Before John Carmack went and founded id Software (essentially creating the FPS genre with Wolfenstein and Doom), he was just another kid who liked to play Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. However, rather than playing set scenarios, teenage Dungeon Master John Carmack began developing his own fantasy universe. Years, indeed decades, of playing in John’s own scenario led he and his close friends to create the world of “Orcs & Elves.”
In 2000, Carmack would marry female gamer extraordinaire Katharine Anna Kang. With her help, Carmack slowly but surely began to map out a solid idea of what “Orcs & Elves” would look like as a game. The blueprints for this game led to the creation of an RPG for mobile phones. Said RPG was ported and upgraded to the Nintendo DS in 2007. And that’s what we’re here to talk about.
You are Elli, a dark elf and son of a king. Wielding a talking wand and a sword, you are on your way to help the dwarves because of recent orc attacks. Their King, Brahm, knew your father, and you move forward (perhaps as a debt of obligation). Unfortunately, the first person you encounter when you enter is the ghost of a dwarf. He lets you know that inside the dungeons you’re about to traverse, you won’t find many living dwarves left. The only living creatures you’ll find are hostile, and all your friends are mere shadows of what they once were. Why the dwarves appear to you as ghosts is a mystery all its own and one that will be solved before the end of your quest.
The depth of the game’s plot isn’t what makes it so praiseworthy. After all, for a five hour RPG on a handheld you can’t expect too much in the way of dramatic climaxes or twists of events. But, what you can look forward to is decent dialogue and interesting scenarios. I was especially fond of two ghost dwarves: one would only help you if you got drunk, and the other one was convinced he was still alive and would charge head first into any battle, unaware that he wasn’t helping one bit. This, coupled with a fearsome dragon as the game’s shopkeeper, made for a fairly humorous adventure.
Some additional scenarios, mostly side quests, were added to the DS version. This also added to the value of the game, especially for people who had played the mobile phone version.
Those who take the time to read through the game’s official site will learn more about the world Carmack and crew created. It’s a good start, and the story is simple yet effective for the platform.
When a game gets ported from an inferior platform to something not-so-inferior, much care needs to be taken to make sure the graphics don’t look disgusting. Some work was put into the upgraded Orcs & Elves, but not enough. The best thing was the smoothness of animation and absolute lack of load times. But you can clearly see that the parts of the game that were newly designed for the DS (certain menus, animation sequences) looked much better than the stuff that was ported from the mobile phone version.
Blocky, pixelated enemies fill the screen, and that’s just not okay on the DS in 2007. But the vibrant colors, even in the darkest, grayest dungeon, were enough to keep my eyes happy.
There are a few songs that play during portions of the game, but for about half of the dungeons, there is no music. Instead, you get lots of sound effects. And while these sound effects function well, a DS cartridge is capable of a lot more than what was put into this game. The developers didn’t even come close to stretching the limits of the hardware, and instead only chose to slightly improve upon what was originally a game for cell phones.
Here is where the game shines: this game packs a decent amount of simple, and sometimes unique, fun.
First-person perspective? Check. Turn-based dungeon crawling on various tiles of a simple grid-based map? Check. Giant war hammers that allow you to use different abilities depending on the number of foes in your presence? Check!
If there’s one thing I appreciated about Orcs & Elves, it was Elli’s arsenal of weapons. Here’s the rundown for you: sword, flaming sword, vorpal sword, bow, crossbow, phoenix eggs (grenades), dragon’s breath, Medusa scroll, magic wand (Ellon), and giant hammer (Abraxas). Of course, you start with just the basics: sword and wand. As you navigate the many areas within the game, you will be presented with these neato artifacts. Some weapons are optional, as you receive them only by purchasing them from the dragon Gaya.
In the DS version of the game, four magic spells have been added to the mix. Using Ellon’s wand and a cheesy touch-based input system (unlike every other DS RPG, you don’t draw anything), you can cast these various spells. Spells are learned at specific points in the game; you cannot get them in advance by level-grinding.
Furthermore, you’ll be hard-pressed to finish the game without using a few magical potions or wearing some rings with lasting effects. I constantly found myself using potions of haste, avoidance, and strength to get the edge on my foes. And this isn’t just simple hack and slash combat. The dungeons are designed such that you find yourself constantly in need of a proper strategy to move forward. The sheer variety of enemies, their tactics, and their weaknesses, are sure to keep you on your toes. Boss fights are even more exhilarating, and each usually requires a certain gimmick to win. You also have a “difficulty level” option, and I struggled a bit playing on the easiest of the three modes. Keep that in mind.
And then there are puzzles. Most of the puzzles are simple, but making a mistake costs you your life in most cases, so it’s important to save often! There are also a couple of doors that you can only unlock by entering the proper code. I liked this system a lot, as it required you to have a good memory (or check your log often).
Carmack and friends did a great job designing this game. I’m usually not a fan of dungeon crawlers, but I really had a lot of fun playing this game.
If you’re going to put a game onto the DS, you sure as sugar better design a boatload of touch-screen interface stuff. Sadly, id Software decided not to do this. The bottom screen generally remains a menu that you can navigate using the D-pad or the touch screen, and spell input takes place by tapping four buttons on a “magic circle.” That’s about it. Drawing various runic shapes to cast spells has become a DS RPG staple, and I was shocked to see them not incorporate this device. In fact, they didn’t incorporate anything to make the touch screen aspect any fun. It’s safe to say they were just looking for a standard handheld to get this game out to more people, and didn’t bother making the game “up to snuff” with other DS titles, which is a shame.
The problem with the DS incarnation of Orcs & Elves is that it doesn’t give enough incentive to buy it over, say, a $5 download for your cell phone. But if you don’t have a cell phone, then I suppose having the game would be worth it. The game was introduced as a $20 game at retail, which is certainly nice; but even then, I’m not sure a game this short is worth the price. If you enjoy this genre, and are a fan of the old SSI-type D&D dungeon crawlers (Eye of the Beholder, etc), then you’ll want this game. Everyone else, know that it’s more of a mini-game than a full-on epic-scale RPG.