Monday, June 22, 2015

Elvira II: A Funny Feeling Up and Down My Spine

Indeed. Who garnishes a head with cucumber slices?

One thing that adventure games do better than the typical RPG (at least in this era) is to create a greater sense of place. Where RPGs might offer hundreds of squares of repetitive, featureless corridors, culminating in an encounter that is more likely to be presented textually than graphically, almost every screen in an adventure game is carefully-composed, thoughtfully placed, and somehow important to the plot. When you find an exception--the western courtyard with the guard barracks in Quest for Glory comes to mind--it's a bit jarring.

Elvira's office. As you might expect from the character, it's a bit of a mess--and there are at least three bottles of hairspray visible.
This means that finding and unlocking new areas in an adventure game is more exciting than in an RPG. You know that each new area is going to reveal a bit of plot, or a key item that you need to solve a puzzle in an earlier area. The problem is, it's also a little exhausting. It's a bit like watching a frame-by-frame shot of a complicated film, having to study the mise-en-scène for several minutes to make sure you picked up each important element. I'm ready to call it quits after three or four new screens.

Especially when so many end up like this.
If you were to describe a typical RPG to someone with no experience--miles of featureless corridors or landscape, filled with dozens of meaningless combats and loot-collecting, punctuated by some key encounter or battle every 30-60 minutes--it would probably sound terribly boring. And yet, it's what I'm addicted to. Adventure games are nearly the opposite of this--every screen important, some puzzle constantly on your mind. To me, a good hybrid strikes a balance between the two. Again, I think of Quest for Glory with its tracts of forest or sand, full of random combats, in between puzzle locations. Elvira II is satisfying what little adventure game craving I possess but not my RPG craving.

After last time, I started over from the beginning and replayed up to the basement, where this time I saved before going into the boiler room. The demonic hand seems to be unavoidable, but there's a "copper rod" in the basement that I presume I'll need later, so finding some way to block it must be a puzzle.

The guy sitting on the floor in the basement turned out to be a Native American janitor who greeted me by saying, "I warn them not to build studios here. Now great Evil will befall." He went on to explain that a Mighty Evil spirit has stolen his magic and captured Elvira, and he will sacrifice Elvira to gain her power and ultimately take over the world. To defeat the spirit, I somehow have to recover the janitor's spear, tomahawk, and magic bag--and maybe a peace pipe, although that might just be a metaphor.

The dialogue system isn't bad. We're not seeing dialogue choices like this in most other RPGs of the time. But it has a way of killing dialogue after a couple of trees, forcing you to start from the beginning. Also, if you say something to insult the janitor, like "you need a good shrink," he refuses to talk to you, which I assume is a bad thing.

Up on the second floor, the elevator took me to the studio offices, which consisted of a set of rooms that you might find in a typical movie studio: a computer room, a makeup room, Elvira's office, a director's office, and a personnel office. Each room had just a ton of items to view and collect, which I'll talk about in a second, but not much in the way of the main plot.

Perhaps the most fun room was the makeup room, where a series of mirrors allowed me to view myself, with the appearance changing depending on what I was wearing. A makeup kit nearby had an assortment of fake mustaches, beards, wigs, hats, glasses, and other accessories, and it was briefly fun putting on a variety of items and watching how the portrait changed.

The PC stops to play dress-up before remembering he's on a quest to save his girlfriend.

During this period, I figured out the game's approach to inventory. Basically, as you click around a room and identify objects, they appear, one-by-one, in the "room's" inventory, accessible from the icon in the upper-right of the screen. Next to it is your own inventory. By dragging items to either of the buttons, you can change what the room contains versus what you're carrying.

This room has a plant, some books, a picture of Elvira, a couple of coffee mugs, a spoon, a water bottle, a stool, and a book.

As you pull items from the room, they disappear from the screen. If you remove items from your inventory, they'll re-appear on screen as long as you're putting them back in the original room. If you drop items picked up in other locations, they won't appear on the screen--just in the room's inventory.

Since many of the spells (more on that anon) use random items picked up in the environment, I adopted the expedient of grabbing everything, hauling it down to the first floor, and dumping it in the room that splits into three studios. This required multiple trips, as you do have a weight limit. But I figured it would be best to have everything in a central place where I might need it.

During the explorations, I did find one reference to the first game: "a postcard with a picture of Elvira's castle in England on it." Since the image of my character in the mirror (and on the death screens) looks a little bit like the PC in Elvira, I can only conclude that the PC from the first game became Elvira's boyfriend and accompanied her back to the states.

The British PC begins to regret his choice.

