Sunday, January 12, 2014

Elvira: Black Magic

Instructing Elvira to create a potion out of various reagents (left side) drawn from my inventory (right side).

Some kind of combat system involving random monsters is the easiest way for an otherwise straight adventure game to claim RPG credentials. If B.A.T. didn't have wandering hostile robots and aliens, if Quest for Glory didn't have random creatures in the forests, and if Elvira didn't have undead guards popping up in every doorway, we would regard all of them as pure adventure games. Such games adopt their RPG elements to give a non-deterministic challenge to the player, contrasting with the deterministic nature of the puzzles. I rather like the juxtaposition, the same way I like it when challenging puzzles show up in RPGs.

I've already won Elvira, but rather than offer one huge posting on combat, magic, the endgame, and my final rating, I'm going to split it into two, discussing magic, combat, enemies, and equipment here and the game-winning puzzles in the next one.

Enemies frequently appear in doorways that you click on.

Elvira's combat didn't bore me, but it's not a very good tactical experience. As I recounted in the first post, most enemies--undead guards, monks, skeletons--pop up randomly as you try to navigate from one area to another. After giving you a few seconds' glimpse of your enemy's arrival (and a chance to cast a spell or escape), the game takes you to the combat screen, where you and your opponent proceed through multiple rounds of combat and defense. When in the attack phase, attacks continue until the defender successfully parries, at which point the roles reverse.

This feels uncomfortably like fighting some kind of Muppet.

I never figured out if it made any difference whether I lunged or hacked during attacking. The choice of blocking or parrying while defending, on the other hand, makes a huge difference, depending on whether the enemy is attacking from his left (parry) or right (block). After some experience, I found that the swings you need to block take longer, giving you more time to click the button. Thus, I found a good strategy was to stay on "parry" as the default and only switch to "block" when I saw the wider swing coming.

The overall goal in combat is not to escape all injury, but just to be good enough that your health doesn't deplete before the end of the game. The only way to regenerate lost life points is to drink healing potions. Elvira gives you one at the beginning of the game, good for a couple of doses that each restore 20%. You can theoretically have her mix up some more, though I didn't find all the ingredients for them. In any event, a moderately-skilled player could easily reach the end with all the initial health, making both healing spells and damage spells irrelevant.

Practically every screen has some reagents to collect. It took me a while to figure out that these reagents might appear as innocuous grass or shrubs that simply looks like part of the background, or even invisible entirely. The spiders, centipedes, beetles, and earwigs you collect from the basement don't show up on the screen; you have to click around the room until the game tells you they're present, then go into the room's "inventory" to drag them to your own. The lesson here is to click on everything in the game.

If you say so.

A key puzzle is to find the reagents for the "Herbal Honey" spell so that you can identify the various plants in the garden--the source of about a third of the game's reagents.

Loading up my inventory in the garden.

When you have the right reagents to make a spell, you bring them to Elvira (after you've returned her recipe book, found in one of the castle rooms). You specify the spell you want, and the ingredients it requires, and sit through an animated sequence in which Elvira brews a potion out of them. Some of these potions nonsensically turn into scrolls when you drink them.

Unfortunately, most of this reagent-collecting is wasted time. There are really only two necessary spells in the game: the aforementioned "Herbal Honey," and a spell called "Glowing Pride" that lights up a secret passage where one of the keys can be found. You need the former to find the reagents for the latter. There is a third spell, "Alphabet Soup," which translates runic language and is helpful to read both a sign in the castle and a message on a rock. The latter helps find Emelda in the endgame but isn't fully necessary.

There are 21 other spells offered in the spellbook supplement to the game, and most of them are optional attack and defense spells. Some increase attributes. For instance, "Knightyme Pleasure" offers protection from magical weapons, and "Brain Ache" decreases the enemy's combat skills. These might be necessary if the enemies were harder, but as it is, I got through the game without them. There is one sequence, in the hedge maze, where you face a series of goblins that poison you if they get into melee range. You need a bunch of attack spells and crossbow bolts to ensure that you kill them at a distance. It's possible that if I'd taken longer in the maze, or had to enter it multiple times, I would have needed more attack spells here, but as it was, the ones that Elvira gave me at the beginning of the game were enough.

