Released in July, 2002, Silicon Knights’ Eternal Darkness was not your typical “Nintendo” title. Though Nintendo ultimately own the IP for the property with Silicon Knights as the second-tier developer, Eternal Darkness’ Mature-rated content ran counter to the kind of family-friendly fare that the House of Mario often dealt with.
But it was 2002 and Nintendo had a third-party problem as well as a perception issue that knocked it from being the “go-to” company for a shifting demographic of console gamers graduating to something like Sony’s PS2. It was even lagging behind, but not too far behind, the newcomer from Redmond, Washington — Microsoft and its beastly huge Xbox.
That was something that would have previously been unheard of at the height of Nintendo’s power as I watched its competition fall by the wayside in the early 90s when they waged their 8 and 16-bit battles for dominance. They seemed unassailable — the Great Resurrector of the Console Industry could do no wrong. Now it was facing the same question of obsolescence that rivals Atari and NEC faced.
Part of the new policy to counter that image was to bring over more ‘mature’ content, games that didn’t shy away from violence, blood, or themes that would otherwise have been curtailed in Nintendo’s late 80s or early 90s phase when it wanted to cultivate itself as a squeaky clean console of fun. It was a policy that Nintendo had only begun to loosen by the time the Gamecube arrived though in some ways, it was too late to counter the massive inroads that Sony had already established with the PS1 which didn’t discriminate between cartoony fun and brutal, urban warfare among in what it offered up.
As a result, a number of titles such as Midway’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance to the gratuitously ridiculous BMX XXX from Acclaim made their way over, almost as if to try and re-invent the idea that the Gamecube could be as “serious” as the Xbox or the PS2 outside of its first-tier greatness. But this wave also included a number of surprising titles that no one really expected, such as Eternal Darkness.
Eternal Darkness is a Cthuluesque, third-person action adventure that stretches through different eras in time, each chapter acting as part of a greater story involving impossibly ancient powers dwelling outside the ken of mortals. Alexandra Roivas has returned to the spooky mansion of her grandfather whose grisly death has left more questions than answers (such as where his head went). She discovers a book within a hidden study that her grandfather had apparently used for secret research into forbidden knowledge, the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and through its characters, relives the strrugle for humanity’s destiny starting in the distant past as a Roman centurion to the present day.
This is a game that bleeds atmosphere. It even has a sanity meter that acts as your character’s mental armor. Every time that the main character you control witnesses a horrifying monster, they lose a bit of it until they either kill the creature or restore a chunk of their mental well-being with a spell. Sometimes it was just fun to watch what would happen if a character’s sanity ran low just to see the effects which ranged from bleeding walls and whispers to 4th wall breaking effects such as a changing volume bar on your television or a premature ending screen. Nintendo thought it was so unique that they had even patented it.
So as you can guess, monster mashing is big in the game and each character eventually has to deal with the evils that hide in NPCs, shamble towards them, or blast them with electrified death. Weapons range from melee toys such as a scramasax sword to ranged ones like crossbows and shotguns.
To make things a bit more challenging, players can also pick specific body parts to aim at above the waist such as the head, arms, or the torso. Decapitating a zombie, for example, may leave it to wonder where its head is while you go to town on its limbs. Some monsters also have specific weak spots that can cripple them if you manage to strike at the right moment.
Combat, while it dominates a large chunk of the game especially in later sections, won’t stress out players used to fighting it out in other games such as Capcom’s Resident Evil. I melee’d and de-limbed most everything in my way, ran away from others, and used firearms only as a last resort.
Magic was built on a clever system allowing the player to experiment with runes discovered during the course of the game. As they found these, they could combine them and hopefully come up with new spells even before finding a loose page describing one hidden in the monastery, tomb, or underground city that they were exploring. The game balanced this out with plates indicating how many runes could be used to empower a spell starting with three points, five, and ultimately, up to seven.
Picking a spell’s ‘alignment’ was also important and could dramatically change what a spell did. A restoration spell aligned with Xel’lotath’s green symbol would restore your sanity while using blood red Chatt’urgah’s would allow the same spell to patch up physical wounds. Using Mantorok’s purple rune to enchant a weapon could give it the power to corrupt and poison enemies as opposed to simply making it more powerful.
The game was also filled with puzzles — lots of puzzles — whether it was in negotiating traps (crushing walls, darts, giant swinging blades) or uncovering hidden doors and crossing burning pits.
But the real meat was the atmosphere of dread and corruption, the ruination of lives through the manipulation of those unfathomable evils dwelling beyond the stars, and the ties to history that players were bound within from Charlemagne to Amiens in World War 1. This is a story drenched in false hopes and the crushing doom swatting the foolish from the face of life like so much cosmic trash. There aren’t many happy endings in this game.
Eternal Darkness could be called a Western Resident Evil, only steeped in Lovecraftian horror and exclusively on the Gamecube of all places. It had great characterizations, a diabolical villain (whose allegiance to whatever ancient horror was determined by the player at the start), and a solid narrative (though sometimes, you had to just give it the benefit of a doubt when you get a WW1 journalist to slinging spells without watching him freak out on the spot).
It even had multiple endings all of which culminated into one “ultimate” ending. Yet as fun as the game was, the repetitive combat (it really could get annoying killing all of those zombies) made playing through it two more times just to get that a pretty unappealing notion.
Unfortunately, Eternal Darkness is a Nintendo exclusive which means that the only way anyone can play this is on a Gamecube — or emulated if they don’t have one. It’s also a fairly niche title that didn’t get a lot of marketing press aside from the generally positive buzz among critics and players afterward on forums and top ten lists. It’s really too bad considering that it’s probably the best title that Silicon Knights has probably ever put out and one of the few Lovecraftian titles ever made for gaming consoles.
But that’s not the last that anyone might hear of the game. Even after Silicon Knights shuttered its doors after it lost its court case against Epic in 2012, a number of alums including Denis Dyack (who was also the original director for Eternal Darkness) have formed a new studio called Precursor Games. And they’re working on a spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness called Shadow of the Eternals which they’re hoping to Kickstart which already looks pretty good. The question is whether it will actually make it or not. It hasn’t exactly bolted out of the stable doors in the same way that Project Eternity or Torment have but it does have a number of die-hard fans that want to see the episodic approach to the series come to life.
Will it make it? Who can tell. But for quite a few players out there, if it fails, that can only mean another victory for the Ancients.