Finally, full impressions of the full Eternal Darkness! Spoilers hidden from accidental view ... read on!
Note: 99.5% of what I've played so far is identical to what I played at the Gamer's Summit in April. In fact, the only thing that was different was the Silicon Knights boot-up splash screen. However, for those of you just DYING to find out more about the game, more impressions were added below the Gamer's Summit write up.
When I found out that Eternal Darkness would be shown at the Nintendo Gamers’ Summit, I was surprised and excited. When I found out that it was 90% finished, I was ecstatic. When I found out that it was a completely uncut version of the game, contrary to demos we’ve seen … quite frankly, I almost cried. And when it was displayed on the big screen, with the date showing that it was a build only 18 hours old, made at almost 2:30 in the morning the previous Saturday … I could only imagine how special this game was going to be.
How true that was. Eternal Darkness is special, and even that isn’t saying enough. We all know how rare it is that a company is given the time, leeway, and money to make a game RIGHT. To make it more than it could be, and to make it more than even its creators had envisioned. And it’s no longer any wonder that Nintendo is putting the company behind this game fully, even though it’s a huge departure from Nintendo’s traditional family-friendly franchise-based lineup.
In order to keep secret some of the surprises and plot of the game, I’m going to have to be VERY general in many cases, but trust me … it’s for your own good. There are spoilers floating around for people that really want them, but you won’t find any (many) here. I’m going to have to spoil a couple of MINOR things, but it’s all in an effort to show you just how deep and intertwined this game is going to be, and how subtly the game is designed to guide you along and keep you on track. Don’t worry, you won’t be able to see the spoilers unless you want to. Silicon Knights went to a great deal of effort and trouble to hide the plot from people before the game is released, and I’m going to abide by their wishes and maintain that secrecy as well.
ED is being billed as having 13 “playable” characters. 12 are in the game, and the thirteenth is “you”. This may seem a strange thing to say, but the Silicon Knights folks have done a great job of creating a game that will not only creep you out, but make you challenge your own preconceptions about what a game should do. EA’s Majestic coined the phrase “It plays YOU”, but ED is the first to bring it to the console, and with such style and aplomb.
I’m talking, of course, about ED’s “Insanity Effects”. When your character encounters enemies, it is distressing to the character, and results in loss of Sanity (visible with a green meter). You can regain Sanity by “finishing off” creatures that you’ve dispatched, thus firmly rooting your character back in the familiar. This Sanity loss and corresponding effects aren’t all or nothing … the meter doesn’t have to empty before you will witness the effects of going insane. You can lose a little and have very subtle effects take place, or empty it all and have the game really throw you for a loop.
Subtle effects include blood dripping down the walls, phones ringing, knocking on doors, ghostly voices … all things that will really set you (as the player) on edge, and set the mood of the game. Some of the more devious effects I won’t tell you about, but some are one-shot effects that happen and then you recover, some will last an entire level or more. Some people are going to want to go insane just to experience these things, others might want to try to avoid them altogether (and you can, by and large, avoid the more serious insanity effects if you are determined, and learn the game system). Regardless, the game WILL keep you guessing.
Silicon Knights has taken great care to research elements of the game and history in great depth. Steven Kent actually challenged the design of the Pious Augustus character, a Roman Centurion. The character has a helmet where the plumage is perpendicular to the character’s head (left to right, instead of the traditional forward to back). Steven didn’t believe that Roman Centurions ever wore the plumage in this fashion. As it turns out, the time period the developer chose to have this character exist in fell in a short 200 year span in which they DID wear the headdress this way. Steven was shocked that they would detail the characters to such a degree. Denis even recounted that an area in the game that they had designed featured beautiful stained glass work … that all had to be removed when they discovered that the time period was before stained glass had been invented.
There are authentic reproductions (oxymoron intended) of art in the game, and many of these pieces of art are examinable. In fact, you can approach a great deal of the detail work in the game, and for no other reason than to marvel at them. Of course, some art is critical to the story, and nothing is present without reason. Let me repeat that for fear of revealing too much. NOTHING is present without reason. Art, puzzles … it’s all tied to the game deeply.
Technically, the game is quite advanced for a first GameCube effort. Playable characters sport in excess of 5000 polygons. The textures are painstakingly detailed, and the game is locked in at 60FPS at all times. The game features Dolby Surround Sound, a widescreen 16x9 mode, and progressive scan for those with high-definition TVs. The game features more than five hours of full motion video and/or in-game cutscenes, the video compressed with a proprietary Silicon Knights codec. All of this, and 50-60 hours of gameplay, on a single 1.5GB disc.
There is also very effective use of Volumetric Fogging in the game. Fog rolls and billows through doorways, wraps around your character’s feet, ebbs and flows. It’s something not often used in games, but helps to complete the mood the programmers have strived so hard to convey. The best part is that it’s not overused, as would be so tempting to do. It’s used where appropriate and to great effect.