If I don't nail him before he gets closer, I'll spend the next few minutes slowly bleeding to death.

You can get into trouble with some of the spells, as there are a fixed number of reagents in the game. There's only one "flame flower," and you need it for the "Glowing Pride" spell, so if you blow it on "Fire Sponge" instead, you can't win. You could also lose by mixing two "Iced Magick" spells (these cure wounds), using up both thistles, one of which is also needed for "Glowing Pride." Until I won the game, I didn't know what spells would be necessary to solve puzzles, so of course I erred on the side of not mixing spells I didn't absolutely need. By the time I had it all straight, I'd already won, so there wasn't much point in replaying just to experience more of the spells.

"Spagetty [sic] Confusion" decreases enemies' combat skills.

The spell system also, in several ways, serves as a copy protection system. First, you have to learn from the book what the various spells actually do. Their names ("Maidens Turnover"; "Lucky Surprise") don't often give much hint as to the effects (half damage from non-magic weapons; increase dexterity). Second, you need the book to know what reagents to give to Elvira to mix. If you give her the wrong ones, she gives you a warning. If you do it three times, she kicks you out of the game.

Oh, no! If only "restoring" were a thing!

Finally, the original game came with a red acetate lens that you needed to read some of the text in the book. This prevented players from simply photocopying it for each other.

As I mentioned in the last post, there is a ton of items in the game, most of which are unnecessary for any puzzle, so you have to be careful about which ones you choose to pick up. Fortunately, the game remembers where you dropped stuff, so I just ended up using Elvira's kitchen as an equipment depot and dumped everything there until I knew I needed it. There is a small selection of weapons: the initial dagger, a long sword, a battle axe, a sledge hammer, and a "Crusader's Sword" that you get late in the game from puzzle-solving. You have a separate associated "skill" score with each, and it increases incrementally as you land blows in combat. I'm not sure if the axe is a better weapon than the long sword or vice versa, but I found it was best just to stick with one, since you never break or lose weapons and it maximizes your skill development.

Armor (which increases the "resilience" attribute) consists of a few shields and a suit of armor. The latter seems like a good idea--it increases resilience from 10 to 55--but it weighs so much that you can't carry much else without getting overtired. Once you pick up too much stuff, the game gives youa message that "the combined weight of everything you are carrying is tiring you," and it saps two points of strength every move until you lighten your load. The strength drain is, as far as I can tell, permanent, so you don't want to get into this situation in the first place. Eventually, if you persist in carrying too much stuff, you sink to your knees and fall asleep, and Elvira fires you.

Does that mean I don't have to risk my life for you anymore? 'Cause that's kind of like winning, right?

I suppose a good strategy, if you were having a lot of trouble with combat, would be to don the suit of armor, don't pick up anything else besides your weapon, and fight random combats until your skill improves. Ditch the armor when you're more skilled and experienced.

Most of the game's key enemies don't fall to standard combats and spells. The vampiress sleeping in one of the bedchambers needed some wood through the heart. At first, I thought the crossbow would be the answer, but it didn't work. Later, I found a stake among some fireplace logs and thought that was all I needed. Unfortunately, piercing a sternum with a piece of wood, however pointy, isn't quite as easy as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have you believe. I had to find a sledgehammer in the gardener's shack before I could effectively use the stake. When I did, I was treated to a mildly horrifying animation sequence--one of the few times in an RPG that I've felt truly bad about killing an enemy. She looks like she's in legitimate pain and terror.

I also don't think that's how a "sledgehammer" works, but whatever.

Her death wasn't even necessary. All I got for it was a bit of vampire dust--used in one unnecessary spell--and a couple of crossbow bolts from her closet. Incidentally, looking at the vampire dust provides the description of "a small pile of dust from an ex-vampira," which might be a sly reference to Vampira, the TV horror hostess from the 1950s upon whom Elvira partly based her character. She later .

There's a mid-game puzzle in which Elvira's kitchen gets taken over by a fat, monstrous cook who beheads you with a meat cleaver if you linger. Thanks to about paying attention to what Elvira had to say, I figured the key to beating the cook was to use salt.

