Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Darklands: Travelogue (Part 2)

Alas, the mines proved too much for my journeyman party.
We pick up where the previous entry left off:
Sometime after 5 August 1401. Goslar Mines.
Since you can't check "Party Info" while indoors, I have no idea how much time has passed since the party entered the mines. As the session begins, we find a second ladder down on Level 4 that we must have missed earlier.
With Maximian and Lambert so low on health, I've reconfigured the marching order to put Bianca first (she has the best "Perception"), followed by my NPC companion Hanse. Maximian, in ignominy, picks up the rear. Clearly, I should have waited until I had more prayers or alchemies before attempting this type of quest, but in fairness I had no idea that the mines would be so extensive. Everything until now had been a series of menu options.
We fight one gargoyle before coming to yet another puzzle door, which challenges us to figure out the next number in a sequence that goes 27, 64, 125, 216, 343.
I suspect either you'll get it right away or it will take you a while. The numbers are cubes of 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, so the next would be 8^3 or 512. Anyway, beyond the door, another dwarf told me that I'd find enemies further along who were guarding some kind of holy relic.
It would have been nice to have found this.
On the level below, four gargoyles attack just after I get off the ladder. Hanse is seriously wounded. In a side room, Hanse is unable to disarm a chest after multiple attempts. I size up the situation and conclude that I need more skill and craft before I'm able to fully clear these mines. Reluctantly, I make my way back up to the surface, camp, and restore much of my lost strength.
17 August 1401. Wilderness. Party Fame: 52 (barely known).
We notice a strange darkness in the woods: twisted trees, black birds with harsh cries, the smell of smoke. Investigating, we determine that witchcraft has taken place here. We're soon attacked by a pack of wolves but manage to slay them with minimal damage.
Fools. Everyone knows that the wolves are the enemy of the Shadow.

23 August 1401. Wilderness.
Attacked by a group of bandits. Everyone is wounded more than they ought to be for a foe we've fought many times before.
26 August 1401. Erfurt.
We arrive in a city at last. Night is falling just as we go through the gates, so we immediately see about our task to steal notes from the Medici offices. When we get to the central market, we have options to sneak past the guards and custodians, bribe them, or attack them.
Options when skulking about the market at night.
My party isn't very good at sneaking, but I try it and surprisingly it works. Hanse is able to defeat the lock, and we enter the Medici offices and recover the debt note that the Hanseatic League in Lübeck wanted.
In victory, we check into the Lilie and stay several days to return to full health.
5 September 1401. Erfurt. Party Fame: 62 (barely known). Local Rep: 3.
It's time to head back east, find a way to cross the Elbe, deal with Anton Seibt, and get to Berlin. Before we leave, we buy some reagents in the main market, but are once again tossed away from Alchemist's Lane when we try to buy some formulas.
Moving east from Erfurt, we finally find a bridge across the Elbe and thus begin angling back north.
7 September 1401. Wilderness.
On the road, a nobleman appears with knights and retainers and demands that we pay the "road toll" of 1 florin. I choose to "try to talk him out of it," and the nobleman blanches upon hearing our names, graciously letting us use his road for free. "Such are the benefits of reputation and fame," the game muses, as if we'd earned much of either.
The nobleman acts like we've introduced ourselves as the "Gambinos" or something.
9 September 1401. Wilderness.

The party investigates a castle, and it turns out to belong to the robber knight Rainald Nöttelheim. He's not a high-priority target, as the only quest we have to kill him is from the Medici representative in Goslar. But there are other benefits to killing robber knights, and we're right there.
I have no idea how my clumsy, armored characters passed this test.
Our usual tactic is to knock and ask for entry, then stay the night, then sneak into the robber knight's chambers at night. We can't do that this time because it's already night. So I choose to sneak into the castle entirely, and it works. We then sneak into his room, defeat him in single combat, and loot his armor as we did the first two times. This is too easy.

13 September 1401. Halle.

We come to a small hamlet on the way to Berlin. As usual, the schulz is no help. We go to confession at the church instead, and something odd happens. The penance given by the priest is to slowly kill a small animal, then recite 10 prayers backwards, then drink so much sacramental wine that we pass out. Needless to say, the party declines to perform this so-called penance.
A warning sign.
Wondering if this oddity is something we should act upon, we return to the schulz and note that one of the options is to accuse the village of satanic practices. We choose that, and in response multiple villagers attack us with clubs and tools. But they're just peasants, and the resulting combat is both brief and non-damaging to the party.

