Thursday, 13 October 2016

October Nightmares II #13: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002) - Insane in the Membrane

Reviewing one of your favourite childhood games is like meeting your girlfriend’s dad for the first time. You don’t quite know what to say, and because you’ve forgotten what words are, you break out sweating like Donald Trump at a tax-evasion hearing. So you try to break the awkward silence by waffling on about shit like how nice the curtains are, only for him to make a vaguely racist comment and you realise that’s he’s actually a bit of a twat. While that’s certainly an inelegant metaphor, it does sum up my feelings regarding reviewing Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. The definitive GameCube game was such an important part of my formative years that I almost dread giving it the usual Crusades of a Critic treatment. Not enough to not take the piss out of it mind. I’m not some kind of hippie you know.

Eternal Darkness was the last good game released by Canadian developers Silicon Knights. Well actually, that’s not strictly true: there was the Metal Gear Solid 1 remake called The Twin Snakes. But I didn’t want to refer to that game, because then I’d be obligated to point out that it sounds like a euphemism for double penetration. Eternal Darkness, then, is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft – the early-twentieth century weird horror author known for his disturbing depictions of disgustingly twisted creatures. Or ‘the blacks’ as he’d call them. But unlike the vast majority of Lovecraft-inspired video games, Eternal Darkness doesn’t just seek to simply utilise the writer’s work as a license to print money. Instead the developers used Lovecraft’s mythos and pantheon simply as a starting point to create their own intricate (and arguably better) mythology. All the hallmarks of a good Lovecraftian game are present in Eternal Darkness; corrupt religious sects, space squids, insanity, campy dialogue, and shit combat.

But it’s in the depiction of the machinations of cosmic-scale beings that Eternal Darkness really nails the Lovecraft ethos. Three unfathomable beings known as The Ancients are enacting a terrible power struggle to assert their dominance,
it’s like King fucking Lear. This almighty struggle is presented in game with the elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic for the magic system. Each God/element is both strong against and weak to the other two. Thus we have a tale spanning millennia and countless civilisations, and every historical event imaginable, in which humankind has been embroiled into the secret war of the Biker Mice from Outer Space. It’s the sort of story which works well for a Lovecraftian-themed survival horror game; each level follows a new character, setting, and time period, all interconnected by the plotting of the eldritch horrors. Like Creepshow but with slimier creatures than a Fox News broadcast.

In one level you'll be playing as a First World War era journalist exploring a sinister cathedral that’s being used as a field hospital, and the next you’re some fat architect surveying an ancient city of the Old Ones somewhere under Persia. There are really only four settings (five if you count the hub mansion), but they change enough throughout the story that they constantly feel fresh. The medieval chapel from the third level gradually becomes a cathedral by the end of the game. Though the settings may progress, the player doesn't to the same extent as character loadout and abilities change with each character. One can character may exist in period in which guns are available, while another gets bastard swords and Shakespeare quotes. Flipping from character to character allows the developers to treat the cast as entirely disposable – many characters either go mad or meet a grisly end, it’s like being a strong-willed female protagonist in a Victorian novel.

The game maintains a strong atmosphere throughout. I’d be hesitant to say that it’s ever outright scary, but it does capture the distinct weirdness of Lovecraft, with hints of Algernon Blackwood and Edgar Allan Poe. From the obviously evil, shadowy priests and their secret altars, to three-headed lumbering beasts, there’s a definite affinity for the weird here. Being a survival horror game there’s emphasis on keeping your character in the optimal condition, and Eternal Darkness is a unique beast in that remaining sane is often more important, and harder, than staying alive. As with The Call of Cthulhu being in the presence of a grisly scene or horrifying enemy will take its toll on your character’s sanity. This eventually leads to hallucinations –the heads of statues track you across the screen, the walls ooze blood, the character’s head explodes, the character walks on the celling, you start thinking the new Ghostbusters movie was good. The game even tries to get meta with its insanity effects, though these are rather outdated – such as the screen popping up to request you buy the full version as this is just the demo (“what’s a demo?” I hear you millennials cry), or simulating the volume of the TV being turned down by displaying a nineties era bulky green volume bar.

But it’s in the design of the monsters where Eternal Darkness really shines and captues Lovecraftian horror - warts-and-all. There's your usual zombies (four types, ranging from skeletal to rather fleshy), Pterodactyl like creatures which body snatch, and weird guardian things who, depending on which Ancient you've selected as the main one, either resemble giant shrimps or some Frankensteined twin-creature destined to forever argue which side has to be the arse. The Ancients themselves are never really seen beyond brief glimpses, but their design evokes the horrifyingly unnatural often only ever hinted at in Lovecraft. The only one who actually puts in some work during the game is the repulsive forgotten fourth Ancient Mantorok, a miles long bubbling ooze of purple flesh, eyes, and teeth. He resembles your mum after she's fallen asleep whilst sunbathing.