Tag Archives: survival horror

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem [GameCube] – Review

Eternal Darkness Sanity's RequiemSilicon Knights has come to be known for many things, mostly negative. One of the reasons they became so notorious though, was due to their former success. Without question, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was one of the studio’s highest highs. A survival horror game, published by Nintendo for the GameCube, the game met high praises upon its release in 2002, and is still fondly recalled. I recently played through the game, and while enjoyable, I didn’t become a rabid fan. For all of its uniqueness, the game feels pretty dated twelve years after its release.

Alex discovering the Tome of Eternal Darkness in her grandfather's secret study.
Alex discovering the Tome of Eternal Darkness in her grandfather’s secret study.

The game’s primary protagonist is Alex Roivas. Her grandfather was just murdered and she’s now the last of the family. Edward dealt heavily in the occult and as Alex searches for answers to his murder, she becomes embroiled in a struggle between good and evil that dates back at least two-thousand years. Center to her quest is the Tome of Eternal Darkness. As Alex discovers pages to the Tome, scattered about Edward’s mansion, she is taken back in time and relives the struggles of her ancestors as they work to prevent the revival of evil ancients. This facilitates an interesting storytelling mechanic and a wide cast of characters.

I don’t care who you are, time travel is always interesting. Personally, I think of it in context of futuristic science-fiction, so its usage in the game was something different. Alex’s reading of the Tome was translated into individual sections of the game, where I controlled characters as diverse as a Roman centurion, a Cambodian slave, and a World War I soldier. Those characters, as well as many more filled out the game. The environments were as varied as the characters themselves. This is an astonishing fact as there were only a handful of settings. The locales were revisited through the ages, and while they were mostly identical, they remained fresh by virtue of the aging process and the period pieces I’d obtain and use in them; unlike say, Devil May Cry 4.

Hugs and kisses!
Hugs and kisses!

As the game dealt with many time periods and characters, the items and weapons I’d come across naturally fit the setting. Generally, each character gained access to multiple weapons, with the majority of them being swords. These highlighted the inventive combat system well. I had the ability to target different portions of an enemy’s body – head, torso, or upper appendages. I almost always went for the head as it was the quickest way to deal with an enemy or cope with a crowd, although striking appendages was helpful in many circumstances too. Besides swords, I came across many guns and long range weapons. In my experience with the game, these were useful against only one enemy and one boss. Don’t get me wrong, I could use them on anything, I just didn’t find them effective. Ammunition wasn’t an issue, unlike other survival horror games of this period.

Finishing enemies boosted a character's sanity.
Finishing enemies boosted a character’s sanity.

Another aspect that differentiated this game from its peers was its distinct lack of tank controls. No matter the character, I was able to freely move them about. Coupling this with what I perceive as an enhanced focus on combat because of the targeting system and lack of inventory/ammo management, and this game skews more towards the action spectrum of action-adventure. However, like games of this ilk, there are plenty of items to find and puzzles to solve. Or…, association puzzles, as I’ll call them. These are what I found in the Mansion games and Juggernaut. Through exploration, I’d stumble across something I could interact with, generally nonworking; for instance, a telescope missing a handle. Eventually, I’d find the handle, and putting them together, I’d be able to advance the story.

These types of “puzzles” were never too difficult, although this game stumped me more than once. Or, it stumped my friend and me, as we played cooperatively. Yes, more than once we flat out got stuck and had to source GameFAQs. In these few instances, the solutions were obvious, but for whatever reason, we didn’t crack the game’s logic. An example: playing an archaeologist in Cambodia circa the 1980s, we roamed the entirety of an ancient ruin not knowing what to do. We had examined a handful of spider webs earlier, which spurred the archaeologist to think they might be obscuring something, but we believed that a nonstarter. We thought this because it was clear there was nothing behind them when they were examined. WRONG. In his inventory, he had a brush that we used earlier to clear away dirt. When used on the spider webs, an important item was discovered, allowing us to progress. There were a few other instances of this, and it was extremely demoralizing.