After the combat, one of the villagers gasps, just before dying, "We will have our revenge East of Strassburg on September 22." Afterwards, we hike up to the top of a nearby hill and find a demonic altar. With no alchemical or saintly options, we choose to "call forth the demon haunting the site and defeat it in battle," and we do in fact defeat him in battle. The altar is destroyed and we all gain some virtue points.
The cultist's statement alarms us, but Strassburg is awful far to the southwest, and there's no way we can make it there in 9 days.
14 September 1401. Leipzig. Party Fame: 72 (barely known). Local rep: 0.
349 years from now, Bach will die in this city. We have no luck here. The burgermeister won't see us; the alchemists won't talk to us; the Kloster won't even let us study saints. We buy some reagents and move on.
Through the woods to Wittenberg.

23 September 1401. Wittenberg. Party Fame: 72 (barely known). Local rep: 0.
We reach Wittenberg on the way to Berlin. We arrive at dusk. Rather than immediately head to the Goldene Weintraube for the night, we spend a couple hours on the streets beating up thieves. Maximian takes way more damage than makes sense given his plate armor. We retire to the inn and rest a couple of days to restore hit points.
Immediately on the road after leaving Witternberg, we are attacked by, and defeat, a party of wolves.
25 October 1401. Wilderness. 
Huddled mass of beggars on the road. Give 2 florins. 

4 November 1401. Berlin. Party Fame: 72 (barely known). Local rep: 0.
We arrive in Berlin at last, on a mission to steal reports from the Medici representative. That has to wait for night, so we spend the day shopping, and Maximian spends a few hours learning of St. Willebald. Just as we're about to leave, for the heck of it, we toss a few florins in the collection plate and a mysterious monk tells us to come back in the morning.
This led nowhere. Maybe we were too late in the "morning."
At night, we are able to sneak into the offices of the Medici representative and steal the treason plans that the Hanseatic League representative in Flensburg wanted. We finish off the evening with a bit of the old ultraviolence, courtesy of some hapless thieves, then settle in for a night's rest at the Alter Krug Dahlem. The next morning, we return to the Kloster but nothing special happens. I don't know what that was about. We depart the city, heading northwest along the east bank of the Elbe.
I'm beginning to wonder if these quests are really worth the trouble.
15 November 1401. Wilderness. Party Fame: 82 (barely known).
Attacked by bandits. Bluffing doesn't work. We kick their butts. Everyone's "Impact Weapons" go up a couple of points; the characters are now mostly in their 40s with the weapons after six months of practice.

26 November 1401. Wilderness.

At last, we come across the keep of Anton Seibt. We save the game and try challenging him to single combat. He attacks with a group of his retainers instead, and three of my characters are killed. Reloading, we try the tactic that has worked multiple times already: ask for entry, ask to spend the night, sneak out and find him in the middle of the night, defeat him in five-on-one combat.
Seibt doesn't fall for any of that "single combat" nonsense.
We now have multiple people to call on for rewards, including some at Lüneberg across the river. This time, there's an obvious bridge between the two sides. Why didn't we notice it last time? Did it get washed out?

5 December 1401. Lüneberg. Party fame: 92 (barely known). Local rep: -9.

The alchemist and the Hanseatic League are both grateful for the death of Anton Seibt. The game tells me that Hanse leaves after the League gives us our reward, but he doesn't right away. He stays in the party while we're still in town. Just as I'm beginning to assume it's a bug and we'll be able to keep him, he leaves us as we depart the city the next day.
Our friend announces his departure. Maybe we should have avoided turning in this quest. He was worth 10 florins.
At the alchemist's shop, I finally find someone willing to sell me alchemical formulas. Even though they cost a pretty 16 florins, I purchase four. This almost ensures that I'll be able to write about alchemy and potions next time.
23 December 1401. Wilderness.

Horrible day. We're attacked by giant spiders and just after we finish with them, we're attacked by The Hunt. Maximian is nearly killed.
What is this Hunt dude's problem?
30 December 1401. Wilderness.

Attacked by wild boars. Fortunately, no one is very hurt. Then we're ambushed by thieves. Maximian manages to bluff our way out of combat.

31 December 1401. Lübeck. Party fame: 95 (barely known). Local rep: 39.

The oberste, Adam Schmidt, gives us nearly 60 florins for killing Anton Seibt, and our local reputation goes up 43 points ("a local hero"). The Hanseatic League gives us a 7-florin reward for stealing the debt note from Erfurt.

I spend a bunch of our wealth on reagents and then spend a couple weeks at the Rathskellar, healing.

