Waxworks: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

From The CRPG Addict

A nice shot of the museum as the game comes to a close.


United Kingdom
HorrorSoft (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 11 June 2019
Date Finished: 23 June 2019
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Waxworks is a first-person adventure game with some RPG elements. The protagonist enters his late uncle’s wax museum and must travel through time via four exhibits, to ancient Egyptian pyramid, a zombie-infested graveyard in 15th-century Wallachia, 19th-century London on the night of Jack the Ripper’s latest murder, and a 20th-century mine taken over by a malevolent plant. In each scenario, he inhabits the body of a “good” twin who must stop his evil brother; the culmination of his efforts will end a witch’s ancient curse on the protagonist’s family. The game uses the same engine that HorrorSoft built for three previous titles, including the two Elvira games (1990 and 1991). While the graphics have been improved from Elvira and Elvira II, the RPG elements have been lessened. That character gains experience and max hit points as he explores and fights, but he loses it all between scenarios. Combat difficulty is extremely erratic and really only applies to two scenarios anyway. The driving game element here is inventory-based puzzle solving. The game is notable for its gruesome death scenes, of which there are several dozen.
I began Waxworks hoping that, unfettered from Elvira, HorrorSoft would be able to make a better game. Alas. Elvira and Elvira II not only had more interesting settings but better RPG elements, including attributes, a spell system, and RPG equipment other than just a primary weapon. None of these elements were great in the Elvira games, but Waxworks mostly abandoned them entirely. Sure, it has leveling, but I’m not even convinced that leveling is that important. 
The area of the London scenario as given in the game.
The modern equivalent in London.


The last two levels were a bit harder, I thought, than the first two. But I largely solved them the same way: Upon arriving in each scenario, I just assumed I wouldn’t last long. I concentrated on mapping and annotating as much of each area as possible, identifying items and puzzles, reloading upon death. Once I couldn’t map anymore and had a few puzzles I knew I could solve, I’d reload from the beginning and try a bit harder with the next character, until I finally found the right sequence to get through the level.
One thing I learned from the graveyard and its broken railing was to turn and face every wall and then run the mouse cursor around it, ensuring that the name of some barely-visible object didn’t pop up in the view window. Without this method, I wouldn’t have found numerous items in the mine level, where the walls have (to me) such a uniform color that I can barely pick out any detail.
Winning this scenario required me to notice that this small section of this support is burned.
The “Jack the Ripper” scenario had the character running around the streets of London, trying to intercept his brother, Jack, before he could murder another prostitute. The primary difficulty involves dodging MPS patrolmen and random mobs, both of which execute you the moment they step into your squares. Since these enemies start approaching from the moment you enter the scenario, you’re encouraged to flee the scene of the murder immediately. This has implications.
I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, gov’na.
Unlike the other three scenarios, there are no battles to fight in this one until the end. Instead, you run around invading houses and offices and assembling an inventory kit, none of which seems to lead anywhere. I got stuck entirely and had to look up a hint. It turns out that in the very first screen–the one you’re encouraged to leave on the double–there’s a barely-visible “bag” on the ground that belonged to the victim.
And I think I’m being generous with “barely-visible.”
When you open the bag, you find a diary, which leads to a story that suggests the last few victims have been deliberately baiting Jack in order to catch him.
That seems like a bad idea.
The first victim’s diary gives the name of another prostitute, whom you have to find by paying a pickpocket to relieve a pimp of his address book. After that, you track down the prostitute–Molly Parkin–in a wharfhouse, just before Jack is about to kill her. You duel Jack with a dueling cane–the scenario’s one weapon–and (after a couple of reloads, in my case), stab him through the heart and toss his body into the Thames. Bright light, back to the Waxworks.
