E3 2002Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem hands-on

We play through Nintendo's E3 demo of Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness and give you our impressions.

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Eternal Darkness was shown for the first time at E3 2001, but at this year's E3, the game is nearly finished and much more playable than at last year's show. For those who haven't followed the game's lengthy development cycle, Eternal Darkness originally began as an N64 game. Silicon Knights, the game's developer, has transferred the work on its project to Nintendo's GameCube with encouraging results.

The premise behind the game is typical of psychological thrillers and survival horror, albeit with some fairly interesting additions and changes made to the standard formula. The game chronicles the relationship between a dozen figures across 2000 years of history and their relationship to a book of dark magic. Encountering demons and the undead not only is a health risk in Eternal Darkness, but also puts a strain on your character's sanity. Characters that lose sanity glow green as a visual indicator of their current fear level. Excessive amounts of sanity loss and prolonged exposure to frightening experiences will result in a loss of health as well as a variety of delusions.

The five playable characters in the demo version of Eternal Darkness on display are Alexandra Roivas, the game's female protagonist, as well as four prominent figures in the dreaded book's history. Pious the centurion, Ellia the Cambodian slave girl/dancer, Anthony the page, and Karim the Arab warrior all make appearances in the demo. There will be 12 playable characters in the final version of Eternal Darkness, and each person's story adds significantly to the overall storyline. Each character's storyline proceeds chronologically, depicting his or her history with the dreaded book, and also reveals how they relate to the characters from other time periods.

The game's opening sequence begins with a black and white action scene on parchment, depicting Alex in a sealed room with numerous skeletons, with just her unwieldy shotgun for defense. The player is free to act in this real-time story sequence, but after a few shots, Alex's weapon runs out of ammo, and she appears to be doomed to be overcome by the undead, until the telephone rings and she wakes up from a dream. Informed of the untimely death of her grandfather, she travels to his estate and uncovers the book, which chronicles the history of each of the game's characters.

The first transition from one character to another takes place when Alex reads the history of Pious Augustus' first recorded encounter with the game's antagonist. Pious' sequence begins in an underground chamber where he encounters the book and must fend off animated skeletons armed with his gladius. Here is where the game's movement and combat mechanics are first brought to light. Characters move in smooth 3D, although at a sluggish pace, so evasive movement is best handled with the L trigger, which initiates a run. However, if you run too much your character will stop and gasp for breath. Basic attacking is accomplished with the A button, but for the best effect you can make use of the R trigger and target individual body parts. While holding the R trigger your character focuses his or her attention on a single opponent, and the default targeted area, the torso, is illuminated. Once you're locked on to an enemy, the analog stick can be shifted up to target the head or to the right or left to aim at either arm. Some enemies need to be beheaded in order to be defeated, while others can still maul you without a head. Knocking down the undead and hacking off their limbs will rarely keep them down, so a finishing move is required. Pious' finishing move is a vicious thrust through the midsection, while others may repeatedly slash at a downed enemy.

While Eternal Darkness emphasizes active control of combat, there are plenty of puzzle sequences that make the player think. There are various items that need to be collected and used for a variety of purposes, such as opening doors or revealing items. One such puzzle involves carvings of the sun at various times of day, such as high noon, dusk, and dawn, which then need to be replicated figuratively by lighting a set of corresponding candles. In addition, characters have access to different types of magic spells in the game, which are found and unlocked during each character's travels. Ellia, for example, finds a necklace that allows her to cast a healing enchantment. However, it must be cast carefully, as the spell can be disrupted if she's attacked in the process.

After the outcome of Pious and Ellia's storyline sequences, a new character named Anthony finds the same corridor where the book was first unearthed and statues were erected depicting these characters. Later on, Karim will find this same area with Anthony's statue erected as the cycle continues. As each new reader unearths the book, flashbacks from previous lifetimes and horrors flood the character's mind.

Visually, Eternal Darkness compares favorably to other games in the genre, although it doesn't quite draw as much attention as some of Nintendo's other upcoming games. A number of enticing visual effects are used to emphasize the game's ominous look. The game uses volumetric fog, shadowing, and radiosity light maps. The current version of the game runs at a smooth frame rate, never dipping noticeably below 60 frames per second. The characters and enemies are composed of relatively high polygon counts, and the overall look of the animation and characters is solid. Most of the game's cutscenes are rendered in real time, preserving the game's visual flow. Some of the details and horror-themed effects will surely leave memorable impressions. For example, when the book is encountered in a stone-tiled hallway, the fingers of the skeletal-hand pedestal the tome rests on unfold smoothly, and the floor's carved appearance shifts into the faces and bodies of hundreds of tortured souls moaning in anguish. The faces and bodies constantly shift in and out of view, and the effect is remarkably startling.

Glimpses we caught of the other playable characters in Eternal Darkness left us wanting more. We've verified that an English aristocrat complete with matchlock and powdered wig is in the game, as well as a distinguished-looking safari type wearing a pith helmet. The characters of Eternal Darkness represent recognizable time periods throughout the last two millennia of history, and it will be interesting to see how much of each time period's unique flavor has been taken into account while maintaining the game's enemy design. We'll have more on Eternal Darkness as it approaches its upcoming release date this June.

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