19 January 1402. Flensburg. Party fame: 95 (barely known). Local rep: 80.

Eight months after we left, we return to our city of origin with three rewards to collect. The Fugger representative gives us 6 florins for Seibt. The Hanseatic League representative gives us 3 florins for the reports regarding a plot to overthrow the city. (This lowers our local reputation by 10. What?) But the erbvogt, who also gave me the quest to kill Seibt, refuses to see us two days in a row. This is the second time he's blown us off after we've defeated a robber knight, and I assume it's some bug in the game. The quest-tracking utility, which I'm no longer using, says that we need to visit the mayor of Flensburg--twice.
The Fugger hates parting with money, even when it's due.
We decide to settle in for a period of learning and skill development, but this is hard to do in a concentrated way. For instance, the monastery seems to allow you to learn about one saint per visit to the city, not once per day. If you get someone to agree to tutor you, the agreement only lasts for a few days, during which there's no guarantee that you'll actually increase.
After a couple of frustrating weeks in which we accomplish little, we leave the city.

13 February 1402. Schleswig. Party fame: 95 (barely known). Local rep: -20.
I don't know what happened to our reputation in this city. As far as I know, we've done nothing negative here, and yet the guards accosted us when we tried to enter the city. We glibly talked our way out of it, but the experience left us rattled. Maybe our growing fame in Flensburg and Lübeck hurt us here.
Our ruse works--but we're still not in the city.
I'll leave off here as the party considers a new plan and exploration pattern, probably returning to summary entries when I come back.

Time so far: 29 hours

Sunday, June 23, 2019

A slight change in S.O.P. and a request for advice

Half a year ago, having finally caught up on the 1980s (sort of), I announced that my "new new plan" would involve alternating entries on two "current" (now 1992) titles while occasionally--every fifth entry, roughly--reaching back to my backlist for a "surprise" entry. Said backlist consists of:

  • Games that I didn't learn about until after passing their respective years
  • Games that I abandoned too early and may want to take another look at (note that this is not the same thing as "games that I didn't win," although there's certainly a bit of overlap)
  • Games that I originally couldn't find, or couldn't configure properly, for which new information has come to light
  • Games in non-Latin alphabet languages that I might technically be able to play because they don't have a lot of text in the first place
  • Games in non-Latin alphabet languages that have since been translated
  • Games that I originally rejected as RPGs but may be worth taking a closer look at
  • Console games, which aren't technically a part of the official list, but we'll talk about that in a minute

Excepting the last item, this list has over 100 titles, so the size is not trivial, and while it's safe to say that most of the titles are "minor" and no one would raise a huge fuss if I never played them, we're all aware that some of the best moments on this blog have come from an analysis of a mostly-forgotten RPG.

The problem with my "new new plan" is that by relegating these games to the occasional "surprise" posting, I've saddled myself with the burden of trying to finish them in a single entry. Having to stretch to multiple entries and yet not thread them in my "Recent, Current, and Upcoming" list just generates confusion. Or, at least, I feel like it does. Some of the games are quite long, and I need the freedom to stretch them over multiple sessions, just like a 1992 game. One consequence of this problem is that I've spent a lot of time on titles like Camelot (1982) and Danger in Drindisti (1982) but haven't posted anything about them simply because I haven't won them yet. Another consequence is that I've been prioritizing "quick wins" to the exclusion of more interesting titles.

Thus, I'm changing course a bit. There won't be any more "surprise" entries except when I cover a special topic that isn't directly about one game. Instead, every third game listed in the "Recent, Current, and Upcoming" list will be from the backlist, allowing me to explore them in as many entries as necessary. In drawing entries from the backlist, I'll probably alternate between chronological order and complete randomization. Otherwise, it'll be nothing but Crystalware titles for the near future.

Now, let's talk about console games. I've promised for years that I would be open to exploring some of them. In particular, I want to cover the ones that A) had the most influence on PC RPGs, B) had the most influence on those in group A, and C) contrast the most with the typical PC RPG. If it's a "good" game, that's icing on the cake, but that isn't a key criteria.

My question for you is: assuming that I only cover, say, 5-10 console games from the 1985-1992 period, which are the most important in satisfying the criteria of A, B, and C above? I drafted what I think is a decent list, but I'll temper it with whatever feedback I get in this entry. I'm sure there will be a lot of it. Keep in mind that I still need to be able to read the text, so there's no point recommending text-heavy Japanese games that never got a western release and English translation.

