An atmosphere of eeriness and unease is arguably the most effective tool of any work in the horror genre. More than blood and guts, dread is what sticks with a player already used to excess. And Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem has stuck with me since I first played it nearly a decade ago.
Alex Roivas, a college student, awakes from a bizarre nightmare to answer her phone. Informed of an “accident” at her uncle’s estate by the police, she catches a red eye and arrives to find her relative and surrogate father decapitated. Despite the horrific nature of the crime, there is no physical evidence beyond the body itself for the police to go on. Sensing a dead end to the investigation, Alex insists on staying in town to solve the mystery herself. It’s not long after moving into her new abode that she uncovers a hidden room and the arcane book that waits within.
Eternal Darkness is as close a tribute to the works of H.P. Lovecraft one can get without citing his cosmology. Insanity, a constant threat to the health of Lovecraft’s characters, constantly infects the character (and the player!) with hallucinations ranging from upside-down rooms to random dismemberment. While there is a horror mainstay in the enemy roster in the form of zombies, they come in three different flavors, providing a little variety. The other creatures are far original and impressive, ranging from hulking behemoths to spindly beasts that stow away in human bodies. Amazingly, Eternal Darkness may have the only effective melee combat system in any horror game, allowing the player to target an opponent’s individual limbs with ease.
But as I said, it’s neither gore nor combat that sell this game–it’s the atmosphere.
The sound design is excellent, putting the player on edge with every spitting torch or hushed whisper brought on by the sanity effects. The story itself is superbly written. The Tome of Eternal Darkness provides something a of a past-life regression each chapter, transporting Alex to a different period in the book’s history and slowly revealing more of the cosmic plot in which she’s become entangled. The narrative flows seamlessly between time periods and teases each new piece of the puzzle, breathing fresh life into old environments until an excellent payoff.
While the game does have a few flaws (i.e. the excellent combat system actually makes killing enemies a bit too easy and the graphics are a bit dated), it stands head and shoulders above the jump scares of its survival horror kin. And frankly, even twelve years after its release, I’m still dreaming of a sequel I know I’ll never get.