The writing in the game - the story and descriptions - was so good. Very atmospheric and dark.
The writing in the game – the story and descriptions – was so good. Very atmospheric and dark.

My time with Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem started strong. An impressive narrative wrapped around an inventive storytelling mechanic and large cast of characters served well to draw me in. The unique combat system and strong playability were nothing to scoff at, especially considering its peers. However, the weak puzzles and sometimes confusing internal logic required to progress grew tepid. AND, there are sanity effects that I didn’t even mention! Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by them because I always kept my sanity meter high. By the end of it, I was more jazzed than ever to see how the story culminated, but I was ready to finish playing the game. It’s still a very impressive game. But, it was more impressive twelve years ago, just like Silicon Knights.

The Last of Us [PS3] – Review

Naughty Dog's ending the generation with a showstopper.
Naughty Dog’s ending the generation with a showstopper.

Before BioShock released, I knew very little about it. I heard murmurings that it was going to be an “important” game, but I didn’t pay any mind. Until the week it released. At that point, the hype surrounding the game was deafening; it was a literal echo chamber in the video game portion of the internet I frequented. I went from an ambivalent position regarding BioShock, to one where I needed to play it. Almost immediately, I knew I made the right decision. As you might already intuit, I approached The Last of Us in much the same way, and again, I made the right decision.

After the half-hour introduction, it was already apparent to me that The Last of Us would go down as another “important” video game. In that time span, Naughty Dog gave me a view of what day-to-day life might be like for the primary protagonist Joel, his daughter Sarah and his brother Tommy. This normalcy was brief though and within minutes all hell broke loose in their suburban Texas town. The group was soon on the run in order to survive against their mutated, zombie-like neighbors and townsfolk. Just when it appeared that they had escaped the town to safety, Sarah was accidentally murdered by a man following orders above all else. Whatever semblance of a normal life had already ended for the group, but much of Joel died that day.

Fast forward twenty years and the country, and most likely the world, has seen humanity consumed by a viral fungus that transforms the host into a violent zombie-like creature within days. Although it’s never directly explained what happened in that twenty year period between the introduction and the remainder of the game, it was easy enough to piece together information and interpret the rest. Some pockets of Americans live in complacency in government-controlled quarantine zones and others hoof it in the wilderness. Alone, in groups, or within the ranks of the Fireflies – a revolutionary militia squad wanting a break from the government’s status quo – it’s a tooth-and-nail fight for survival.

It's going to be a long journey.
It’s going to be a long journey.

Joel, and his female cohort Tess, operate somewhere in between. As smugglers living in Boston, they transport goods in and out of the quarantine zone to make a living. Events quickly transpire and they’re confronted with a decision that they don’t get to make. The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, has something they want, but she needs a favor. She needs them to smuggle a young girl, Ellie, out of the city and into the care of the Fireflies in a safer area. They reluctantly accept and before they make it out, they realize why Marlene wants Ellie to reach a safe haven – she is immune to the fungus. This is unheard of, making Ellie the Holy Grail in a world without hope.

Tess saw that. She bit the dust early on but urges Joel to finish the job and get Ellie where she needs to be. Despite being a hard-ass that wouldn’t take any scruff, Tess seemed idealistic and hopeful for the future. Joel is also a short-tempered hard-ass; however he cares little for anything related to hope. He pisses on the government as much as he does the Fireflies. All he cares about it making it to the next day and it seems the only reason for that was his relationship with Tess. Why else would he slavishly travel halfway across the hellhole that America has become with a girl he doesn’t want to care for? If he is one thing, he’s devoted.

Their relationship changed over the course of the game.
Their relationship changed over the course of the game.