Thanks as always for your continued support and patience as I constantly tweak things. Even though I expect a lot of discussion on this entry, it doesn't count as a "real" entry, and you can expect the next posting on Darklands on Tuesday at midnight.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Revisiting: Wizard Warz (1987)

Trying the Atari ST version this time.
Wizard Warz
United Kingdom
Canvas (developer); GO! (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS; 1988 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 27 January 2011
Date Finished: 12 June 2019
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
By now, I've made no secret that I occasionally scan my list of played games, filter by those with "N" in the "Won?" column, and look for the ones I can quickly turn around. I did that with Journey a few weeks ago. Now I'm doing it again with Wizard Warz, an unsatisfying little action RPG that I played and lost in 2011. It's always a good idea to revisit games I played during that first year anyway. I was often playing the worst version (because of my DOS-only rule), and I didn't care anything about developers, publishers, or countries of origin. I thus missed a lot that was interesting about some of those games, and there is quite a bit that's interesting about Wizard Warz.

Wizard Warz isn't much of an RPG, although I suppose it technically qualifies. (For some reason, I had the opposite opinion in 2011.) One of the things that must have thrown me is that there's no character creation process, aside from selecting your sex and opening batch of spells. Then you're thrown onto the landscape, an apprentice wizard tasked with developing his skills and ultimately freeing the land from the yoke of seven powerful wizards.

The plot and its different phases are just an excuse for a near-endless series of one-on-one combats between you and the other wizards. Every enemy in the game, no matter what it is nominally called--animal, plant, human, supernatural--just looks like a little wizard in a cloak when combat begins. Every enemy has the same types of spells that you do. In combat, you fire spells at each other to lower each other's physical, spiritual, and mental meters. If any of these reaches 0, you die.
Locked in combat with a werewolf.
The game progresses in three phases. During character creation, you choose four spells that you'll use for the first phase. You then run around an island fighting six creatures: ape (or maybe yeti), spider, scorpion, werewolf, triffid, and serpent. (These might vary by platform.) Upon victory, each gives you an artifact: crown, cape, sword, chalice, pocket watch, and key. By returning these artifacts to the various castles and towns on the island, you receive food in return. Once you've returned all six, the first phase is over and you enter a port town for passage to the next location.
Returning an item to the castle in exchange for bread.
Phase 2 puts you in an arena where you can select from 30 potential opponents from the standard high-fantasy menagerie (e.g., troll, vampire, giant wasp, zombie, gorgon, dwarf, dragon), defeating them one by one. Most victories allow you a new spell (up to 9) or an attribute bump. Four victories give you a familiar, which offers a permanent advantage like shrugging off certain spells. Three of the victories give you a sword, a ring, and wand. Once you have all three of these, you move on to Phase 3.
Phase 2 lets you choose your opponents, cycling through them with the joystick trigger. This one is best dealt with via physical spells.
When I played in 2011, I died in Phase 2 after defeating most of the monsters because I ended up fighting a sorceress who had the "Forget" spell. "Forget" causes your active spell to disappear from your spellbook, and if you've played stupidly (i.e., if that was your only offensive spell), you could end up dead in the water like I was. But back in 2011, I apparently hadn't found the game manual, which offers several options to defend against this fate (particularly "Neutralize Magic," but I particularly like "Mirror," which causes the opponent to forget his own "Forget"). You can also carefully plot your way through the enemies, saving those with "Forget" for later in the phase--and perhaps never meeting them at all, if you get the three items first.
A timely reward for defeating a medusa.
Phase 3 has you take on the seven evil wizards in succession: Wolf Lord, Bear Lord, Imp Lord, Ogre Lord, Gryphon Lord, Crystal Lord, and Dragon Lord. You have to fight several of their henchmen before the wizards themselves appear. Every enemy you kill during this phase rewards you with food, which you can use to replenish physical health. Once you defeat the final wizard, you win.
Finding the Wolf Lord in the third phase. Note how the character's face changes as he gets more experience.
If it sounds boring, there is theoretically quite a bit of variance in tactics depending on the "wizard" you face. The game manual tells you what spells each type of wizard favors, and you can match your own spell in kind. Particularly during Phases 2 and 3, there are enemies that only respond to certain types of damage, so you cannot for instance rely on physical spells against most undead creatures. You can also tailor various types of defensive spells to their attacks.

