a book that leads to Roivas experiencing the life of a Roman military commander and then later other figures from history, including a monk, scholar, architect and firefighter. These characters, scattered throughout history, are all working towards a similar goal that slowly reveals itself as you continue to play, with their cumulative work eventually paying off.
Unlike other horror games, Eternal Darkness was never touted as a survival horror title, rather its creators always described it as a psychological thriller. The horror is built up by the fact that you are playing not as heroes or established fighters but as regular people who were thrust into battling a force that they never fully comprehend, an impending darkness that threatened all of humanity. Then the game torments you with its emptiness and silence, you are never accosted by hordes of enemies. You are largely left alone with your own thoughts in a well-built petrifying atmosphere with just the occasional scream of terror emanating around you.
Most effective is the sanity meter, a unique gameplay mechanic that drains when you are spotted by enemies or fail certain tasks. At first, losing sanity does very little other than tilting the screen and removing some of your health, yet the full effects of this feature soon come in to play. Hallucinations and visions begin to occur, blood seeps through the walls, floors appear to melt away while your body can become twisted and contorted.
These little effects build up to terrify the player and eventually lead to ways to mess directly with your mind. False messages that your controller has disconnected as enemies approach or when the TV switches to black as if it has been turned off can really cause you to question whether they are just part of the game. This is the most disconcerting part of the entire experience, especially when it tricks you with pretending to corrupt and break the console or delete your saves, as the game is not just playing with the mind of the character. It is also affecting you.
That is not to say that Eternal Darkness doesn’t have its drawbacks. It suffers from being far too easy throughout the campaign, meaning that experienced players will have little trouble with breezing through much of the content. Other pieces of gameplay are not as fleshed out as others, leaving the combat feeling underdeveloped and fiddly, something that is less than ideal considering how well the rest of the game is done. Additionally, there are some puzzles that can frustrate the player due to their obtrusiveness. Thankfully this isn’t a huge problem as for the most part, the puzzles present in the game are challenging and tend to tax your thinking skills without requiring you to do tedious tasks that are common place in other similar games.
Overall, Eternal Darkness is a truly brilliant game that, while suffering from a select few limitations, is one of the shining examples of how to do horror in video games. It was also a striking experiment for Nintendo into a more mature experience that they have not traditionally offered. Unfortunately, the game never had the success it deserved. Despite receiving strong critical acclaim and exceptional reviews from much of the gaming press at the time, it went on to sell less than a million copies and that means that Nintendo has been reticent about developing the property further. The upcoming release of the NX console in the not too distant might be the chance to bring back this wonderful game and allow more people to play it.