Sunday, September 30, 2018

Forgotten Gems: Eternal Darkness

It's that time of year once again. Retro Revelations' anniversary season, the Halloween Season! So let's kick it into high gear in style! 

Back on November 18th, 2001, the Nintendo Gamecube debuted. Its predecessor, the Nintendo 64, had been the first console I ever bought myself, with my own money from my first real summer job, in the summer of 1998. As I've stated in the past, the NES is my favorite video game system of all time, closely followed by the SNES. Similarly, 2D sprite-based gaming was, is, and always will be my favorite, and preferred type of games. As far as I'm concerned, the mid-80s through mid-90s was THE "Golden Era" of gaming. It had the best of everything going on, arcades, PC games, the debut of true portable gaming, and of course home consoles. That being said, I did and still do have a fondness for the Nintendo 64, because it was my first system I got myself. I didn't love the era itself so much, as most companies veered hard away from 2D gaming, into early, clunky, fairly ugly 3D gaming. But I still had a lot of good times and fond memories with that system, and to a much lesser extent (because I didn't own one) the Sony Playstation.

When it came to the early 2000s, once the PS2 and Gamecube, and the new entry on the market, which sadly replaced Sega, the Microsoft Xbox, had all released, it was during that "generation" of gaming, that I became for a time, something less of a"gamer". It wasn't that I didn't like video games anymore, I did. But I wasn't AS interested in the new stuff coming out as I had been years prior. Part of it was because those were lean years, and I didn't myself own a Gamecube, and wouldn't come to have my own (used) PS2 until 2004. And part of it was, as I've said, the further push to mostly 3D gaming, just didn't always appeal to me.The tides of gaming were changing, and I wasn't fully on board with where things were going (or have continued to go).

My often mentioned friend Harold, however, DID have both a Gamecube and eventually a PS2. So when he would rent or buy certain games, I was able to still check them out, if I was interested. I'll fully admit that even had I the funds to buy one myself, I wasn't in a great hurry to buy a Gamecube, as there weren't a ton of games I loved on it. There were some that caught my fancy, like Wave Race: Blue Storm, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Metroid Prime. But there were two games, in particular, that Harold rented when I was around, that I DID fully fall in love with, and in both cases wound up liking and playing them more than Harold himself did. The first was the original brilliant puzzle/exploration game, Pikmin. The other? Was Eternal Darkness.

Darkness there, and nothing more.

Now Harold and I, being the bright young men we were, who kept up on gaming news and such pretty well, had been aware of this weird game, kind of obscure and offhandedly mentioned. It was originally in development for the Nintendo 64 late in its life, as many other Gamecube games had been, including Animal Crossing, Doshin the Giant, and Dinosaur Planet. But the developer, Silicon Knights, headed by designer Denis Dyack, decided (probably wisely), to move the game over to the more powerful upcoming Gamecube, which delayed its release by quite a bit. But when it finally did come out in the summer of 2002, I came over and Harold rented it. And as the saying goes, the rest was history.

I remember it pretty well, that first night playing it. We both started playing it together, and were impressed by the graphics (which were pretty good for the time), the better-than-usual voice acting, the better-than-Resident-Evil controls, etc. Now when I say "better than Resident Evil", what I mean, is that while Eternal Darkness isn't flawless by any means, and in its own way itself is kinda clunky, it was still worlds better to actually play than the early Resident Evil games, whose clunkiness was rivaled only by the likes of early Tomb Raider. I'll get more into that in a bit. Eventually, Harold got sleepy, and went off to bed, after we were a few chapters into the game. But me? Oh hell no! I was very much into the story, and wanted to see more.

In fact, I was enamored with this game from the moment I was pleasantly surprised, when it opened with that Edgar Allen Poe quote pictured above. The poem "The Raven" happens to be my favorite, perhaps of all time, and I was big into Poe in general in my teens (he was the reason I chose the Baltimore Ravens as my football team, because they were named after him). The smooth combination of Poe and HP Lovecraft influences on the game's setting and plot, aided greatly by voice acting that wasn't painful or laughable to listen to (like early RE games), really captured my attention and imagination. And so, there I was, up till the wee hours of the morning at Harold's house, playing this game, with the lights off, by myself, getting the ever living shit creeped out of me in the process.

The Tome of Eternal Darkness.

There is one such moment in the game, that I won't fully spoil because if you haven't played it, you really deserve to experience it. It was this moment that I experienced, alone, in the dark, after Harold had gone to bed. It involved the main character, in this huge dark mansion she's exploring all alone, and let's just say that when it (quite literally) popped up, it was perhaps the only moment in the entire otherwise VERY spooky game, that genuinely made me jump, and I was like "What the fuck!?" There were other WTF moments in my initial playthrough that I also didn't see coming, though they weren't the "made me jump" variety, but rather, involved a unique game mechanic that I'll ALSO explain in a bit.