Sword-fighting with the Ripper.
My last scenario, into which I was again rudely shoved by Boris’s butler, suggests that the “evil twin” has somehow turned into a hideous mutated plant and taken over a mine. His tendrils and spores cover the walls of the mine, sometimes resolving into deadly vines and pods. He excretes some kind of toxin that converts the miners into walking plant zombies. The character deaths are more horrific here than in any of the previous scenarios, including one animation in which vines rip the character’s head off.
Trust me, you want to thank me for not putting an animated GIF here.
Melee combat is nearly impossible on this level, and I suspect the player isn’t supposed to do it at all. Early on, you find a canister of weed-killer which reliably works on anything deadly in the mine. When it runs out, you can replace it with gasoline. As long as you have a lighter in your possession, too (found in the first square), the canister works as a flame-thrower. Once you know where these things are, you don’t have to fight melee combat except once or twice after the game forces you to give the canister to an NPC for a while.
Fire-balling a plant monster.
The scenario consists of a single small level that takes a while because of backtracking. One key puzzle involves a mining cart that rolls along the tracks after you’ve gone a particular distance east. You have to stop the cart with a length of wood, but you have to do it in precisely the right square, or the cart ends up blocking at least one vital passage. The worst part is that you might trigger the cart without even knowing it because you move down a side passage before the cart comes into view. I went through the scenario twice only to find the cart blocking the exit both times and not understanding how it got there or what I was supposed to do about it.
The mine scenario involves true NPC conversations, with dialogue options, for the first time. A wounded professor is in the first square, in a broken elevator carriage, begging for a doctor. The player has to find a blowtorch and a welder’s mask to free some captives from a cage. A doctor agrees to look at the professor; a soldier agrees to help demolish the mine if the player can find the right items; and an electrician agrees to fix the elevator so everyone can escape safely.
Getting ready to escape with all my NPC friends.
You have to find two gas masks and protective suits–one for you, one for the soldier–to safely enter the evil twin’s chambers. In a gruesome sequence, the player pokes out all the monster’s eyes before he and the soldier plant 8 sticks of dynamite in the monster’s chambers. The healer revives the professor, who provides an antidote to heal the electrician, who fixes the elevator, which you ride to the top of the shaft just after detonating the dynamite. It took me about 15 reloads to get the sequence completely right.
Sorry, brother.
Once you finish the fourth scenario, you find yourself back at the Waxworks. One more exhibit–the witch–is unveiled. The butler gives you four magic artifacts from the previous exhibits: an amulet, a ring, a knife, and a bottle of poison. (The butler is polite as he greets you, but I must note that he keeps shoving you to the final exhibit.) Uncle Boris explains exactly what to do with them once you return to the witch’s time: wear the amulet to avoid the witch’s spells, toss the poison at her to distract her, find a weapon and attack her, when she’s down, stab her in the throat with the knife, and escape back with the magic ring. 
Lurch welcomes us back for the finale.
The final scenario has just one screen, and that’s pretty much exactly what you do. The weapon you find is a crossbow. If you’re not quick enough with any of the steps, she’s able to cast the curse and you lose.
This is a lot of drama over a chicken.
Even winning feels pretty dirty, as the game graphically depicts you shooting the old woman–who’s just had her hand chopped off!–in the eye with a crossbow bolt, then stabbing her in the throat several times with Jack the Ripper’s knife. Brutal.
And right then, we shoot her in the face.
Assuming you do it right, you return to the Waxworks to find Alex huddled in the corner. He wakes up and relates a “dream” in which after you killed the witch, she “muttered something” and you “turned into a demon with horns and hoofs.” This is perhaps setting up a sequel in which a different curse turned the protagonist evil, but I guess we’ll never know.
1. Does Alex somehow not realize that he’s still a teenager while I’ve grown up? 2. Does he look a little like Zach Gilligan?