But, yes, an awful lot of the game can be completed by simply spamming your most powerful physical spell the moment you see the enemy. I favored a combination where I would hit the enemy with "Slow" or "Stun" and then launch a succession of "Fireballs" or "Magic Missiles." This worked against all but a few creatures for which I needed "Heavenly Bolt" (a spiritual spell) or "Mindwrack" (a mental spell). When you shoot a spell, you have to be aligned right for it to hit the enemy, so a lot depends on your own controller dexterity.

The game does some odd things with the three meters, which are both measures of health and reservoirs of spell points. First, physical health drains a little bit as you walk around, and particularly if you bump into things. Second, it's nearly impossible to replenish mental energy and spiritual energy. You can transfer mental energy to spiritual energy with a key, and also spiritual energy to physical energy. Food, meanwhile, replenishes only physical energy. The only way you get mental energy replenished is as a reward for phase completion or for some of the Phase 2 combats. Any player who decides to specialize in mental spells is in for a tough game, and it's a mystery why the developers didn't better balance these abilities. It would make perfect sense if there was a key that completed the loop by transferring physical energy to mental energy, but there isn't.
Nearing a scorpion in Phase 1. He responds only to physical damage. Fortunately, spiritual and mental energy can be exchanged for physical energy.
The particularly crazy thing about Wizard Warz is that a complete game takes at least a couple of hours, and yet there's no way to save. It also means that even though the individual combats aren't difficult, the accumulation of them--you have to fight over 60 battles to win the game--makes it hard to ensure that something doesn't go wrong. The game could have autosaved at the beginning of each phase to maintain some of the difficulty but keep it fair.

Aside from the lack of save ability, there are a couple of fatal flaws. First, despite wildly different graphics in the various versions, it apparently only shipped with a single set of instructions. The instructions show which graphic goes with which spell, but for many versions of the game, the in-game graphics for the spells look very little like those in the instructions. This makes it difficult to tell what spell the enemy mages are using against you, and what spells are being offered to you after the combats in Phase 2. Second, and most important, the exploration window is laughably small (just about every review commented on this). It makes it hard to find opponents and (in Phase 1) towns, and it also means that during the battles, the two combatants are practically in melee range as they hurl spells at each other.
Blasting fireballs at an off-screen enemy.
The game is also bugged. In particular, none of the familiars seem to do what they're supposed to do. One of them is supposed to expand the size of the map window, but nothing seems to change. Others are supposed to protect you against "Stun," "Forget," and "Fear." I can't say for sure they don't work because I'm not sure I was subjected to those spells after getting the familiars, but magazines at the time reported that they didn't work.

Most bugged of all is the victory. I got to the ending on my own and watched two YouTube videos of the endings on different platforms, but I still haven't seen the final screen as originally intended. In the ZX Spectrum edition, the game just froze when the player defeated the final wizard. In the Amiga version, the player got a "congratulations" screen at the end, but it told him that he'd only completed 11% of the game and that he'd only achieved the rank of "apprentice." Meanwhile, in my experience with the Atari ST, nothing happened after I defeated the final wizard and I was able to keep running around the map. If I killed myself, I got a message that I had completed 100% of the game, and that I had achieved a grade of "X Erase," which is text from the instructions. Incidentally, the game had made my character invisible for the last 20 or so minutes of gameplay (not in battle, but on the outdoor map).
My "winning" screen.
Wizard Warz was developed in the mid-1980s in Britain, where most of the RPGs from local studios were highly original, utterly uninfluenced by American titles of the same period, and still not very good. As with games like Heavy on the Magick and Swords and Sorcery, I find myself noting that no other game has taken this particular approach--and then wishing that it had been more derivative. But even allowing for standard British RPG unorthodoxy, it's hard to imagine that anyone thought this game was going to be a blockbuster. And yet the developers (Canvas Software) simultaneously released it on five different platforms, with a sixth following within a year.

Although the structure, commands, and screen layout are the same across its various platforms, the graphics couldn't be more different. Sure, they had to adapt to what the platforms were capable of, but it feels like they didn't re-use any assets at all. They didn't even multi-task the staff: across the six versions are four different lead programmers and four different graphic artists. The box shows solid production values, and the ads rival those for AAA games of the same period. Why did Canvas go all-in on Wizard Warz?
Commodore 64.
ZX Spectrum.
An equal mystery is where Wizard Warz came from in the first place. Canvas mostly specialized in ports for other companies. (In my 2011 entry, before I had any idea how to research properly, I credited them with the famous Airborne Ranger, but they just did ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC ports. I mean, if they had developed it, it would have been British Special Forces or something.) Their in-house games were odd action adaptations of Highlander (1986) and Miami Vice (1986). They had no particular RPG experience or even fantasy experience.