As for the (unusually involved and fairly decent) storyline, the basic gist is as follows. Edward Roivas, a psychologist living in the ancestral mansion he inherited in Rhode Island, upon digging too deep into unknown secrets, is found not only dead, but his body quite destroyed, in the library of his home. His granddaughter, the main character Alexandra Roivas, a college student, was summoned to the mansion by police to try, however impossibly, to identify the mushed up corpse as that of her gramps. She is able to confirm his identity, because magically enough, one hand was left fairly untouched, with his ring that she recognized. From there, Alex is left alone in this spooky ass mansion, determined to find out just what in God's name could have possibly done that to her poor grandpa, her only living relative, and more importantly: WHY? Her search around the gloomy place, leads her to discover a secret room branching off from the library, where she finds the gross-ass book you see above: The Tome of Eternal Darkness. It is then that you, the player, along with Alex, start reading/experiencing the history of not only this evil book, but the very dark secrets that killed her grandfather.

The opening area.

The Tome itself, is obviously modeled after the fictional Necromomicon, originally from Lovecraftian lore. Like the Necronomicon appearance in the Evil Dead films, the Tome is also a book seemingly made of human flesh and bones, its pages written in human blood. Upon beginning to read the first "chapter", you the player are whisked away to Ancient Persia, 26 BC, and assume the role of Pious Agustus, a Roman Centurion, who is lured by mysterious whispering voices in the desert, to a strange, almost Stonehenge-esque stone circle. When he steps inside, he is teleported elsewhere, assumedly below to some secret temple. Weary but curious, Pious makes his way through this (relatively small) opening area, where the game teaches you pretty quickly, how to attack, etc. You run into ghoulish reanimated corpses, of the nearly skeletal variety, that you can dispatch quite easily, once you get the hang of the attack system. And then, as Pious, you too enter some secret room, and discover three mysterious glyphs. You have to choose one to advance, and once Pious does, he is permanently transformed into an undead sort of wraith himself, now the servant of whichever ancient horror you chose.

That rat-fuck son-of-a-bitch.

That is how the game starts out, and then of course you're taken back to the Roivas Mansion, and as Alexandra, must search the mansion for more pages to the Tome, to learn more of the story. The game unfolds thus, shifting between searching the mansion (and sometimes fighting monsters) as Alex, and playing various characters that she's reading about, and she herself basically experiences their parts of the story. That alone is pretty original, and I must say, even compared to most of today's more modern attempts at "cinematic, playable movie" type games, Eternal Darkness was far better at actual quality storytelling. The game features a total of twelve playable characters (if you include Pious at the beginning), each from various countries and time periods. In fact, there was originally supposed to be thirteen, as a Templar Knight character from the Crusades, was taken out (in my opinion wrongly), after the terror attacks of September 11th 2001 happened. In reality, you only go to a handful of locations in the game, Ancient Persia, an ancient Khmer Temple in Cambodia, a cathedral in France, the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island, and the hidden underground Forgotten City. But you revisit these locales, playing as different characters throughout the centuries, starting in 26 BC, and leading all the way up to the present Alexandra lives in, 2000 AD. The locales are a bit different when you revisit them, accounting for time passed, and the machinations of the dark forces at work in the game. 

The symbols of the unspeakable Ancients.

As for the mysterious glyphs? Well, they actually represent a very key and important part of the gameplay itself. As you can see in the diagram above, the game (and story) has four major other-worldly powers at work, and they form some kind of arcane, and uneasy, balance with one another. When you, as Pious, choose one of the three glyphs at the beginning of the game, you are in a sense "choosing your own destructor" (ala Ghostbusters), because that glyph represents not only the power that Pious will serve, but it will also affect the entire game in many ways.

The three glyphs around the triangle, represent the three Ancients, basically Lovecraft's "Great Old Ones", timeless dark gods from some other plane of existence, who long to retake and probably destroy this world/universe that they once ruled. They are: Ulyaoth, represented by the blue glyph, a jelly-fish-like being whose domain is magickal power and the ethereal; Xel'lotath, represented by the green glyph, is a many-armed eel-like being, whose domain is the mind, and sanity; and Chattur'gha, represented by the red glyph, a great lobster-like being, whose domain is raw power and physical matter. Lastly, the fourth Ancient, represented by the purple glyph in the middle, is Mantorok, the only one of these creatures who is "on your side", in a way. "He" is a giant, many-eyed and many-mouthed slug-like being, who is said to have once been revered as a "fertility god", and is something of a Lord of the Earth, as well as being a rotting "Corpse God" of the dead. While the other three represent a strange "Rock, Paper, Scissors" kind of balance with each other, and exist outside of this reality, wishing to break back through, Mantorok existing on Earth somehow keeps the others at bay, and keeps their powers in check. However, "He" is also imprisoned in an ancient temple, impaled by many pillars, left slowly rotting and weakening over the centuries. Thus, his power over the others is waning, and they are able to exert more and more influence on the physical plane as time goes on.

