Orcs & Elves | Principal Platforms: Mobile, Nintendo DS (Version tested) | Developer: id Software | Publisher: Electronic Arts | Genre: RPG | Year: 2006

The action-packed Orcs & Elves is somewhat undone by its incredibly short length.
Orcs & Elves Nintendo DS Box Art

Orcs & Elves

John Carmack is one of the world’s most important video game programmers, to the level where his software portfolio contains considerably more classics than curiosities. Orcs & Elves is a rarity in his company’s history then; a technically ambitious, yet somewhat overlooked mobile game released during the era of Symbian handsets.

Orcs & Elves was built from the same turn-based engine that id Software used for their DOOM RPG; another early mobile game that succeeded despite current technology lagging behind Carmack’s ambition. As tends to be the way.

By the time Orcs & Elves was released on the Nintendo DS, the bar for handheld games had been raised significantly, and the otherwise impressive port was not as warmly received as the wireless original had been the previous year. That outcome could be considered a tad unfair since this Nintendo DS version is technically superior and looks fantastic despite its humble origins.

The surprisingly well-told story begins in a mountainous city besieged by orcs (who else?). Upon answering the call for aid, a lone elven warrior allies with the city’s dwarven spirits and embarks on a quest to defeat both the invaders and the evil sorceress commanding them from the shadows.

It goes without saying that id Software knows everything there is to know about first-person games, and you can see how far that experience has gone towards creating a tidy RPG. The new 3D world featured in the Nintendo DS version is rendered smoothly, even with the fast pace of play, and the same goes for all of those hideous enemy sprites and gory death animations.

Those same enemies rarely attack in a standardised fashion either. Some will charge across the room to get within reach, whereas others will dodge around your flanks or attack from range. More exotic monsters like the slimes will devour their fallen comrades in order to restore lost health, and then you’ll meet evil wizards who will teleport behind you just to make sure you’re paying attention.

If your mind is filled with images of old-school CRPGs like Dungeon Master, then you’re on the right track. Orcs & Elves has a retro flair, perhaps with a spot of Mystery Dungeon or Fighting Fantasy mixed in for good measure.

Orcs & Elves Nintendo DS Gameplay Screenshot

Hidden rooms grant bonus items and experience points. It’s an excellent incentive to get players exploring the map.

There’s not much in the way of character building, nor a particularly interesting magic system for that matter, so I find the game is better imagined as a hypothetical Hexen RPG. The fun arsenal of fantasy weapons is reminiscent of Hexen, as is the general abundance of savage enemies and potions to quaff. In fact, considering the heavy focus on potions, it’s regrettable that a ‘quick drink’ option wasn’t added to the touch screen inventory.

Another problem involves the difficulty. Adventuring on normal mode is so easy that you don’t need to worry about your potion collection at all. The hard mode seems to be the “true” default as you really have to count your steps, and only use your best potions in the worst of situations.

The biggest red flag is reserved for length because whilst the story wraps up nicely, there’s no incentive to play through it more than once. The Nintendo DS port does throw in an extra chapter with some new puzzles, but this amounts to little more than a diversion. Orcs & Elves is still a very short game and that’s a more understandable criticism of this port when considering the expectations of the genre and the wealth of other RPGs available for the same system.

It’s almost a shame that the game was ported so soon. If the sequel had been bundled in as a double feature, then the price of the cartridge would have been much easier to justify. As it is though, Orcs & Elves is an unimaginative name for a surprisingly well-designed romp, and is surely one to interest those who are curious about id Software’s bygone efforts.