Horror Soft in the UK was a rare kind of label back in the early 90s. Catering exclusively to horror-themed games, they tried to fill in a niche that few others dedicated much to back in the day. The horror genre was starved for good games in comparison to many others, such as action and fantasy adventure, that dominated the PC landscape.
They weren’t alone in their struggle. SSI and Infocom were two companies among others that tried to fill in the same niche on occasion with their own horror-inspired takes, though SSI would be fashionably late with their publication of games based on TSR’s Ravenloft setting in the 90s well after Infocom’s flirtation with the genre in the 80s.
But the Horror Soft label enjoyed the distinction of being focused on only one thing — creeping players out while blending in great gameplay to keep them hooked. Starting off with the adventure game, Personal Nightmare in ’89, they went on to create two action RPG-styled games based on Elvira’s campy horror: Mistress of the Dark in 1990 and Jaws of Cerberus in 1991. They even dabbled in an arcade action game also in ’91 based on Elvira. Unfortunately, their run would end in ’92 the way the label had begun — with an original title, Waxworks, that didn’t owe itself to any license.
Waxworks, in some ways, was the culmination of Horror Soft’s experience in developing the Elvira CRPG games. It arrived on the Amiga and was also ported on over to DOS, though both benefited from Horror Soft’s skilled artists in making the game look good on either platform even if some of the sound wasn’t quite as memorable. The interface was similar to what the Elvira games had used — a central screen showing a first-person view, inventory and stats display below it, movement controls in a panel along the left side of the screen and additional option on the right hand side.
Players could use both a mouse and keyboard with the game, especially when it came to combat whose mechanics were inherited from the Elvira games they had worked on. Depending on your weapon, you could target where you could strike the bad guy — in the arm, head, body, etc. — and dish out damage while they did the same. The scissors, paper, rock method from Elvira’s combat, however, was dropped for straight-up slashing instead though it’s apparent randomness and clickfestiveness still didn’t make any new fans of Horror Soft’s fighting system.
The manual was typically Horror Soft stuff crammed with enough fiction to set the mood, though it does miss out on the cheekiness that Elvira had brought when they did her games.
Story time set the game inside the waxworks of a mansion that you have inherited from your Uncle Boris who has passed away. But he’s also left you a legacy of horror. Strange rumors and whatnot surrounded Boris’ work at his mansion which he turned into a waxworks museum chronicling some of history’s worst moments, but in the letter that he leaves you, he speaks of the family curse — a story told to you when you were young of a witch punished by one of your ancestors by having her right hand chopped free for stealing chickens.
Summoning her powers using a strange crystal ball, she called on an ancient curse from your family’s distant past to re-awaken. Whenever twins are born to the family, one will turn out good while other, evil. This came true with one of your ancestors who apparently became Vlad the Impaler. Your twin brother, Alex, had also disappeared when you were young in the caves beneath your home where you grew up — but there has always been some kind of bond that left you doubting that he had died so many years ago.
And now Uncle Boris has said that it might be possible to break this curse and free your brother, who is still alive, by using the strange magicks his research has discovered to travel back in time and set to right that which your ancestors corrupted, eventually breaking the curse.
The game consists of five major areas, much like what Elvira II: Jaws of Cerberus set out with in its studio lots — Ancient Egypt in the Great Pyramid to rescue a princess, Victorian England against Jack the Ripper, a mine infested with mutated plans, and (of course) a graveyard haunted by the undead and the Necromancer who controls them. The final area is where the player confronts their destiny by ending the curse before it even began. Players could decide which of the four Waxworks they wanted to head into first, though some critics didn’t like the fact that your inventory was turned into a blank slate on arrival every time.
Puzzles were also crammed into this game just like in the Elvira series, so it wasn’t all about combat or wandering about on a grid-based map. And mapping was essential given the maze-like areas of the game — a criticism that some felt Horror Soft never quite addressed which could sometime rely a bit too much on these cliches. Some also made proceeding through the game impossible if you didn’t solve certain situations before they happened making the save system even more important — though screwing over anyone who thought they were safe with only one save file — a problem shared by other games such as Sierra’s Laura Bow.
And like the Elvira games, you’re not alone. Uncle Boris still lives, albeit in spiritual form, in the crystal ball that he had discovered long ago and has passed onto you to help out as a sort of spiritual switchboard to the hint system. If you’re stuck, you’ve got a ghostly companion to point out where to go next. Given how tough some of the combat can be, and how ruthlessly brutal Horror Soft games are to dishing out a bloody death to players on a frequent basis, having a hint system and a save-anywhere option were helpful as always. This is one game that could easily give 1990’s fantasy slasher, The Immortal, it’s own run in the death-by-whatever department.
Waxworks, unlike the Elvira games, did see distribution on a digital service like Good Old Games giving anyone a chance to try it out in a nice, downloadable package. This would also be the last “full” game that was published under the Horror Soft label before it quietly disappeared, surfacing only briefly when Elvira’s Horror Pack was released for Windows in ’98. But in many ways, Waxworks continued the kind of groundbreaking approach that Horror Soft, also known as part of Adventure Soft, took with their games.
Starting with Elvira and ending with Waxworks, blending together RPG elements, adventure puzzles, immense settings, and a decent story to immerse players within a blood curdling experience is something that would be rarely replicated well in later years such as within EA’s sci-fi horror opus, Dead Space, albeit with better combat. So in a way, Horror Soft’s remarkably short history was, at the same time, a little innovative in that sense.
By jabbing at the genre with these ideas, they demonstrated the viability of thematic RPGs that did more than kill orcs. That sometimes, it’s good to be as scared as a first-year adventurer heading out into their first dungeon — even if that dungeon might be a cursed movie studio, or a haunted mansion.