Lead design is credited to a Gary Bolton, who has only three games to his credit. The second is Starring Charlie Chaplin (1988), a unique and absolutely unclassifiable game in which you control the famed comedian, pratfalling your way around a movie studio before you cut and edit the result and see how it does at the box office. He also has a producer credit on an Atari ST port of Atari's Road Runner (1987). (I tried unsuccessfully to find Bolton for this review. I did write to another former Canvas employee but got no response.)
The ad promises a livelier experience than the game was capable of delivering.
Whatever dreams they had for Wizard Warz, the game didn't save the company: it went out of business in 1988 or 1989. The game's best review was a 77/100 from July 1988's Sinclair User. It's one of those baffling British reviews where you wonder if the author played the same game. I can kind-of understand his praise for the graphics--he's comparing it to other ZX Spectrum games, after all--but not the part where he's bored because he spent too much time "wandering around without knowing where one's next quest is coming from." I don't even know how to respond to that. The only "wandering" that can be done in the game is on the small game maps, and if you can't find the "next quest" on those, you're the kind of person who needs a map to get out of a half-bath.

Your Sinclair, covering the same version, was harsh ("one of the least fun pieces of programming we've had the misfortune to play in months"). ACE was lukewarm at 62/100 ("as RPGs go, it's nothing outstanding"). Continental magazines put it in the 30s and 40s. The worst review was from Zzap!, which gave 30/100 for the C64 version, which admittedly had the worst graphics. (I also couldn't get the controls to work.) But the fact that it was reviewed by so many magazines in the first place testifies to its wide release and, thus, expectations.

I looked over my review of 2011 and decided I was too generous on "equipment" (you really only have food, in terms of usable stuff) but perhaps didn't give enough credit to "magic and combat." I was probably thinking of the spell as a type of "equipment." I don't know why I gave it a 3 for "quests"; any game that offers only a main quest with no side quests or choices gets only a 2. My changes bring it down to a 15 from the original 17 score I'd given it. But more important, I get to change my loss to a win, which was enough to get me an extra percentage point in the sidebar.

Alas, I'm running out of low-hanging fruit in the previously-lost list. Winning Bones (1991) should only take an hour if I can figure out what I did wrong the first time. War in Middle Earth (1988) also shouldn't be that hard; I should have won it before deciding it wasn't an RPG and dismissing it. Seven Spirits of Ra (1987) might be worth another look. Beyond that, there are good reasons I abandoned those games, and any return is not only going to be time-intensive, but it will be time spent on a game I already know I don't like or is very difficult to win. That time is probably best spent moving forward, so don't look for a lot more of these.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Game 333: Waxworks (1992)

The box CamelCases the second "W" but the title screen doesn't. There's a similar issue with whether the company is called HorrorSoft or Horror Soft.
United Kingdom
HorrorSoft (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 11 June 2019
Waxworks is the fourth major title from HorrorSoft, after . . . A Personal Nightmare (1989), Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1990), and Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus (1991). (It is also the last; the company would re-brand itself AdventureSoft in 1993 and from then on publish essentially nothing but Simon the Sorcerer entries. That annoys me a little bit. I mean, "AdventureSoft" is too generic a name to be taken up by a company that just publishes one series. They should have called themselves "SimonSoft" and left "AdventureSoft" for a developer with a more diverse catalog.) I think I could make a case for the game not really being an RPG, but part of me is curious to see how the developer does without Elvira as the game's centerpiece. I never really cared for the character, which I'm sure dragged down my enjoyment of the two previous titles.
Like the Elvira games, Waxworks is fundamentally an adventure game that does offer RPG-style character development, combat, and inventory. The interface is slightly redesigned from Elvira II. (The engine is called AGOS, a graphical version of an open-source engine designed for MUDs called AberMUD.) The system of health to individual body parts has been dropped, as has the useless beating heart. The compass is moved from the lower-right to the left, and character stats are on the bottom rather than between the two main windows. A control panel of icons in the upper-left lets you check inventory, manipulate objects, ready weapon, and attack.
I bought the GOG version and was confused for a while until I looked it up and discovered that the game came with two manuals, one of which GOG doesn't offer. The second, The Curse of the Twins, explains the backstory in 13 pages of text by Richard Moran, who also wrote the manual to Star Control II.
The backstory casts the unnamed protagonist as a twin whose brother Alex disappeared when they were teenagers. They had been exploring an old mine. The siblings lived in the seaside town of Vista Forge, where their rich, eccentric Uncle Boris built a wax museum in his creepy mansion. Now an adult, the main character has returned to Vista Forge to attend Boris's funeral. All kinds of mysterious signs, portents, and disasters accompany the trip, including the collapse of Boris's grave, and disappearance of his coffin when a sinkhole opens beneath the cemetery. During the chaos of this event, the protagonist thinks he briefly sees Alex in the mine tunnels that run under the cemetery.
The hallways of Uncle Boris's waxworks.
The protagonist remembers a tale that Uncle Boris once told, about a family ancestor who caught a witch named Ixona stealing one of his chickens. In retaliation, he chopped off her hand, for which Ixona cursed the family: "In every generation in which your family bears twins, one shall belong to Beelzebub." The curse nearly immediately came true, when one twin son of the family became Vlad IV of Walachia, or Vlad the Impaler, who lived up to his name by tracking down and impaling the witch. Generations later, other twins in the family included Torquemada, the Marquis de Sade, and a female witch burned at the stake in Salem. [Having lived in Salem, I am obliged to point out with indignation that no accused witches were burned in Salem; they were all hung, except for one who was crushed under rocks. Also, they were all innocent.] It was these very individuals that Uncle Boris chose to populate his waxworks. Determined to lift the curse, Boris also funded a dig at Vlad's castle in Walachia and recovered a crystal ball from the impaled corpse of Ixona. 