That journey across America comprises the rest of the twenty or so hour campaign. It was a hellish trip for all parties involve; for Joel and Ellie and for me, the player. What made it so for Joel and Ellie were the impossible odds they routinely found themselves up against and the hostility they encountered from the country’s remaining survivors. The highlight of the game for me was probably these survivors they’d run into. The bulk of them were hostile but there were a scant few who allied with Joel and Ellie and aided them on their journey. So many of these characters seemed like real people, with, what I can only imagine were problems I could relate to in the post-apocalypse. That sounds strange – that I feel these video game characters are lifelike – but I guess that’s a testament to the talent at Naughty Dog and the evolution of the medium.

What made the journey hellish for me as the player was the difficulty I encountered. The game’s difficulty could be construed as a continuation of the philosophy present in From Software’s Demon’s Souls, which in turn was a response to criticism of Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series and other blockbuster video game titles. Regardless of inspiration, the sometimes stressful difficulty is a spot-on match for the always stressful situations Joel and Ellie find themselves in. Through all of their run-ins with enemies, there wasn’t one where I was able to go in guns blazing and succeed. I might get one or two enemies, but their numbers would overtake Joel and Ellie quickly. I had to be smart when approaching a fight because the enemies were. They could hear and see Joel so if I guided him wrong, they’d group up on him and I’d be paying for it.

America has gone back to nature in the twenty years since the outbreak.
America has gone back to nature in the twenty years since the outbreak.

For the most part, I snuck around as much as possible and tried to quietly take out enemies by killing them with a makeshift shiv. If I was ever spotted, I’d use cover to break line-of-sight with the enemy, flanking them so I could use another shiv or resort to a handgun, rifle, or bow. I say that honestly too. Although I didn’t have any trouble coming across ammo on the normal difficulty, or any supplies for that matter, I was always very cautious. I wouldn’t use a health pack until I was able to craft another, unless I direly needed it. Same for the use of Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs; I avoided using these unless an encounter just called for them.

Although the entirety of the game was astounding, the last two sections in particular I thought were brilliant. The first begins with a role reversal for Joel and Ellie as she becomes the protector for a brief period in a harsh Colorado winter. Here the duo encounters David, the leader of a local pocket of survivors and an absolute madman who’s played by none other than Nolan North. The final section sees Joel finally delivering Ellie to the Fireflies but having a change of heart when the circumstances aren’t to his liking. The game ends in a provocative way that prompted my friend and I have long conversations about the decisions made.

This is why I wanted to take out enemies stealthily.
This is why I wanted to take out enemies stealthily.

Just as I felt after completing BioShock, I’m glad I decided to buy into the hype and experience The Last of Us. Naughty Dog crafted a riveting video game that has perhaps set a new high-water mark for video game narrative. The characters and relationships on display were qualitatively better than 99% of any other game out there. The game’s brutal, but honest, gameplay was nothing to warrant as much praise for, but was immensely tuned and enjoyable enough that it didn’t bring the experience down, but amplified it. This is a game that has to be experienced.

Dead Space [PS3] – Review

The pet project of Glen Schofield - an industry veteran who came up through hard work on licensed titles.
The pet project of Glen Schofield – an industry veteran who came up through hard work on licensed titles.

Set about 500 years in the future, Dead Space centers on Isaac Clarke and the horrific events surrounding the USG Ishimura. This “planetcracker” is a mining spacecraft that recently sent out a distress signal which Isaac and a small squad is answering. What he and his cohorts find is multitudes worse than what most of them could’ve imagined. Any hopes of the mission being routine are thrown out the window when almost immediately the squad is attacked by garish creatures – “the ship’s crew slaughtered and infected by an alien scourge” to quote the back of the box.

The underpinnings of cultish intrigue are soon the full-scale narrative driver of the game. As Isaac survives his way through the Ishimura, he learns of the crew’s discovery of the Marker and the impact it had on them. Supposedly a holy artifact for the Church of Unitology, the discovery is of great importance to many of the ship’s members who then change course at the direction of Captain Benjamin Mathius. This wasn’t the only discovery they made however. Coming along with the Marker is an unknown alien life form that begins ravaging the crew and turning them into Necromorphs.