The office area also delivered the game's first combat, against a witch. I couldn't win it the first few times, but at least it introduced me to the system--which is worse than in the original game. In Elvira, you would wait to see the direction of the attack, parry, and then make your own thrust or slash depending on your assessment of how the enemy was defending. In this one, there's no defense at all. You just click on an enemy's body part with the sword icon, wait for a cooling-off period, and click again. Meanwhile, the enemy is attacking you and you have no way to dodge.

A witch attacks me while I shoot "Ice Darts" at her.

I guess the specific body part targeted makes a difference, although I wasn't able to find a weakness for the witch. And since you get no feedback on how much damage you're doing, it must just be a matter of trial and error. The only thing you can adjust is your overall approach to combat in four categories: "Normal," "Defense," "Fierce," and "Berserk." From the manual's explanation, this setting not only affects your own attack speed but also the enemy's, so all it seems to do is to make your victory or death more rapid. I guess I have to experiment more to be sure.

A later fight against a giant mosquito. When the sword icon is white, I can attack. When it's black, I have to wait.

After a few deaths at the hands of the witch, I decided to explore the spell system in more detail. It's similar to Elvira in that you have to "mix" spells before casting them, and the spells appear as inventory items once mixed. Unlike the first game, you can mix spells yourself, and the spellbook uses a variety of items found in the environment rather than just herbs. You cast them with your own "power points" (which regenerate slowly between castings, about 1 every 22 seconds), and your character level limits what spells you can mix and cast.

Some of the components required to mix spells are obvious. "Summon Storm" requires a barometer, for instance, and "Resist Fire" requires a fire extinguisher. Others are open to interpretation. "Protection" requires a "metal band," which I took to mean a ring, but it turned out that a soda can worked okay. "Detect Trap" requires "any shaped glass"--I had success with an ashtray. A couple of Level 1 spells--"Ice Dart" and "Healing Hands"--require no ingredients; you can keep casting as long as your spell points hold out. A few spells require two reagents, such as "Lightning Bolt," which requires "an amethyst and anything fork-shaped."

The first game has me a bit paranoid. There, it was possible to get into a "walking dead" situation by using items for some spells that you really needed for others, or by wasting spells in some combats when you needed to save them for different ones. Here, for instance, I sacrificed a silver four-leaf clover charm for a "Luck" spell, but now I'm worried that I really needed to save that item for its silver.

Mixing the "Courage" spell with a bottle of gin. Shame to waste the gin. Note that I have "Brain Boost," "Breathe Underwater," "Luck," "Unseen Shield," "Ice Dart," "Protection," and "Healing Hands" already mixed and in my inventory.

There are an awful lot of spells--37!--and I assume some are needed to solve puzzles, so I'm probably going to adopt a conservative stance on casting. Since "Healing Hands" doesn't require any ingredients--just waiting for points to recharge--I'd rather take damage in combat and heal it later than cast a "Fireball" that I really needed to save for a puzzle.

Back to the plot. The only place to go having explored the office was one of three studio doors. I started with #1. When I opened it, a vision of Elvira paid me a visit.

That's worded so badly I can't even tell if it's a double entendre.

The area led me into a series of tunnels in which I was attacked by giant insects. I didn't last very long. It was a bit traumatic watching a mosquito slowly drain my blood while I futilely attacked him with a knife.

I decided to briefly explore Studio #2. Here, the cameras were pointed at a "screen" of a haunted house.

Only at this point did the game's schtick become clear. In the manual, Elvira's letter mentioned that the studio was shooting three films: Kiss of the Spider, House of Horror, and It Came from Beyond the Grave. Clearly, what's happened is that the sets have come to life, allowing me to walk beyond the screen and experience their plots and perils. As I said in the last posting, this is a much better thematic use of the Elvira character than the first game's castle.

As I entered the House of Horror, Elvira's image appeared and told me that I'd need my brain more than my weapon here, which was welcome news. I figured I could build up some more experience levels on this set before attempting set #1 and the witch again.

The mansion was a stereotypical haunted house. A dining room contained a head on a platter, another head in a cupboard, both of which kept causing me to faint. I took a clue from the presence of wine bottles everywhere and cast "Courage," which worked on the head on the platter but not the one in the cupboard. (I spent some time fiddling with my knife to see if I could cut the head to get the brain, a spell component, to no avail.) From the latter fainting, I kept waking up in a pantry full of dead bodies and no way out. An image from Elvira said I would have to "warm up" before I could leave, but any spell that could have accomplished that was above my current level.


A study off the first floor held two suits of armor holding halberds. I expected to get attacked by them, but they just stood there and let me take the helmet off one of them. A second exit was blocked by a "ghostly figure" holding the door shut; I assume I need "Turn Undead" for him, but that requires a brain, which I have not yet found.