Hey pal, you got a light?

Your choice of glyph in Pious' chapter serves more than just the story, however. As stated, it also affects and even alters the game itself. It slightly changes the monsters and trials you will face, as well as directly affecting you the player. For instance, if you choose Chattur'gha, because he is the Ancient of Power, his minions glow with red power, tend to be physically stronger and larger. But you the player also start out physically stronger, and the "focus", if you will, of your gameplay, is put more on your red Power meter, which becomes larger if you choose red. If you choose Ulyaoth or Xel'lotath, likewise, they are the Ancients of Magick and Sanity, which again alters the types of minions and challenges you will face, but also gives either you more Magick or Sanity meter. Ulyaoth's minions are smaller and weaker than Chattur'gha's, but later in the game some of them are also capable of great magical attacks, etc.

Now where Xel'lotath and Sanity comes in, is the one truly unique outstanding feature of this game that I mentioned before. Along with the Power/Health meter and Magick meter, you also have have a Sanity meter. Why this is important, is that depending on what character you're playing at any given time, and what they experience, what kind of success you have at killing monsters, etc., your Sanity meter will be affected. If you're good at kicking monsters' asses, your Sanity meter will refill and you'll be just hunky dory. But if you suck, your Sanity meter will drain. And the lower it gets, the more your in-game "Sanity" is affected. And different characters, depending basically on how spiritual/superstitious they might be, are affected more, or less, by the scary things you encounter. So some have weaker sanity, while others are stronger. If you choose Xel'lotath at the beginning of the game, your Sanity meter will be stronger, which helps, but in turn your physical power will be weaker.

Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior, Xel'lotath?

As for the Sanity Effects themselves? Well, if your meter only drops a bit, you will eventually encounter surreal effects like hearing spooky whispers, having statues watch you and their heads follow your movement through a room, hearing a woman's crying in the background, spooky noises start getting louder and louder, having the room/camera tilt, the walls looking like they're bleeding, etc. But if it starts getting SUPER low, the game really starts messing with you.

I myself experienced some of these, having no real idea what was coming, so they all came as a surprise. Just some of the things I experienced included walking into a room that isn't supposed to be there, that you can't get out of, etc., and then BAM, you're back in the last room you were in. Or walking into a new room, and your character slowly starts sinking into the floor for no apparent reason, only to once again, BAM, back in the other room. Some of the most extreme effects, however, were when the game would make it suddenly seem as if your TV's volume was turning itself down to silent, only to come blaring back. Or probably the worst one I can remember, that actually made me mad for a second, was when I suddenly got a notice on screen that my save card data had been corrupted, meaning I was going to lose all of my progress and then, OH SHIT JUST KIDDING BRO! And needless to say, while all of these "Sanity Effects" are going on, and getting worse, it makes the game itself harder to play, the dangers harder to navigate. So it's in your best interest to "git gud", and keep your Sanity meter as high as possible.

Magick is a hell of a drug.

As for the other two aspects of the game, Power and Magick? Well, with Power, that deals with your physical attacks and health. As I said early in the article, the original Resident Evil games were clunky as hell. They were SPOOKY and interesting, but the actual gameplay could at times be a bit of a chore, ESPECIALLY when trying to fight monsters. With ED, they have a system in place where when you are faced with a monster, you hold down the R-button to "center" on them, similar to 3D Zelda games. And from there, you can highlight their torso, right or left arm, or head, and you are then able to individually single out and attack those specific body parts. The combat itself is still a BIT clunky, but it's far more workable in the heat of battle than early RE games. Once you get the hang of it, it is actually possible to get pretty good at the combat, and be able to competently defend yourself against most monsters. If you choose Chattur'gha, your power meter will start out bigger and you'll get stronger as the game goes on, but your Magick and Sanity will be weaker.

As for Magick, as you can see above, the game has a fairly complex Magick system. In fact, I could see someone arguing that it's a bit TOO complex, simply because you have to find and learn all of these different glyphs, you need a specific tablet to translate/read them, you need specific scrolls for specific "spells", etc. At first, your spells are simple, with only a few runes to work with, but eventually, as you can see, you learn more complex and more powerful configurations, that can do a variety of things, from refilling your own Power or Sanity, to temporarily freezing or even damaging an enemy. Late in the game, knowing how to use Magick in tandem with physical attacks becomes a must.

Alexandra Roivas, monster slayer.