Necromorphs came in many shapes and sizes. Dealing each variety required a slight twist on dismemberment.
Necromorphs came in many shapes and sizes. Dealing each variety required a slight twist on dismemberment.

These creatures are grotesque abominations of former crew members who are anything but gentle. With repair objectives taking him all over the Ishimura, Isaac runs into hundreds of Necromorphs. Equipped with a plasma cutter and an arsenal of other weapons, it’s soon made clear to both Isaac and the player that the most effective way of combating this enemy presence is through dismemberment.

I found the gameplay loop that dismembering small groups of Necromorphs turned into, to be highly enjoyable. The precision and power that the plasma cutter ripped through these fiends was such a satisfying and visceral experience, encountering groups of Necromorphs almost wasn’t scary. After a playthrough and a half, I’d recommend not using any other weapon; the plasma cutter is that incredible.

It’s that gameplay loop that kept me jiving on the game for so long. The narrative unfolded at a brisk pace and I learned much about the goings on before Isaac arrived via plentiful text, audio, and video logs, but the chapter objectives were so drab. I felt like Fix-It Felix as Zach Hammond and Kendra Daniels (fellow crew members responding to the distress signal) issued Isaac around the Ishimura having him repair broken equipment. Aside from some awesome boss encounters and a handful of entertaining tasks, the chapters mostly felt like a means to an end.

Much praise has been heaped on Dead Space for it's innovative HUD and UI.
Much praise has been heaped on Dead Space for it’s innovative HUD and UI.

Somewhat memorable was Dr. Challus Mercer. After the captain was accidentally killed by Dr. Terrence Kyne, Dr. Mercer assumed control of the Ishimura. He is more of a cultish zealot than Captain Mathius was and this is seen firsthand by Isaac. With an ever watchful eye on Isaac, Dr. Mercer always seems one step ahead of Isaac, Zach, and Kendra. Their run-ins usually entail a challenging combat sequence. Paired with that sequence is a dose of Dr. Mercer’s maniacal devotion to the church and his belief that transformation into Necromorphs is humanity’s higher calling.

Dr. Kyne plays a role soon enough and eventually they are led back to the planet where it all came from. He is a character with good intentions consumed by the hallucinations of his deceased wife. He and Isaac aren’t dissimilar; Isaac is also haunted by increasingly lifelike hallucinations of his deceased girlfriend Nicole Brennan. Nicole and Dr. Kyne are key figures in returning the Marker to its former resting place, hoping to calm the chaos and prevent the Necromorphs from reaching Earth.

The boss encounters were remarkable.
The boss encounters were remarkable.

Dead Space was a game with loads of prerelease marketing courtesy of Electronic Arts and among the content were a handful of developer diaries. In one of these, it was mentioned that the intention was for Isaac to be an “everyman” but I don’t think this was achieved. I feel this way solely because he was a silent protagonist interacting with very realistic characters. Much of the dialogue consisted of other people speaking directly to Isaac, and his lack of speech created a weird dissonance.

That’s about the only gripe I have as far as the audio/visual qualities are concerned. The game looks remarkable, but there isn’t a lot of variety outside of the sterile, futuristic corridors splashed with copious amounts of gore. The soundtrack was used more to cultivate a continuous sense of fright regarding what’s around the next corner instead of building up to an ultimate crescendo over and over again. Jason Graves’ score, composed of mechanical sound effects and haunting instrumental bits, helped in creating a dreadful ambiance reeking of Doom 3’s impact.

Fairly often, Isaac would traverse sections with no gravity, having to jump from wall to wall to get around.
Fairly often, Isaac would traverse sections with no gravity, having to jump from wall to wall to get around.

It was with Dead Space that EA Redwood Shores, now Visceral Games, was given the chance to moonlight with a new intellectual property and I think they knocked it out of the park. The cultish narrative was intriguing enough, although it was the dismemberment gameplay loop that carried the entertainment weight for me. The plasma cutter offered such precision and power that dealing with groups of Necromorphs was something I looked forward to. After, I got over the fright of them appearing of course.