Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Top 50 Games - #47

47. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Developer: Silicon Knights
Publisher: Nintendo
Year: 2002
Format: GameCube

So here we have a survival horror heavily influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft, set over a time-span of 2000-odd years and starring twelve playable characters.  And, brilliantly, it’s even better than that description makes it sound.
   The story revolves around one Alexandra Roivas, who is called to her grandfather’s  creepy old Rhode Island mansion in 2000 after he is found decapitated there – and his head’s missing.  Poking about, Alex eventually stumbles across the Tome of Eternal Darkness – an ancient spellbook covered in human skin.  As she reads, she learns the stories of others who have come across the book, and you play their tales, stretching from Roman times to the 1990s and switching between four key locations – the mansion, labyrinths underneath Angkor Thom in Cambodia, Amiens Cathedral (albeit renamed) and an ancient city beneath the sands of Iraq.
   One of the key tenets of survival horror is the idea that the player is nearly always outclassed by the enemies, and Darkness’ character-swapping mechanic plays with that nicely.  So you might be an inexperienced but well-armed WW1 soldier in one section, but then you’ll change to a portly architect who’s really not suited to battle.  It’s a clever method, and the mystery about who you’ll be learning about next (as well as where and when – the tales are mainly chronological, but there’s a little mixing-up of the timeline to keep you interested) means that the game stays fresh and exciting all the way to the end.
   The basic survival horror gameplay – simple combat, chunks of puzzle-solving, a bit of inventory management – are all present and correct, but it’s in the unique ideas that Darkness really gets interesting.  First off, the story’s about a spellbook, so you get to cast spells.  It’s a straightforward but satisfying system that involves you combining different runes to get the spell you want.  For the most part, the spells are taught to you, but there’s just enough flexibility for you to start to work out incantations on your own, which makes you feel slightly cleverer than you probably deserve.  (I did, anyway.)  But there’s three bars to watch on the HUD.  Red is health, blue is magic – and green is sanity.
   Appropriately, for a heavily Lovecraft-influenced tale, madness plays a key part in the game.  As characters witness impossible horrors – and as Alex learns about them by proxy – the sanity meter starts to slip.  And as your character goes mad, things start happening.  The walls run with blood.  Banging and screaming comes from nowhere.  A statue turns to watch you.  Then it gets really weird.
   Insects start to swarm – on the inside of the television screen.  The camera tilts unnervingly.  The game’s volume turns up and down all by itself.  You enter a room and get attacked by zombies – and the game tells you your pad’s been disconnected.  It all builds to a gloriously metatextual head as the game turns on the player and pretends to wipe your save game.  Brilliant.
   Eternal Darkness is probably the scariest game I’ve ever played.  It’s certainly one of the best.
MAGIC MOMENT: Aside from the wiping-your-save-game bit, near the end you get access to the diaries of Maximillian Roivas, Alex’s ancestor.  He went mad after his encounter with the Tome, and provides little profiles of the creatures you encounter, with terrifyingly unhinged narration over the top.  Voice actor William Hootkins earned his pay that day.

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