Review: Orcs & Elves

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Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: EA
Developer: id/Fountainhead Studios
Release Date: 11/13/07
Genre: RPG
Players: 1

“You stand at the entrance to King Brahm’s Dwarven realm. You carry a talkative Wand named Ellon, sword, leather armor, an enchanted map, a quest log, health potion and an heirloom ring…”

With game development moving too quickly ahead of itself for its own good, something so simple yet outstandingly produced as Orcs & Elves is like a bucket of ice water to the face. Everything here clicks, from the solid 3D engine and excellent use of sound to the liberal usage of humor (and ale) that lends the game some if its funnier moments. Yes, the game can be completed in about 8 hours (or less if you rush through it on Normal), but that’s a testament to how addictive it is. Beating this on the harder modes is where the replay value comes in, as the difficulty ramps up considerably on Hard and Nightmare modes. Just like the original cell phone game, the DS version is hard to put down and a total gem from start to finish. Kudos to id Software and Fountainhead for expanding the game to include new areas not found in the original and of course, for tweaking the game engine to the handheld’s strengths.

If you’re more used to the typical Japanese RPGs with parties of spiky-haired characters with big honkin’ swords or more upscale open world games like Oblivion, the short solo quest here might seem like an appetizer rather than a full course meal. However, you’ll find that the adventure of Elli and his talking magic wand hits all the right notes on the cliché-o-meter, making for an engaging tale. There’s no fair maiden to rescue and a huge dragon named Gaya sitting on an even more massive gold stash runs the only shop in the game. For some incredibly deadly comic relief, you even get to chase a yellow rat bastard named Flopsie around in one level filled with poison, traps and nasty fire creatures that don’t go down easy. A few text-based scenes aside, the game is light on melodrama, heavy on combat and even heavier on the potion using. The game is coded for touch screen or button use, and you can even use both if you like without having to go to the options screen and fiddle around.

In bringing the game to the DS, Fountainhead obviously put a lot of effort into this project and it shows in their design choices. The top screen shows the action and has an unobstructive HUD, while the lower touch screen is used for anything related to gameplay. O & E uses a Rogue-like play system where every movement, item use or combat action counts as a turn. In other words, let’s say you open a door and there’s an Orc warrior staring you down. Since your opening that door counts as a turn, you’ll more than likely get an arrow to the forehead or a sword chop for your masterful door opening effort. Your next move could be to retaliate with a weapon of your own, zap the pest with a blast from Ellon, quaff a potion, skip a turn or move out of harm’s way. That first-person perspective and id pedigree might lull you into thinking this is some sort of Hexen-style hack and slash, but you’d be very wrong indeed and quite dead by the middle of the first dungeon. You’ll need to think tactically most of the time, especially in areas with multiple enemies hacking away and later on, traps that will kill you in one hit.

One example is in the stage where you need to get a cask of ale, bring it to a ghost and have a drink with him in order to get a door code. On the way to the ale press is a hallway with a series of moving walls, thanks to a pesky enemy that happens to flip the lever at the end of the hall before scooting off. If you tap-tap-tap your way dumbly through the hall, you’ll be smooshed into elf chunks with a side of gravy. However (after you deal with the enemies that ambush you), if you stand at the beginning of the hall and tap the Y button on your DS a few times, a turn will pass each time and you’ll see the pattern the walls take. Once you’re through that area, you can (and should) stock up on all the ale you can carry. Not that I advocate drinking and gaming, but in this particular game, quaffing a brew drops your accuracy, but boosts your strength and defense (which might explain real-life bar brawls, now that I think about it). You’ll have the chance to share more spirits with the spirit a few more times in the level, so make sure to have a few Accuracy potions handy, as you’ll definitely be doing some fighting after a few brews.