So, just to be clear: you've been EATING what the monster in the kitchen has been cooking?

I found some salt in the cellar, brought it back, and threw it at her. This provided another memorable animation. Afterwards, Elvira returned to the kitchen and things returned to normal.

Was she a slug or something?

The major quests of the game are to find the six chest keys, find Emelda's chest, collect the items needed to defeat her, and then find Emelda herself. I'll detail finding the keys now and the rest of it next time. Four of the keys were quite easy to find:

1. In a stable. You have to get past a werewolf by killing it with a silver-tipped bolt. I recounted this .

2. On a notice board in the gate captain's office. He falls, after a long time, from a regular combat.

3. Around the neck of a hawk. You need to shoot him with a crossbow bolt before he plucks your eyes out. Shooting him kills both the hawk and (for some reason) the undead austringer.

Was the hawk undead, too? If not, I feel kind of bad.

4. In the basement on the body of a dead torture victim.

The fifth was a little harder, but not much. In the kitchen, there's a dumbwaiter that, when operated, reveals a secret passage. You can't go down the passage yourself, as Elvira tactfully points out. Elvira will happily crawl down--and, to the delight of 1990s teenagers, back out . . .

. . . only to report that it's too dark. Thus, you must mix up that "Glowing Pride" (light) spell and send it down the passage in advance of Elvira. She returns with a key.

The sixth took far longer than the others combined. It's held by a guard on the battlements, but he won't die from standard combat (the game warns you he looks "invincible"). You have to shoot him with a crossbow, which causes him to fall off the battlements and into the moat.

There's no easy way to get to the moat. You have to explore the catacombs (a separate map from the basement) and deal with the nasty creatures there, including a bunch of flying skulls and the demon who hurls them.

This looks like some creature from another game or film. It's driving me crazy, but I can't quite place it.

One of the coffins, when opened, floods the catacombs and supplies a secret exit. You have to swim through flooded passages--quickly, or you drown--and emerge in the moat.

The moat is an odd map area with three horizontal water "rings" between the castle wall and the moat's edge, three vertical rings of depth, and maybe a dozen movements in any of the rings either clockwise or counterclockwise around the moat. You have to get to the middle horizontal ring at the moat's bottom to find the guard. It took me a long time to explore, as you can only move a few spaces underwater before you have to come up for air.

After you find the key, you have to find your way back through the passages and a locked grate before arriving in the castle's well. Again, there's lots of opportunity for drowning along the way.

There's one other object, besides the keys, necessary to find before the endgame: the aforementioned Crusader's Sword. This was my favorite puzzle of the game. It starts with the recovery of Elvira's missing ring from the hedge maze. You have to fight your way through a bunch of goblins (being careful to destroy them at distance) before reaching the goblin's lair. A few bolts or spells flung into the lair kills the rest of them, and the goblins disappear from the maze.

The ring fits into a receptacle on a cross in the chapel's castle. This opens up a secret area containing a mural of knights and an angel along with a gold crown. If you try to leave with the crown, you get another of the game's memorable death screens. (A note in the gate captain's office served as a warning about this.)

The solution to the puzzle lies, of all things, in the Latin on the image: QUICUMQUE MEUM REGNUM REDINTEGRAT ILLE GLADIUM SALUTIS TENEBIT. It translates as: "He who renews my kingdom will hold the Sword of Salvation." If you use a Christian prayer scroll here (found in a bible in one of the bedrooms), the mural falls apart, revealing a skeleton behind it holding a sword. "Renew my kingdom" means to put the gold crown on the skeleton's head, at which point you can take the sword and escape safely. Technically, you could solve this without knowing any Latin, but the translation does enhance the experience.

This is the kind of puzzle I like. It forces you to pause, consider your inventory, consult some resources, and figure things out logically. Most of the game's puzzles have been like this--moderately challenging but fair. (Only one, having to do with tongs, depends on unintuitive use of the game's commands and inventory.) For the most part, there was never a moment in the game that I felt I had no avenues left to explore, and I had to resort to a "shotgun approach" of just trying everything in my inventory. That's a measure of a decent adventure game, if not a great RPG.
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