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Patrick Hope: The ancients must be crazy

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Happy Canada Day, everyone! In honor of the national holiday of America, Jr., we’re going to be looking at a game from a Canadian studio, the Ontario-based Silicon Knights.

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Sadly, Silicon Knights is now defunct thanks to a copyright infringement lawsuit, but we can still remember its output, like “Legacy of Kain,” “MGS: The Twin Snakes,” and a revolutionary survival horror game from 2002 — “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.”

“Eternal Darkness” began as a Nintendo 64 game all the way back in 1999 and morphed into one of the Gamecube’s big releases of the summer of 2002. While a survival horror game at its heart, “Eternal Darkness” strayed from the genre’s roots, adding elements like non-terrible combat, a sprawling story spanning millennia, and the game’s huge gimmick, the Sanity Meter.

The core gameplay in “Eternal Darkness” is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s still done very well. It’s a third-party horror game with a fixed camera, but thankfully avoids the much-maligned tank controls. All 12 of the characters you experience mover around pretty well and a nifty targeting system where you can choose to decapitate or maim the legions of undead and demons you’ll be dealing with makes combat really smooth.

It’s also worth noting that each of the characters you play as will have their own stats and affinities. For example, industrial firefighter Michael Edwards and archaeologist rockstar Edwin “Don’t Call Me Junior” Lindsey are way better suited for combat than Khmer slave girl Ellia or Renaissance architect Roberto Bianchi. The locales, weapons, and costumes are also period-accurate, thanks to the game’s having a history professor from the University of Toronto as a consultant. But the core gameplay of “Eternal Darkness” really takes a backseat to the atmosphere, story, and the Sanity Meter.

The atmosphere of “Eternal Darkness” is about as close as you can get to HP Lovecraft without actually using Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep. There are godlike creatures that require really specific rituals to summon to our dimension. A house in Rhode Island plays a central role. Magic is done through incantations in a weird ancient language. There’s a real sense of paranoia because a particular type of enemy can take over human bodies (it actually causes one character to go nuts and get thrown in an asylum where he gives us inspirational lines like “May the rats eat your eyes”). No other game, including the ones which actually use the Lovecraft mythos, nail it like “Eternal Darkness” does.

Anyway, “Eternal Darkness’s” story spans a period from 26 AD all the way to 2000. In 26, a Roman centurion named Pious Augustus is chilling in Persia (which, as our firefighter Michael, ends up in the story by putting out oil well fires in the wake of the First Gulf War, puts us in Kuwait) when he gets summoned to a stone circle and zapped down to a place known as the Forbidden City, where he grabs a relic of one of three demonstrably evil Ancients. This turns poor Pious into a lich serving his choice of Chattur’gha, the powerful crab thing, Xel’lotah, the eel that controls insanity, or Ulyaoth, the dimension-controlling jellyfish.

What follows is humanity’s attempts to undo Pious’s 2,000-year plan to resurrect his deity of choice. Each chosen human’s exploits are recorded in the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a Necronomicon-ish book that doesn’t exist on our plane of reality. The stories are told somewhat out of sequence, jumping around in location from the Forbidden City to the Roivas estate in Rhode Island, to Oublie (French for “forgotten”) Cathedral in Amiens, to a Cambodian temple where the former ruler of the Ancients, a mass of tentacles, mouths and eyes called Mantorok, has been bound with a magic spell that is slowly killing it, resides. The story twists and turns and thanks to some really good writing, tells a gripping tale that you have to see to its conclusion.

But that story works even better thanks to the Sanity Meter. No game before and, to the best of my knowledge, has employed a concept quite like it. So, Sanity is a quantity that can be drained, either by looking at enemies or seeing scary stuff. And when your Sanity Meter gets low, the fun begins. You’ll walk into a room and spontaneously combust. Or you won’t be able to kill any enemies. Or you’ll be walking on the ceiling. On their own, these are pretty amazing, but “Eternal Darkness” didn’t want to stop by having the characters experience weird things. No, they broke the fourth wall with some absolutely brilliant Sanity Effects designed to mess with you, the player.

If your Sanity Meter is low, your screen might suddenly go black like your TV turned off. Or you’ll get a message that your controller isn’t plugged in. Or the game will suddenly end when you enter a room, saying it will be concluded in “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Redemption.” Or you will get the most evil, and most effective trick any game has perhaps played on someone. “Eternal Darkness” lets you save anywhere. And while it isn’t a hard game by any means, some levels can get long and you’ll want to save often to play it safe. And sometimes, when your Sanity Meter is low, you might go to save. But the game won’t save. It’ll erase your memory card. Well, not really, as it’s a Sanity Effect, but that moment when you say “Wait, no. Stop” is exactly when “Eternal Darkness” has done its job.

After its initial success, there was talk of a sequel that never materialized. There were even two Kickstarters for a spiritual sequel called “Shadow of the Eternals” that were both canceled. And that’s fine with me. There is really no need for one.

“Eternal Darkness” stands on its own as a phenomenal game and — along with “Resident Evil 4,” “Silent Hill 2,” “Corpse Party,” and the Super Nintendo version of “Clock Tower” — is one gaming’s horror greats.

In the yawning chasm, filled with the puerile meanderings of sentience from jump scares and terrible Slenderman games, “Eternal Darkness” is the real deal.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. Contact him patrick.d.hope@gmail.com and read his past columns on his blog at bonusstage.areavoices.com.

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