The character enters the tunnels and returns to the location where Alex disappeared, finding evidence that someone has been living in the tunnels, eating bats and fish. The next day, at the reading of the will, the character inherits Boris's estate. A letter left by Boris indicates that Boris knew Alex was still alive, and possessed by evil, and that the character can save him by using the waxworks to travel back in time and undo the curse.
Uncle Boris's creepy, disembodied head speaks to me from beyond the grave.
The game begins at the door to the mansion, with Boris's butler inviting the character in. The butler gives the protagonist (whom I guess I'll describe in the first person from now on) a crystal ball in which I see Boris's face. He tells me that I must use the waxworks exhibits to enter the worlds of the previous twins and kill them, "destroying the power that feeds the curse." I then find myself in front of an Egyptian exhibit. The Egyptian siblings technically predate the curse, but one of them was evil, which gave Ixona the idea in the first place.
Death is only the beginning.
I move throughout the mansion. Given the backstory, I expect to find exhibits depicting the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, Dracula, and perhaps even the persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. But I guess those were just examples. What I see instead are:
  • A mine being overrun by a mutant plant
Did that happen in this town? If so, the authorities sure hushed it up.
  • Jack the Ripper approaching one of his victims with a knife
You're not even stabbed yet, woman! Don't swoon--run!
  • A bunch of zombies lumbering through a graveyard
I'm not sure this event was "historical."
There are other closed curtains throughout the museum. I'm not sure if they'll later be opened and reveal other exhibits.

I wonder if I'm supposed to take these on in a particular order, but the game has me covered there. It turns out I can talk to Boris by clicking on the crystal ball. He tells me that no, it doesn't matter what order I choose--all of the scenes need to be "cleansed." I realize later that talking to him has cost me "psy" points, so I'd better save it for when I'm really stuck.
 . . . except that I'll be Level 1 for the first one and like Level 20 when I go to the last one.
I decide to go in chronological order, although I'm not entirely sure where the graveyard fits into it. My best guess is that the order is Egypt - Graveyard - Jack the Ripper - Mine. Thus, I head back to the Egyptian exhibit and choose "Enter."

