Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1990)

Decided to finally start these series after all these years of meaning to get around to it. Elvira is a strange mix of genres that is part Shadowgate and part Eye of the Beholder and actually has very little to do with Elvira and more to do with a castle full of random, crazy shit that really, really wants you to die.

It’s like Shadowgate in the sense that its mainly a first person adventure game full of obscure and deadly puzzles and traps, which all rely on finding tons of well hidden and extremely poorly explained items, a lot of which actually turn out to be worthless garbage.

The main difference between this and Shadowgate type games though, is the existence of a combat system. Enemies are everywhere and they are no laughing matter, as enemies are frequent and vicious, health restoration and long range attack items are extremely rare, and the combat system itself is…questionable in nature.

For the most part it’s just a back and forth battle of attacking and blocking, which seems simple enough in theory, but you have to figure out on your own, based on trial and error according to the attack animations, when to block and when to parry. It turns out that when an enemy is swinging low, you need to press block to block the hit, and when they swing high, you need to parry, otherwise they will just continue to hack away at you until you die. The problem with this is that there are no hotkeys for either action. You need to move your pointer over each button and press them and you need to do it at just the right moment AND you only have a fraction of a second to see which kind of hit is coming and make your move before its too late.

I actually had to slow the game down to get anywhere because as it was, on the default speed setting on DOSbox, this all happened too fast for me to ever make my choices on time even on the easiest enemies. I really don’t know if the game was just running faster than it should have been or if it was really meant to be that unfair.

The more you fight though, the more your weapon skill and damage increases, and the more I noticed that certain attack patterns often let you flawlessly combo your opponent to death, so eventually combat became pretty easy, despite its clumsiness.

Other unintentional perils included a really fucking bizarre spell crafting and casting system. You need to get to a certain point of the game and find a spellbook to give to Elvira to even begin mixing spells and once you’ve done that you still need the right ingredients and you need to know which ones to mix to produce anything useful. The only way to know this is to look at an encoded spell list in the manual, the games way of old-timey copy protection, but even that wasn’t all that helpful, as the spell descriptions are mostly too vague to be useful and some of them were apparently just flat out incorrect. I was only ever able to create a single attack spell during my playthrough (which creates a potion, which you drink, which then turns into a spell scroll with limited uses, because of course it does). Others I tried to make using the official guide only ever resulted in Elvira telling me the ingredients were wrong. I tried looking this up everywhere I could find online and everyplace listed the same ingredients that I had been trying over and over again.

Luckily I had gotten just enough attack spells to make it through the game, as there is one area where you HAVE to kill the enemies with ranged attacks or they just explode when they touch you and leave you with lasting fire damage that eats away at your precious health. There are also two spells that are required to beat the game, which also worked by complete random luck I guess. Fun times.

This is also the kind of game where you need to take notes…and you will definitely need to make a few maps too…AND even then you’re STILL going to have to look online for some answers to some really obscure, and occasionally kind of broken feeling, puzzle solutions and/or item locations.

It got pretty frustrating at times, and yet…I still kind of enjoyed it somehow in a weird anachronistic, masochistic way. It was flawed, but memorable and interesting in its retro PC horror/adventure/rpg/whatever aesthetics, and I think I still want to play the sequels to see what kind of improvements were made.

Edit: Ok. Just tried Elvira 2: Jaws of Cerberus and they actually somehow managed to make the combat much, much worse and the environments are even more littered with worthless garbage items that you spend so much time sifting through. Nope. Don’t have the patience for this shit. Done with this series. Oh well.

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