In a GIMLET, I give the game:

  • 5 points for the game world. You have to admit, we haven’t seen anything quite like it.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There’s no creation, and “development” is just an accumulation of levels and an increase in maximum hit points. Only two of the scenarios have regular RPG-style combat, so this type of development hardly matters. Plus, you lose it all in between scenarios.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. They’re mostly limited to the mine scenario, but it is fun to see some RPG-style dialogue and to make NPCs part of the puzzle-solving process.
An NPC professor has a lot to say about the plant monster in the last scenario.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Despite the name of the category, for this type of game I typically use it to rate puzzles, and that’s what I’m doing here. They are neither the best nor worst adventure-game puzzles I’ve experienced.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. I found myself missing the magic system of Elvira II as I repeatedly slashed at creatures. There are really no tactics in combat, and too much of the outcomes is based on luck.
Slashing at a plant monster with a metal rod.
  • 1 point for equipment. There’s plenty of it, but it’s all adventure-style puzzle-solving stuff. On the RPG side, the best the game did is occasionally give you the choice of weapon.
Some screens offer way too much stuff to pick up, most of it useless.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side-quests and no decisions.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics are very nice–but that’s only worth a few points in this category. Sound effects are sparse. People who like music will probably like the music. The dual keyboard/mouse controls work okay, but the buttons should have had keyboard backups. 
This is one of a few games where you deliberately die a lot, just to see the death animations.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It gets a little credit for nonlinearity, although there is something of an “obvious” order and I don’t consider the game “replayable” just because you can try again in a different order of scenarios. The difficulty wasn’t too bad, and the length was just about exactly right.
That gives us a final score of 26, worse than the 29 I gave the Elvira titles.
Tip: if you want people to believe you’re really providing a “parental warning” instead of an extra selling point, leave off the exclamation point.
Almost none of those 26 points are particular to RPGs. Remove the RPG categories entirely, and it would still get a 23. Thus, the moment I was finished, I hustled over to “The Adventure Gamer” to see what they thought of the title. Deimar reviewed it not even a year ago (first entry in November 2018; last in January 2019). He had many of the same problems that I did, particularly with backtracking and having trouble finding items (“for the most part, the puzzles are based on the worst kind of pixel hunting”). In the end, he gave it a 47/100, which was higher than the site gave Elvira II but not the original Elvira.
I didn’t think it was worth extra points, but the hint system in the game worked pretty well.
Waxworks was covered in the February 1993 Computer Gaming World by Chuck Miller. His review annoys me even though he basically feels the same way I feel about the game (lukewarm). It annoys me first because he admits he didn’t finish it; I guess CGW dropped that requirement at some point. But there are two other quotes that particularly irk me:
1. “Waxworks does have several weaknesses, the chief being the lack of an automapping feature, an amenity which has become standard fare for CRPGs of recent origin. Most role-playing games have become complex enough that it is simply too distracting and time consuming for the player to map each step as he or she goes The time has arrived to lay pencil and graph paper to rest.” If that time does come, I would argue that it will come when games no longer have discrete squares. Waxworks still operates on tiles, and the levels are pretty tiny. An automap would arguably make the game harder because the player really needs to annotate items and puzzles, and it’s questionable whether an automap would do that effectively.
2. “How does Waxworks fare as a CRPG? Well, better than most, but lacking in relation to some.” What?! I’d accept that statement if you replaced “CRPG” with “adventure game”–and mostly because I don’t have a solid gauge on adventure games. Does Miller even know what a CRPG is? Has he ever played a tabletop RPG? This game is at best an adventure game with a dab of RPG frosting. I’m surprised the review keeps referring to it as an “RPG” at all. And he thinks it’s better than most?
Deimar felt that the plot followed Elvira II too closely (“if you were to change the twin brother to Elvira, the plot would be basically the same”). I see what he means: Elvira II also had several discrete “scenarios,” culminating in a ritual that required you to do several things in a precise order. But I’m more intrigued by the hypothesis, raised in the comments section of my first entry, that the game began as a licensed tie-in to the 1988 film Waxwork and its 1992 sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time. The first film involves a wax museum owner, played by David Warner, who has collected artifacts from the “18 most evil people who ever lived.” He invites people to the wax museum to get sucked into the exhibits and thus lose their souls to the various evil individuals, thus granting power to the museum owner. The exhibits include one sent in ancient Egypt (where the hero must rescue his girlfriend from a sarcophagus), the Marquis de Sade (not appearing here but mentioned in the manual), and a zombie horde. The second film includes an exhibit with Jack the Ripper. There’s a tall, hollow-cheeked butler in the first film that resembles the one in the game. If Waxworks wasn’t a licensed title, they sure were inviting legal action.

The designer’s last name is spelled “Woodruff” almost everywhere else I see it, including in several prominent magazine interviews, but I have to go with what the game’s own credits use.
The idea is given credence by a February 1992 interview with HorrorSoft co-owner and designer Mike Woodroffe that appeared in the British game magazine Zero (thanks to commenter EonFafnir for digging this up). In his first sentences, Woodroffe suggests a direct relationship with the film before seeming to correct himself: Waxworks, which we’re doing with Accolade, is based on the film of the same name. Well, not “based” so much . . . inspired, really. It’s inspired by the film.” You can almost see him picturing his lawyer’s reaction after the first sentence. The interview also suggests that the game originally had more than four exhibits. “There’ll be Jack the Ripper, numerous kings and queens, a pyramid, the Marquis de Sade . . . There’ll also be triffids.” I can’t stop imagining the great discussions we would have had about the Marquis de Sade and the game’s decision to make him “evil.”
Also worth noting is a failed attempt last year to fund a “special edition” of the game via Kickstarter. It was canceled in January 2019 after falling short of its goal. I’m not going to speculate on the reason it failed, but I will say that if you’re going to have a section titled “success of the original game,” showing and prominently circling scores of 70%, 78%, and 80% doesn’t really help your case.
This is the last we’ll see of this team, whose Simon the Sorcerer series does not have any RPG aspirations. Back we go to Darklands while I start to investigate an intriguing SSI game called Prophecy of the Shadow.

Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2019/07/waxworks-won-with-summary-and-rating.html