Huge Eternal Darkness spoilers.
The first two thirds of Eternal Darkness is as close to perfect as video games get. The early 00s were a great time for survival horror and Eternal Darkness was at the fore. There are scares that are shocking (bathtub); there are scares that are stressful (fake deleting all your saves); there are scares that are disorienting (the room is upside-down). It boasts phenomenal voice overs from a dozen playable characters scattered over two millenia. It draws heavy inspiration from Lovecraft’s interstellar horror, a criminally underused genre.
Really, it’s pretty much the best Lovecraftian game out there. You spend hours exploring ancient tombs and cathedrals and New England houses as a doctor, a dancing girl, a centurion, a firefighter. There are zombies. There are dog-like spider creatures who force themselves into a human host’s mouth and control them from the inside. You pity these poor sods. You wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
The tone is charmingly fatal. Most characters don’t make it out alive. They die having accomplished nothing. Video games generally prefer to avoid things like futility and unceremonious death. Eternal Darkness isn’t like that. It dives in whole hog. You’ll be smashed to bits, thrown into insane asylums, killed by ghosts. It doesn’t pussy foot around. Production value, scenario, hell, everything consistently impresses.
Then you go on a fetch quest.
Specifically: Edward, one of the final playable characters, discovers he’s got a lost and secret city of ancient evil sleeping under his quaint Rhode Island mansion. But he’s got a plan! Nine spires surround the city. If Edward inscribes runes into them he can cast a spell that will destroy the city and save the world! So get to it! It’s time to save the world! Hop into that teleporter and inscribe a rune!
…then avoid some ineffectual monsters and make your way back to the teleporter. Then do it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And finally one more time.
Of the nine runes it’s possible you’ve set one or two incorrectly — the Dispel Magick and Magickal Attack spells seem equally applicable — which means crawling through three or four rooms over again just to get it right. Even more irritating: six of the towers can only hold Pargon runes, a modifier that appears in all powerful magicks whose only purpose is sounding really cool as a whispering female voice incants the spell. Slogging through a teleporter run only to find your fourth Pargon of the night is completely disheartening. The voice in your head whispers your error. You are convinced you’ve gotten runes wrong. You will have to do them over. Your hopelessness compounds as you activate more towers. What’s the point when you didn’t select the proper runes anyway?
But you get it done (some forty five minutes later) and there is a modest feeling of triumph as you escape the crumbling city of En’gha. This is one of the few chapters that ends in unmitigated success. And the next chapter, set during the Gulf War and filled with scads of present-day weaponry, goes a long way towards catharsis. Blowing up zombies with grenades is much more satisfying than chipping away at them with flintlock pistols. You secure the final relic you need for your war against the elder gods. You are ready. The miserable time in En’gha is mostly forgotten.
The stage is set for the finale. Alex, last scion of the Rovias clan, steps up to the bat, enters the (extra-)ruined city of En’gha for the final battle. It’s time to save the world from a terrible and sleeping evil!
And then they make you do the fucking runes again!
You’re forced to spend another forty five minute running into teleporters while reflecting on the fact that fully a fifth of this ten hour game has been about inscribing fucking Pargon. Fuck Pargon. Fuck En’gha. FUCK THIS GAME. And fuck the scary bathtub scene. And fuck the awesome Michael Bell voice acting. And fuck the creepy music that plays during Karim’s stage. And fuck you evil Ancients from Beyond Time: one of you is a space lobster and the other one is a space jellyfish. And fuck Silicon Knights, even though you made Blood Omen too! And fuck Too Human, that game was about cyborgs and Norse mythology and you fucked it up!
Struggle through. Don’t forget the good parts. Eternal Darkness has a clean, effortless frame narrative where Dragon Age 2 only pays lip service to the idea. The environments are ever-shifting and always interesting, never reduced to boxes to juke zombies in. The puzzles are absurd, as video game puzzles always are, but the interplay between learning a puzzle during a chapter and applying that knowledge with Alex in the present day satisfies on a deep, basic level. There’s some great stuff here!
But no matter what, you always end up back here: setting up Pargons, bemoaning your fate. Struggle through. Don’t forget the good parts. Don’t let them ruin their game, no matter how hard they try.