It’s not perfect yet, but that’s why the game is only 90% finished. There is some rough animation, there are some textures that need fine-tuning, there is the rare clipping problem and some scripting bugs … and I witnessed a grand total of ONE crash in two days. They’ve got two months to get these “issues” ironed out, and no doubt they will. The game is already much more polished than the stilted animation and lackluster texture work from the demos.
I’m now going to discuss the very first puzzle you’re going to come across. It is a spoiler, but gives you a little insight into how Silicon Knights is designing the puzzles to both reward players with a keen eye, and help others along. Not all puzzles are like this, but all the clues are there to be seen. A small amount of plot is discussed as well, so we’re protecting the information with the “PGC Magic Screen”. OK, so it’s just white text, but still, you’ll have to play along if you want to read this.
Click your mouse HERE and drag down to reveal the spoiler.
In the beginning of the game, Alexandra Roivas (under your control) is thrown into a room full of zombies. You start blasting away with your shotgun, taking down four or five of them, but you run out of ammunition. You panic, and you run around, desperately trying to avoid certain death. Eventually, you scream through the door, yelling for help that will never come. Just then, the phone rings. You wake up. It’s just past three-thirty in the morning. The man on the other end of the phone tells you that someone they think is your grandfather has been killed, and that you need to come identify the body.
You arrive to find a detective with a certain lack of tact asking you to identify the dead body. You balk … why can’t they just check the dental records? Why is be being so abrupt with you? Both questions have the same answer. The detective is being brash and cannot identify the body because it has no head.
You’re eventually left to investigate the mansion, and in your searching, you find a grandfather clock that doesn’t keep proper time. A thought occurs to you … what time was it that you woke? 3:33. You swing the dials to that time, and a secret passage opens. How could this be? How could anyone know you would wake up at that time? In case you don’t recall this critical clue from the opening animation, there is a second, smaller clock in the mansion set to that same time, and if you don’t find that clue, after fumbling with the clock a certain number of times, ghostly voices will whisper the answer to anyone paying enough attention to hear them.
Stop dragging now.
Is this puzzle intertwined with the plot? Absolutely, though it may not be obvious right away. But this careful crafting of the plot and the games puzzles are not by accident. It’s clear that Silicon Knights had a plan and design for this game that was both ambitious and epic. The above is a VERY small example and even it gives too much away, though it seems like so little. Seemingly simple decisions early on will have dramatic impact on the game later. Details that seem insignificant prove later to have been harbingers of events to come. Decisions that seem trivial early in the game end up changing the entire game. Characters that you thought were heroic turn ugly. You’ll get a feeling of déjà vu as areas you felt familiar with are different when you return. You’ll be disoriented when you walk though a door and don’t end up where you expect.
You’ll notice that I’ve hardly discussed the magic system. I’ve done this at the request of Silicon Knights, and I think I know why. The magic system isn’t just integral to the game, and would classify as spoiler material, but is core to the plot. The spells themselves are fairly simple … healing, enchantments, dispel, reveal the invisible. But to discuss these in any more detail would reveal some key plot points, and possibly clue you in to some of how it is integrated into the mythos behind the game. Many of the people at the Summit still have yet to clue into this, and are thus revealing how it all works. Little do they know they are spoiling it for everyone. I didn’t even recognize the full significance of it all until late Tuesday night.
As you can see, little if anything was left to chance with this game. The magic system, the insanity effects, the characters, the puzzles … they all have a significance that is more than meets the eye. This game will make you stop and think. It’s going to make you gasp. It’s going to make you question why you’ve settled for conventional adventure games with comparatively roughshod plots and puzzles thrown in for no reason. Above all, it’s going to make you ask when you’ll see another Silicon Knights game. They have taken inspiration from great works of literature, historical periods, and distant lands, crafting an interactive story worthy of the Nintendo name.
Nintendo is, by and large, pinning its hopes for embracing the market for teen and adult gamers on this single title (Resident Evil notwithstanding). It’s a risk to be sure, but Eternal Darkness will not disappoint. It’s a game with more depth of story, delivery, and style than any I’ve ever seen. It is a technical high-water mark, with graphical effects used to punctuate the story, rather than overshadow it. It is a new paradigm in gaming, a title that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator to achieve sales, but is still fun and engaging. If only more developers and publishers would take the time and effort Nintendo has afforded to Silicon Knights to see that this game exceeds even their own expectations.
It's nice to see that the finished product is every bit as good as I played a few short months ago. Even having played the game, I'm still getting some insanity effects that are making me think twice. The idle animations are quite clever too, Anthony's in particular (you'll understand why when you get there). Just remember to keep your wits about you. If you ever say "What the hell?" ... it's possible that you've been "had". :)
The Magic system is probably one of the best parts of the game, actually encouraging you to experiment and find new spells if you don't feel like finding scrolls. The spell effects are quite outstanding, but make sure you're standing still.
Speaking of that, I do have a tip. SAVE OFTEN. There is no autosave, so make sure you save your progress as often as you can. I've already had to start nearly from scratch for being too bold.
Regardless, I'm going back to play the game some more. I'm totally hooked on it, and I suspect that many of you will soon be sucked into the Darkness as well.