A couple of flashes of light later, and I'm in a pyramid. A nearby room shows someone labeled "pyramid designer" stabbed in the back, his body hunched over a table. A piece of papyrus underneath the corpse has an image of Anubis and a set of nine hieroglyphics.
Some kind of puzzle already.
The room is full of baskets, jugs, pitchers, and other objects, and it turns out that, just as in Elvira II, you can pick up just about everything. Unlike Elvira II, there's no spell system here that's going to make use of all these items, so there's probably no point in loading up my inventory. I do it anyway, mostly because I want to see if the 16 items the window holds are all I get, or whether it scrolls. It turns out that it scrolls. At this point, I realize that I can't figure out how to drop things. Clicking and dragging them back to the environment doesn't help. The manual says that "Drop" is supposed to be an object action when I click on an object, but it never appears. I hope there's no limit to my inventory, then. I walk out of the room with a scarab beetle brooch (found in a chest), a dagger, a lamp, a bowl, a beaker, a stylus and ink block, two pieces of papyrus, three baskets, six jugs, a jar of oil, and a mat.
The scene in the first room. Most of this stuff will end up in my inventory.
Returning to the hallways, I start wondering if I'm going to have to map. I decide to try following the right corridor first, and if I get lost or confused, then I'll map.
I turn a corner and meet a pyramid guard with a sword. Combat hasn't really changed since Elvira II, either. You hit the sword icon to activate your readied weapon, then click in the screen itself to indicate what part of the enemy you want to target. The guard defeats me three times in a row.
And here's where we learn that Horror Soft did not skimp on its customary gruesome death screens.
Finally, on the fourth time, I manage to kill him--with no hit points lost. That suggests that luck is going to play a big role in combat. From this one battle, my level increases to 2. I also get the guard's sword.
As I walk, I realize I'm getting 1 experience point for every square I've never stepped in before. I soon go to Level 3. This is accompanied by an increase in maximum hit points.
Continuing down the hall, I meet another guard, who also slays me two times in a row. I finally kill him on my third try. I hit him about five times for every time he hits me, and I do hundreds of points of damage to him. These guys are tanks. I begin to wonder if I was really supposed to level up in one of the easier scenarios first.
At this moment, let's pause to note that the graphics are quite nice. Many are animated, which isn't coming through in these static shots. But the only sound effects I've experienced in the game are the swishes and thuds of weapons connecting in combat. There's music, but it's loud and relentless and I turned it off.
This guy was a little easier. He looks easier.
After picking up some piles of sand, I meet a new enemy: a priest with a dagger. He dies a lot easier than the guards. At the end of a corridor, at a statue, I find a tuning fork in a pot. But it isn't long before yet another guard kills me. I reload, kill him, step a few paces past him, and find a little pond. There, a crocodile kills me while I'm trying to fill a jug with water. Man, this game is rough.
Reloading, I walk a few paces past the crocodile, then meet an Egyptian guy with a spear:
The problem is that hit points don't seem to regenerate automatically as you move. It occurs to me that Uncle Boris might be able to help. I contact him and, sure enough, using the bits of papyrus and pen that I picked up, he creates three healing scrolls. Each one seems to heal 10 hit points. They don't really help: the spear guy destroys me in two stabs.

I start paying attention to the statistics, and when I finally kill the bastard, I'm convinced the game is just making things up. When you strike someone, the box in the lower-left corner tells how many hit points of damage you've done. There were times that I hit the guy for over 200 points in multiple blows and he didn't die. When I did finally kill him, it was after maybe 80 points of damage.

I come to a treasure room! Too bad that's not why I'm here. Five pots, a weight, two cat statues, a golden calf statue, and a tile all join my overflowing inventory.
In a real RPG, there would be lots of cool stuff in a room like this.
I soon come up against a thick glass panel. Nothing will smash it. This sounds like a job for the tuning fork! After 15 minutes of rummaging through my stuff, I find it--somehow I accidentally put it into a basket. I use it and the glass shatters and collapses.

A few paces on, two blades come out of the ceiling and kill me.
Okay, it turns out that the blades are the result of a trap, indicated by the presence of a very thin piece of string stretching across the corridor. I'll have to watch for those in the future.

I finally make it to a set of stairs upward, where I'm confronted by a puzzle: a pentagram with the number 0 at each point, plus four numbers (1, 3, 4, 6, 7) at each intersection of lines. Clicking on any of the 0s causes them to cycle through numbers 1 through 9, but it also starts an hourglass timer at the bottom. If I run out of time, as I did the first attempt (before I realized the hourglass was even running):
The mechanism by which this happened is unclear to me.
My guess is that it's like a magic square: each line has to add up to the same number, with no number being used more than once, including the ones in the middle. That means I have to make do with 2, 5, 8, 9, and 0 at the points of the pentagram. It doesn't take me long, though, to realize that isn't going to work. The best I can do with no repeating numbers is make the totals come out to 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20.

So I focus on just getting them to add up to the same thing period. I spend some time messing with it in Excel and I finally come up with the answer, but I'm unsatisfied with my method. I know there's a way to do it algebraically, and I just couldn't figure it out. Solving math puzzles via trial-and-error never seems right. Anyway, I go up to Level 6.
Caught it just as the door was opening.
A few steps down the corridor and:
How did I end up barefoot, exactly?
I think I'll leave it there. So far, it seems like a brisk game, but much like Elvira II, the RPG elements are unsatisfying. The deaths are kind of funny, but I wouldn't be laughing if I prized myself on low reload count.

Time so far: 3 hours