In a small room off the study, a desk drawer held a prayer book, which I need for the "Unholy Barrier" spell, or perhaps as the solution to a puzzle. This is harder to tell than with generic items like bottles of wine and shaped glass. A second drawer held a padlock, needed for "Mindlock," which "protects the spells already memorized from being destroyed." I assume I'll need that at a specific point later in the game where something wipes my spells.

Behind a picture in the room was a wall safe which requires a key to open. The key seems to be at the bottom of a nearby fish tank, but I can't find a way to break into the fish tank and get the key. "Ice Dart" doesn't break the tank and "Underwater Breathing" doesn't help in any way. I'll think on it some more.

Maybe I need another rock to smash this glass.

A variety of rooms on the second level. One was on fire when I entered and burned me to death. I have the fire extinguishers needed for "Resist Fire" but not the necessary level (5).

You'd think I would have sensed this from the outside.

A bathroom had a sink full of blood and a bunch of toiletries to pick up, but no puzzles that I could see. A room with a couple of tea chests held a book of matches, which I reasoned were the "combustibles" I need for "Fireball." I hit Level 4 right about this time, so I mixed up a couple, returned to the pantry, and cast it. The resulting rise in temperature summoned a guard who killed me. I'm kind of sick of losing every combat in the game. I could try casting "Protection" before more of them, but I haven't found any more of the required "metal bands," and I don't want to waste a spell I might need later.

That's where I leave off, with plenty of the mansion and the other two sets left to explore, and the unsolved puzzles piling up in my notepad.

A few other notes:

  • Unless I have something configured incorrectly, the only sound in the game is a relentlessly up-tempo soundtrack that I can't tolerate for more than a few minutes. I quickly checked out versions of both DOS and Amiga gameplay on YouTube and didn't hear any sound effects there, either. This is a major step back from the first game, where there were neat combat sounds and other assorted effects.
  • The game's approach to rewarding experience is a bit odd. You gain 4 points for every new square you step on, plus varied points for picking up certain items and interacting with the environment. But you get at least 10 points for every spell that you cast. A smart player would mix up some "Ice Darts" right away when the game starts and cast one every time the power points get back to their maximum. Leveling up gives you an increase of 1 or 2 points in a bunch of attributes, plus more hit points and power points.
  • A "motion tracker" in the lower-left corner is supposed to warn you about nearby enemies, but as far as I can tell, it doesn't do anything at all.
  • The beating heart in the upper-left was a good idea that really has no purpose given that there's no sound and the hit points tell you everything you need to know.

I'm finding Elvira II to be quite a bit harder than the first game, both in combat and puzzles, and I may take a break for a more classic RPG before my next post. Fortunately, readers came through on all my conundrums last time, and I now have working versions of Antares, Dragon Slayer for the PC-88, and Quest for Tanda. In the meantime, no hints on this game, please, unless I've obviously done something wrong or made an incorrect assumption.

Hours so far: 4
Reload count: 9


  1. "If you were to describe a typical RPG to someone with no experience--miles of featureless corridors or landscape, filled with dozens of meaningless combats and loot-collecting, punctuated by some key encounter or battle every 30-60 minutes--it would probably sound terribly boring."

    While this is certainly true for a subset of RPGs -possibly even the majority in these early years- there's plenty that don't meet this criteria on both PCs and consoles. The Baldur's Gate and Fallout (both "Classic" and "Modern") games don't really fit, nor do the Elder Scrolls series (even the wilderness parts could hardly be called featureless). Ultima, of course, only fits on the world map (in the older games that HAD a world map), as do most jRPGs after the NES era. Most SRPGs, for that matter, don't have any filler at all - you just go from battle to battle, and the only things they put effort into making are the battle maps and the ones used for cutscenes, meaning that these are usually both distinct and memorable. Indeed, the biggest criticism of some modern jRPGs is that they put too much effort into the set pieces and scenery and not enough to plot, gameplay mechanics, etc.

    1. Don't know about Fallout but Elder Scrolls and Baldur's Gate do fit as featureless coridors when it comes to plot, plot tends to be spread out in an rpg unlike an adventure game, with a bunch of pointless combats abd loot collecting in between. I don't think there is a better way to describe an rpg compared to other ganes than what the addict said.

    2. Hrm you never played elder scrolls volume 2 :Daggerfall then? ;)

    3. The Elder Scrolls games certainly have vast amounts of combat and loads of dungeons and dungeon-like areas, and the earlier Ultima games are quite similar (especially the earlier ones), with dungeons being a key part of those games.

      Despite my love for RPGs, I do find this meaningless combat and grinding through repetitive combat dull. I much prefer games like Quest for Glory, Ultima VII, Fallout and Baldur's Gate which have extensive non-combat encounters.

