If you haven’t heard of Waxworks before then allow me to describe it. It’s not a new game, having been released in 1992, but it was just recently re-released by GOG.com and this makes it new for many people, including me. Waxworks is part point and click adventure, part puzzle solver, part hack and slash, and a lot of fucked up shit. In case you weren’t tipped off by the fact that the developer’s name is Horrorsoft, Waxworks isn’t exactly about sunshine and rainbows.
The first thing any modern player will notice about Waxworks is the fact that it’s old, and in some ways hasn’t aged well. But considering it’s sold by a site called “Good Old Games” I assume that this should be a given. I had never played it before and was able to enjoy it, so despite the decrepit technology it must have an appeal in something besides nostalgia.
I like old games I haven’t played before because it’s interesting how styles have radically changed over a short two decades. Certain aspects of Waxworks have been long extinct from modern gaming, but others are still around. You can see glimpses of modern survival horror elements and some parts feel uncannily similar to titles like Resident Evil.
The software programming and design of Waxworks have numerous flaws. I get the feeling that the only playtesters were the developers themselves, or if not they must have had access to some special debug version that excluded battles and gave them hints. For example, there is a section that requires several puzzles to be completed in no apparent order, however it became clear after floundering for a long time that there actually is a required order for no reason other than that’s how it was programmed. Nowhere is there any indication that a specific order is required, nor could I see any reason why my instinctive order shouldn’t have worked. I even managed to run into an obscure bug that froze the game once. Of course, these are both specific incidents that may have just affected me personally.
To speak more broadly, I think it can be universally agreed upon that the combat system is terrible. It consists of clicking on whichever third of the screen you want to attack and after a delay your character swings his arm and will perhaps hit his target and he will perhaps do damage. It’s an awkward combination of real time combat and RPG style chance. The gameplay here is so shallow that there’s no reason not to just click over and over in one place until you happen to eventually win the battle.
In the game’s defense however, the level designers took its constraints into account and implemented a few features that work with it, including ways to avoid combat or strategies that involve the three sections of the screen you can attack. Of course a much better solution would be to design a system that doesn’t completely suck.
Next to its age, the most prominent detail anyone should notice about Waxworks is that it is hard. The game does you very few favors and seems to be designed to torment the player, which I suppose is the point. After wandering through a maze for an hour only to find that there’s no in-game map can be a humbling realization, even more so when you find out two hours later that there’s no way to heal the wounds you acquired earlier and now you’re facing a challenging monster.
You will end up dying a lot, often randomly and without any warning. Every time you die you’re shown a disturbingly detailed image of your mutilated body, and the artists put the effort into drawing a different picture for each of the dozens of possible deaths. Saving frequently is a must. Certain actions can make the game unbeatable, and sometimes the game even tries to make itself unbeatable and you have to find a way to stop it. There’s never any immediate indication of when it’s turned unbeatable, so you’d better hope you kept a lot of backup save files or don’t mind starting over.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s frustrating because of poor design or by intention. There are incidents I’ve mentioned that I’m convinced are accidental on the part of the programmers, but most of the time it’s obvious that punishing design was part of the developers’ agenda.
Each of the four levels explores different ways to make that horror experience complete. One is a humongous, yet claustrophobic, maze full of random instant death traps and punishing puzzles. One has an endless swarm of zombies that needs to be fended off. One has virtually unbeatable enemies that can only be killed with a certain weapon with limited ammo. And finally, one has unbeatable enemies which constantly chase you through the main streets and can kill you instantly. There are other various differences in the levels as well, but that’s just an overview. Each one is challenging for different reasons but all retain the horror theme.
I suppose sadistic difficulty is part of the point. After all, that’s a major part of the nature of games. If I wanted to watch someone else be killed a hundred times in the most horrible ways I’d watch a movie. If I myself want to be killed a hundred times in the most horrible ways I’d play this game. One thing that’s interesting to me is the fact that the player’s character is faceless and magically appears at these random locations and in each level he becomes a character in that world. There is definitely a meta connection between the character and the player himself. You end up mentally feeling all the pain and torment your character is experiencing.
Maybe the masochistic nature of horror games is why they’re going out of style. As paradoxical as it may be, I found Waxworks to be refreshing in how it’s so different from modern games, especially with the survival horror genre slowly dying out.
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