My favorite sequence in Eternal Darkness involves a character by the name of Anthony. He’s been asked to deliver a scroll to his liege, but unknowing to him, the scroll is cursed. With every step he takes, he becomes more and more zombified, losing his grip on humanity. Because of one mistake, he is forever destined to live as a monstrosity. It isn’t until centuries later that someone else stumbles upon his shambling husk, finally putting him to rest.
Sorry, did I say that was my favorite part of Eternal Darkness? What I meant to say was, that’s the only part of Eternal Darkness that I like.
I know. I know. The game is beloved; enthusiastically brought up whenever conversations about the Gamecube come up. There is perhaps no other game in existence where I am this far from the general public opinion. With Resident Evil 4, I at least understand why it’s popular, and find merit in many of its individual parts, but in the case of Eternal Darkness, I find myself being that guy, bothered by how much other people appear to love it. I actively wonder if it’s nostalgia at work or a genuine appreciation of its mechanics beyond the obvious gimmick.
To me, that gimmick is really all it has. That’s not to say that Eternal Darkness isn’t an ambitious game that attempts to be much more, but the execution of anything beyond “aha, gotcha” feels half-baked and ill-conceived. The anthology-like structure of the various chapters is a great idea, putting you in control of a varied cast of characters from different points in history. Unfortunately, those characters all run out of breath a little too fast. They also seem to be completely unable to fight enemies in hallways. For some reason, those same enemies will also drain your sanity and health simply by virtue of existing, even when writhing on the floor after getting having a limb chopped off. The magic system is awkward and poorly explained, oftentimes requiring you to stand and wait for a circle of runes to fill and activate an ability that may not even work as you intend it to. The most memorable parts of Eternal Darkness, as designed, are the moments when your sanity meter is bottomed out and something wacky just happened to occur while your health was depleting. Anything beyond that feels incidental.
What makes the Anthony chapter work so well is that it’s subtle. You don’t even notice what’s going on at first, and by the time you do, it’s too late. You relate to the character because you see that progression, you feel the change as it’s happening. It’s the overwhelming sense of dread that’s completely absent from the rest of the game. You spend every other chapter feeling like a detached observer, as if watching a movie in a theater that has a gimmick seat that will shake and startle you on occasion. Unlike with Amnesia, where your character’s sanity was conveyed through the first person perspective and the need to avoid encounters, the characters in Eternal Darkness are often responding with terror to things that aren’t even occurring to them, since the game frequently likes to break the fourth wall and direct the sanity effects towards the player. When the game pretended to erase my save, all I could think about was why the WWI reporter that I was playing as cared about my memory card and what it had to do with the convoluted not-Lovecraft story that everything was supposedly about. The answer is, of course, there was no reason. They just thought it would cool.
Apparently it was so cool, everyone forgot the rest of the game, including the part where you actually have to play it.