    4. Well, my use of the word "featureless" confuses things. Naturally, as time passes, dungeons become quite well-featured. That doesn't mean that every corridor and room unlocks a key bit of the plot, however. The last few TES games are stand-outs in offering frequent dungeon rooms and areas that are extremely meaningful and that offer great bits of plot and lore--but even they have huge swaths of territory in between key encounters.

    5. I meant to add the last couple of Fallout games to that list, too. Yes, there are some wonderful non-combat encounters in many of the buildings, and some awesome things to find. That doesn't mean the majority of the territory is like that, though. I can't think of any RPG that is like an adventure game, with important stuff on almost every screen.

    6. I would argue that Daggerfall is the most featureless of any Elder Scrolls game, including Arena.

    7. "Well, my use of the word "featureless" confuses things. Naturally, as time passes, dungeons become quite well-featured. That doesn't mean that every corridor and room unlocks a key bit of the plot, however. The last few TES games are stand-outs in offering frequent dungeon rooms and areas that are extremely meaningful and that offer great bits of plot and lore--but even they have huge swaths of territory in between key encounters."

      Ah. You were addressing a completely different concept than I thought you were - I took the term to mean "interchangeable environments that you can barely tell apart", not "Explorable areas that add relatively little to the plot except possibly at endpoints no matter how scenic, atmospheric, and lore-filled they may be, filled with enemies that serve no story purpose and exist primarily to serve as an obstacle from point A to point B."

    8. If there is decent tactical combat in the game, repetitition is something you need, as ideally you should - over the course of many somewhat similar combats - learn good techniques. For adventures, this is not typically a focus, so they can afford to have every area unique.

  2. It's really an ugly design fault that you can create walking dead situations all the time. If quest relevant items were protected and you had some respawning components for combat spells, you could actually have fun trying out stuff. Now you basically have to fork your savegame every time you use the last of anything. Too bad. I hope the puzzling is still fun!

    1. It's not so bad in pure, short adventure games (Maniac Mansion comes to mind, where you can beat the game painlessly in less than an hour if you know what to do- the game doesn't reset your knowledge of the game and what to do) but if you have to build up a character through anything *but* solving puzzles (in other words, strong RPG elements) it seems like a pretty terrible design flaw

  3. A bit of a spoiler about fireball (as it's a bit poorly worded in the spellbook): nal cncre vgrz jvyy qb. Gung'f cebonoyl jul gur tnzr unf fb znal bs gurz.

    1. Also, and I don't know how to say that in a less spoilerish way, you better reload. Because VVEP gurer'f bayl bar zngpu obk va gur tnzr. Naq lbh'yy arrq vg.

    2. Thanks! Fortunately, I had a save from just before I used that.

      I rather assumed I'd have to make a couple passes through the game anyway, like you generally have to do in most adventure games.

  4. Hours so far: 4

    Heh, I misread that at a glance as "Heads so far: 4" and thought, "A perfect metric for those Horrorsoft shockers: rating games by how many decapitations they contain!"

  5. There are sound effects in all versions of Elvira 2, the Amiga and AtariST versions offered digital samples. But the PC version is limited to Adlib sound effects, which don't sound very good.

    If you want better sound effects, try running the game under recent ScummVM snapshot, with digital SFX file offered on ScummVM web site. You can even re-use saved games, with minor adjustments (see section 6.2 of README).

    1. Adlib only made music, it can't make FX as far as I know. I suppose you could toot the instruments to serve the plot purpose. Right around now there was a paradigm where users would have Adlib for music and PC speaker for sound effects. I kind of miss the old days of Frankenstein PCs.

    2. It's possible to do custom programming on the Adlib (via direct access or via custom "instruments") to do limited sound effects. I've certainly played games that go this route.

      They're not very impressive, though.

    3. "Not very impressive" = Various renditions of "splortch". :)

  6. Interesting, the game's approach to spells is transforming an RPG element into an Adventure game version of it. Like, "use x with y", which, if one gets stuck somewhere leads to the typical situation where one mindlessly clicks on everything with the hope that by chance, something changes. Plus, the melee combat apparently is laughably simple. So the CRPG components of the game seem very weak. The experience system is nice though. Maybe your conservative approach to using things has kept you from leveling up one or two times and maybe combat gets easier with spells and a higher level. Or, as a second posssibility, maybe you are meant to avoid combat.

    1. Very true. It was later, very much, refined in Waxworks (which has a much better combat system that plays like Dungeon Master/Eye of the Beholder).

    2. From what little I can recall, many of the combats in Elvira 2 are "puzzle-lite" in the sense that the monster is incredibly weak against some specific spell or item.

  7. It's taken me a week to place it, but that creepy transmogrified version of the ghost really reminds me of the critter from Splice.


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