Elvira is one of those characters of whom, like Pee-Wee Herman or Super Dave Osborne, I've always been vaguely aware, but without actually understanding their contributions to entertainment or culture. I had to look up her Wikipedia page just to understand what Elvira actually did. I had this idea that she used to introduce movies on USA, but I think I had her confused with Rhonda Shear.
It turns out she used to introduce B-films for a Los Angeles television station in the 1980s (re-broadcast on a New York station). She developed that into a home video series. She got her own film in 1988 with Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and I can only assume I knew about her from seeing the video repeatedly while browsing my local Blockbuster.
I watched a little of her shtick on YouTube, and I confess I don't really get it. Sure, there's the cleavage, but even the 1980s, there wasn't a lack of that on television. I can't imagine wanting to watch a film called Count Dracula's Great Love anyway, but if I did, I'd probably just want the film to begin. Back when I watched films on television, I used to get annoyed with nonsense like this, whether it was Annabelle Gurwitch making sloppy joes during breaks in The Shawshank Redemption or Nick Clooney delaying the first scene of Bringing Up Baby with some anecdote about Cary Grant wearing a woman's dressing gown. Plus, I have the whole problem with camp. As someone who's never understood the appeal of The Munsters, The Addams Family, the song "Monster Mash," or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I'm clearly not in her demographic.
|I realize this is a snobbish thing to say, but if Netflix's "best guess" for how much you'll like Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is more than 2.5 stars, I think you have to re-evaluate your entertainment choices.|
Even if you like Elvira and her type of campy humor, it's difficult to imagine someone watching her TV show or film and saying, "this really needs to be a computer role-playing game," but nevertheless here we are.
The manual sets up the story with a series of diary entries written by the Elvira character. She's inherited Killbragant, a Gothic castle on the English moors, and she hopes to turn it into a spooky bed-and-breakfast. The story is full of silly but sometimes clever references to B-movie characters and themes: "a kitchen that's better equipped than Dr. Frankenstein's lab"; "a heap of legal papers big enough to hide Rodan"; "the place has been deserted since the Bloody Mary days." Anyway, it transpires that in days of yore, the castle's mistress was a witch named Emelda. She fell under the spell of an evil wizard named Beremond, slaughtered her people, murdered her husband Sir Elric, and reanimated corpses and skeletons in the catacombs. Before she died, she left instructions for her resurrection in a "Scroll of Spiritual Mastery," locked in a chest with six locks. She gave the six keys to her underlings, who later died in the castle.
Elvira's presence in the castle apparently causes Emelda's spirit to stir, and soon the place is crawling with ghosts, goblins, and gremlins. Elvira's plan is to find the ones who have the keys, open the chest, and figure out how to stop Emelda's return. In this plot, she has enlisted a "freelance ghostbuster" from a nearby town, and the game begins as he, the player, shows up at the castle gates.
Despite my skepticism as to the subject, I had already heard that Elvira had won Computer Gaming World's 1991 "Role-Playing Game of the Year," so I figured it must have really good gameplay. Even before I started playing the game, I was anticipating a pivot point in this review, where I'd say something like, "Given my ambivalent feelings about Elvira and her campy humor, you might expect me to completely pan her RPG. But guess what? It's a fantastic game!" Unfortunately, I can't quite say that. In fact, it's a little baffling to me that this would be the "RPG of the Year" in any year. It doesn't bode well for the upcoming crop of games on my list.
I'm not saying that it's a bad game. There are some promising elements. The graphics are quite nice, for one thing. They're well-integrated into a layout that makes the castle look and feel like a real place--a refreshing change from the featureless rooms and hallways of games like Wizardry VI and Buck Rogers. The interface offers an inoffensive blend of RPG and adventure game elements, perhaps a little better than B.A.T. and The Third Courier, but not as good as Hero's Quest or even--gods help me--Keef the Thief. I don't particularly care for the combat system, and character development promises to be scant.