If you’re too busy to read the manual, the game wisely clues you in on important stuff as you play. The rest is up to you to work through, but you shouldn’t have any trouble, provided you don’t rush headlong into rooms unprepared. If you ever get lost, you can call up a map that will stay on screen until you need to use a weapon or item. Switching weapons can be done by tapping X or using the touch screen (with no movement penalty, by the way). As smart play means managing your health through potion use, you’ll generally be prepared for anything. In addition to the potions and treasure scattered about, each level has a warp to Gaya’s lair where a healing crystal can patch you up for free and you can shell out your hard-earned gold on new items. Her inventory may be small (and initially expensive), but locating certain gems will net you some powerful weapons and armor as well as make the scaly lady happy enough to secure a discount. Just don’t mess with her stock of sheep off to the side or try to pop an arrow into her from a distance out of curiosity.

Interestingly enough, Gaya only sells items, so once you buy a weapon or armor, you’re stuck with it until you replace it with a better quality item. On Normal, you don’t need to follow the unwritten RPG rule of buying every piece of armor or every weapon in Gaya’s small stock, but you might consider upgrading as soon as possible on the other two difficulties. Actually, carrying armor repair kits in a must as is wearing the proper magic ring. Sometimes, having twice as many hit points will do you much better than boosting your strength, that’s all I’ll say. Careful scouring of levels reveals unlockable artwork, not too cryptic hints galore from deceased dwarves and even a few map pieces in one stage. You’ll also want to break everything that can be broken with a weapon or magic blast, as you’ll discover lots of helpful hidden goodies that make the detour you’ve taken worth the trouble.

If you’ve been reading the developer diaries, you’ll see that Fountainhead put a ton of thought into what could and couldn’t be done on the DS and what’s here is executed to perfection. O & E features 2D sprite-based characters in a great-looking 3D engine that reminded me of great DOS games like Daggerfall or Doom on the PS One. Considering the cartridge limitations of the DS, things like swinging chains on walls, sconces that can be put out and the overall variety of textures in the game is something to be admired. Key to the immersion factor is the excellent sound design that really pulls you into the game’s tenser moments. There’s very little music other than the heraldic main theme, but this is a good thing. You’ll be creeping along in a quiet area paying attention to the different ambient sounds while listening for a telltale enemy shuffle. Sometimes, it’s coming from off to one side, other times you’d best have eyes in the back of your head when you go grab that hidden treasure. While there’s no voice acting in the game, the snappily written script brings back memories of my pen and paper gaming days or those few D & D sessions I sat in on, totally absorbed in the process of surviving an unknown dungeon.

As for flaws, well… there’s nothing that breaks the game and the fact that it’s brief isn’t really a “flaw” at all. Remember, gamers come in all skill levels, so while that editor type or fearless hardcore Joe will blow through the game in record time, other gamers will be playing this on the road, saving every few minutes as they cautiously tap their way through some of the trickier sections. A few diehard PC gamers that disagree with modern save anywhere systems may scoff at the ability to save any time because it takes the stress level down considerably. However, if I’m on the train and about to miss my stop, I’m going to want to save my game rather than just rely on the DS’ sleep mode. Hell, you can always be Mr. or Ms. Macho and play without saving until you complete each level – there’s no hard and fast rule on that front. Besides, as I said above, Hard and Nightmare modes will have your teeth gritting as you put a death grip on your DS. Expect to add an hour or three to your times here, as you’ll probably die a lot until you work up a few new strategies.

If anything, what’s here definitely made me want more and with the recently released sequel, Orcs & Elves II hitting cell phones, it’s probably a safe bet that will come to the DS sometime in the near future. Based on the back-story of Elli’s dad, Eol, and some of the other plot elements introduced here, it would be great to see a follow up while also having this series expand onto other consoles at some point. I’m wondering what id and Fountainhead could do with the PSP’s UMD format (widescreen dungeons! Even more levels! 3D enemies!). Moreover, as for next-gen systems, the sky’s the limit and it would be great to see more games that don’t take themselves so seriously because they’re running in HD. Until then, definitely seek out a copy of Orcs & Elves, and tell a friend to do so as well. This particular style of classic RPG is one that really needs to make a comeback, so it’s just grand to have such a superb example to show that there’s room for more at the inn, particularly when it’s something as good as this.

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