Ultimately, which Ancient alignment you choose at the outset, truly does shape the whole game. It changes monster types and encounters you may have, subtly alters certain little story bits, etc. For one thing, as previously stated, the Three Ancients exist in a kind of "Paper, Rock, Scissors" limbo with each other, meaning that each one is specifically strong against one other while also being specifically weak against one other. For example, red is strong against green enemies, but is weaker against blue ones. As you play through the game the first time, this will come up, especially at the end, as you will, ironically, need the power of one of rival Ancients to the one which you've chosen for Pious to serve, to "aid" you.

And once you beat the game that first time? Well, you can go back, choose one of the other two alignments, and then do it all again! It's basically the same game each time, but there are enough differences in how the powers affect your playthrough, to make it interesting. In fact the game will not allow you to choose the same alignment again on a specific save file, until you have beaten all three. And yes, when you beat the game with each alignment, you do get a slightly different ending each time. If you're patient enough and strong enough to beat the game THREE times, with all three alignments? Then you are rewarded with the TRUE final ending of the game, which of course I'm not going to spoil. It can be a bit tedious to beat the same basic game three times, but it does add nice replay value, when these types of games are far too often a matter of "beat them once to see the story and then never touch them again".

Why...hello there!

Getting back to my own experience, playing this trough that first time, I did generally really enjoy myself. The story had my attention, and while I'm sure there were some frustrating parts later into the game that probably made me mad, I soldiered through to the end, and beat the game with at least one of the alignments that first time Harold rented it. I really enjoyed how you got to play all of these different people, and saw their varying parts in this unfolding horror. Yet it wasn't merely an unfolding horror, as each one of them also contributes in some meaningful way, to essentially being some kind of resistance to this inevitable return of the Ancient which will destroy our world. In fact, in a very real way, as you see all of these characters' little pieces of the story throughout the game, from time to time you even encounter the spirits of past characters in the same locales, and thus they help you, and are adding their knowledge and power to your own, to help you beat them. So in that way, in SOME small way, each character you play throughout the game, helps to empower Alexandra at the end, in 2000 AD, to face down the threat and try to defeat it.

The Final Confrontation.

Without spoiling TOO much, that rat bastard Pious Augustus acts as the primary villain throughout the game, popping up at nearly every turn, serving whatever Ancient power you chose, committing all kinds of dastardly acts and vile evil in the name of his master. Eventually, once Alexandra has read all of the chapters of the Tome, she discovers a secret way to the ancient Forgotten City, a place where unspeakable horrors exist, and you must fight your way through to have your final, fateful encounter with Pious. It's basically up to one poor college girl in her early 20s, to save the world, nay, the UNIVERSE, from destruction.

I wouldn't say that Eternal Darkness is in my Top 10, or perhaps even Top 20 favorite games EVER. But, I WILL say, with surety, that it is definitely my favorite "Survival Horror" game of all time. Everything from being a more involved, action-y type of game than those games at least USED to be, to having an actually engrossing, interesting story of Lovecraftian otherworldly terror to keep you playing. The game has genuine chills and moments that will make you jump, but it also puts it in you, the player's hands whether you get a horrible, depressing ending or not. You can, in a way, affect your own fate, and that's a nice feature too.

Who likes episodic content?

On a final note, back when the Nintendo Wii U console was new (circa, let's say, 2013 or so), Denis Dyack and Co. tried, and failed, to run a crowd funding campaign for a spiritual sequel/successor to ED. I think part of why it failed, was because their dumbass idea, was to have it be an "episodic" game, meaning that you had to separately pay for and download parts of the story, which you would have to WAIT for each one to release to be able to see the next part, etc. I don't know about you, but that isn't very appealing, and also stinks of fleecing the customer.

To me, what they SHOULD have done, was worked directly with Nintendo again, made a legit, straight up "Eternal Darkness 2", officially, and made it ONE game, no bullshit. But then again? ED also doesn't NEED a sequel. It was a perfectly good, self-contained story, in and of itself. What I WOULDN'T mind, however, was an HD remake of sorts. Keep the original voice acting, but give the game improved/updated graphics and sound and music. Maybe polish and tweak the gameplay somewhat to make it smoother. But THAT, a good remake/remaster of this game, I'd buy.


 So if you're looking for a spooky game to play this October, and own an old Gamecube or Nintendo Wii, you can find used copies of this for sale for reasonably cheap online, considering how rare the game probably is now (it wasn't a "best seller" in its original release). Unfortunately, Nintendo is stupid and never kept their word about releasing Gamecube games for Virtual Console on Wii U, and now that Switch doesn't HAVE a VC, who knows if they'll ever re-release this game, digitally or otherwise. They SHOULD go the remake route, as I think it'd sell. But if you can snag an old copy, and haven't played it before, then I'd say you're in for a treat! Just watch out when you're peeking around that mansion.....