There's no character creation. Every player starts nameless, with the same attributes: 50 strength, 10 resilience (like constitution), 80 dexterity, 99 life points, and 0 experience points (which, in this game, represent the percentage of the game completed more than any character development). The last attribute is "skill," which changes depending on the weapon currently wielded. I don't yet know if or how strength, dexterity, and resilience change, but skill increases as you land successful blows in combat--not a unique dynamic, but still rare for the era. The manual leaves the gender of the player ambiguous (clumsily covering by using "they" as a third-person singular pronoun), but I'm not sure why they did that, since the screenshots repeatedly show the player as a brown-haired male. I guess he's explicitly British, too, which makes for an RPG first.
The game offers some appropriately eerie music, and it's fun for a few refrains, but I turned it off fairly soon. Turning off the music is one of only a couple things you can accomplish with the keyboard; the game is otherwise entirely mouse-driven. The mouse ends up working well for things like inventory, but I don't know why it would have been so hard to program navigation to the keypad.
|I've taken an axe from the wall and am preparing to take a shield.|
The player can encounter an armory and get a battleaxe and shield just a few steps into the game, but there's really no point, as before you have a chance to enter the castle, you get a scripted encounter in which a guard hauls you to the undead captain of the guard, who strips your equipment and throws you in jail.
In a fun call-back to Elvira's TV appearances, which always seem to begin with her in a doorway, beckoning the viewer into her lair, Elvira then appears in the cell door to free the player.
At this point, we get a long bit of exposition in which Elvira reclines on a couch and tells the PC that he must stop Emelda, starting with finding a "strange guy in a sack" who stole her spellbook. She offers a few spells that she created before it was stolen and equips the player with a healing potion and a dagger. With some words of encouragement ("Now get out of here and do what you're being paid for!") she sends the player to the courtyard to begin his adventure.
This sequence involves the first use of embedded video that we've seen in an RPG. I think. I don't know enough about the technology, and it's tough to tell. I suppose it could just be a high-quality animation. Either way, it's only a couple of seconds on a continuous loop.
If you restart the game, you can just hit the SPACE bar during the beginning sequence to skip everything and start in the courtyard with the items Elvira gives you. That's a nice touch.
As you explore the castle, you fight occasional combats with random guards and fixed monsters. The combat system is action-based, though it is dependent partly upon the chosen weapon (at the beginning, of course, there is no choice) and partly the weapon skill. Mostly, it depends on player reflexes. Combat rounds are divided between attack stages and defense stages. During the attack stage, you can "lunge" or "hack." Once your opponent successfully blocks your attack, you enter the defense stage, where you can "block" or "parry." When you're successful at either, you go back to attacking, and so on.
|Fighting an undead castle guard.|
There's a clear choice about when to block or parry: when the enemy swings from his left (your right), you parry; when he swings from his right, you block. Sounds easy enough, but it takes a little time to learn how to interpret the attacks and anticipate which direction they're coming from. I haven't gotten good at it. I'm not yet certain whether there's some clear way to determine whether you should lunge or hack during the attack phase, so I've just been alternating between the two. I'll have more to say about combat when I understand it better.
The sounds during combat are fun, with the weapons appropriately clanging and the enemy screaming when hit. If you die from combat, you get a brutal death screen, and it seems to change depending on what type of enemy killed you. When a werewolf killed me, I was treated to an image of my throat ripped out.
|Poor English lad.|
Though you can rotate and turn as you explore, the game isn't quite fully 3D. You can't face every wall of every room. Instead, it's made up of a collection of static screens, some of which happen to be situated within turning radius of each other. You can click on most objects on the screen for a description . . .
. . . and you can pick up a ton of the objects, including paintings and lamps. I started collecting everything before I realized it would make more sense just to annotate their locations and return when I needed them.
Right now, I'm going through the familiar process of mapping each area, noting the objects, and annotating the puzzles. As in most adventure games, I expect I'll field a number of characters before I find the optimum path through the game. This, it occurs to me, is one of the distinguishing characteristics between an adventure game and an RPG: in an adventure game, you don't expect to win with your starting character.