Genre: Role-Playing Game
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Fountainhead Entertainment
Release Date: November 13, 2007
It would appear that John Carmack's old role-playing days are catching up with him over all the work he's done in solidifying the foundation for first-person shooters. Having been a dungeon master for years, Carmack decided to make this fantasy world into (somewhat of) a reality with Orcs and Elves, a game originally released for the mobile phone in May 2006. The title won multiple accolades for the best mobile RPG at E3, the Leipzig Games Convention 2006, and "Mobile Game of the Year" at Las Vegas' Annual Interactive Achievement Awards.
The decision was made to directly port Orcs and Elves to the NDS, with id and Fountainhead Entertainment at the reins. Orcs and Elves is a first-person RPG where the hero Elli, son of a valkyrie and an elf, comes to the dwarven citadel on Mount Zharrkarag to investigate the mysterious disappearance of King Bahrm. Finding the citadel infested with orcs, the player must control Elli and the wand Ellon as they attempt to figure out the mystery and destroy the presence of evil. Allies come in the form of the spirits of the dead dwarven soldiers and from Gaya, the gold-hoarding red dragon of unparalleled power and treasure. It's a good thing she's willing to trade.
Taking a note out of Dungeons and Dragons' book as well as Doom's, Orcs and Elves is turn-based instead of free movement, unlike King's Field for the PSX and the Elder Scrolls series for the PC. Each move you make then allows the monsters or traps to move, attack or attempt to crush you to death. As for the first-person shooter aspect, the game's controls are wonderfully simplistic. Using the stylus or the directional pad and shoulder buttons allows movement and acquisition of items, and all in-game actions — attacking, opening doors, finding secret rooms and talking — are controlled by the giant "use" button in the center of the touch-screen or by pressing the A button. Items such as gold, ability-improving potions, ability-improving alcohol, weapons and rings are all controlled by the touch-screen; just tap the stylus on the items on Elli's belt, and choose one.
And therein lies part of the problem; sometimes in rare situations, Orcs and Elves is too simple. Bartering with Gaya — the mountain's fierce, but greedy copper dragon — is as easy as moving the scrollbar for the amount you wish to reasonably spend, and watching her "mood" gauge to see if she likes you well enough. The turn-based system, in conjunction with the warning flags for low health and status condition, makes it very difficult to actually die in combat. Even when you're playing on harder difficulty levels, it's really easy to realize if and when you need a healing potion or another item from your inventory. The last level is practically littered with healing crystals, stones that restore your health and magic energy. Because the game serves as an intro to a potential ongoing series like Doom, the simple game was understandable. The shining moment of danger was in the game's final boss, a drow who warps around the arena with endless monsters on support. Since she has the ability to heal herself and can easily knock you backwards, it was a real challenge to hit her with the wand and then a war hammer.
For once, being a perfectionist in an id game pays off in bonus experience points for killing all enemies and finding all secrets. Experience raises your level and stats, but only to a limited degree as it becomes more obvious that potions and ale raise the stats necessary to progress. Since potions last for a set number of turns, using them in or out of combat (especially a haste potion) makes battles so much easier. Some potions aren't very useful, such as the invisibility brew that only lasts until you attack a monster, or the concoction that drains life from your opponent, but does so by deducting fewer hit points than a normal attack. Rings provide several of the same effects as the potions, although the rings are less potent. Even the good ones are still useless; the best one, Bareok's Ring, makes you consistently drunk, which means you suffer a loss of accuracy and must listen to Ellon the wand spout wiseass comments.
The graphics are as detailed as you can get when using the Doom engine: walls of stone and mortar, bodies of your enemies strewn around, and skeletons and wreckage covering the floors. This can become a problem, so swinging your sword destroys most of the bodies, which is particularly important in the Nightmare difficulty mode. Secret areas are simple to find because they are just indented areas of the wall. It's understandable for a direct port of a mobile game, but it shouldn't have been too difficult to try and hide them for the NDS. At the very least, the monster sprites are far more detailed than those in Doom; orcs in rusted armor and axes, the majestic dragon lying amongst her treasure and even the occasional goat have far better resolution than Doom sprites, which says a great deal when they use the same engine.
Since no music exists (at all!), the only sounds to speak of are the grunts, swings and blasts of fantasy weaponry and dying creatures. Sometimes, you get an odd, ominous sound, but there's nothing to really draw you into the action. I understand that it was a direct port, but in addition to the touch-screen interaction, there were so many things the developers could have added to make Orcs and Elves more suitable for a handheld console.
Despite the minor drawbacks, Orcs and Elves is a good game with a great deal of potential. The fun only lasts for eight levels, with some side-quests here and there, so the player is left wanting more. Luckily, id is already in the planning stages for a sequel, so one can only hope for improvements over the original. It is my sincere wish that the backstory gets fleshed out a bit more; we know very little about the wand and the reasons that the evil has attacked the dwarves, much less the unanswered questions revolving around Gaya. For a port of a mobile phone game, Orcs and Elves is a good title indeed. I am personally looking forward to the next installment, whenever that release date may be.
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