Orcs & Elves (DS)
To call Orcs & Elves an anomaly would be akin to dismissing Perez Hilton as just another Hollywood parasite. It's an anachronism, an aberration, even an abomination by current gaming standards, harkening back to simpler, less HDTV- and 'MTV Cribs'-ed-out times. To a modern-day player, the adventure -- originally a popular wireless game and the pet project of id Software's technological virtuoso John Carmack (DOOM, Quake) -- will surely stun and confuse, what with its über-archaic trappings. But to anyone who grew up with interactive epics like Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore near and dear to their heart, it'll also make for a brief, but satisfyingly teary-eyed trip down memory lane.
First, we should get some critical drubbings out of the way upfront, just so you don't cast side-eyed glances or make unwholesome aspersions on our street cred, young 'un. The game's shockingly simplistic, featuring only one main character (sorry, no party members to collect here beyond a talking wand that is with you from the start), and short on stats beyond base health, damage and magic points, which power weapons such as said chattering stick and mystic hammers. (Although you do collect experience rewards for every kill and possess ratings for strength, defense and other attributes, most are tucked away in infrequentlyvisited menu screens, with the action flowing more naturally through direct visual feedback than pure dice rolls.) Only a limited array of weapons, spells and equipment can be collected to boot, with most doled out at preplanned times based on the designers' deliberate placement of treasure chests and occasional fire portals that transport you to a dragon who doubles as a merchant with whom you can barter.
Despite being presented from a pseudo-3-D perspective, movement is also strictly linear and handled via turn-based, step-by-step progression, with adversaries -- whom you can clearly see approaching -- taking one action for your every move along a virtual grid displayed in the form of claustrophobic stone or earthen corridors. Baddies are further found in short selection (imagine a fairly generic and miniscule list of adversaries from trolls to were-rats, wraiths, double-dog-headed obscenities, spider-like weavers and corpse-eating slimes) and scripted to appear in specific locales. Difficulty is skewed; jumping ranges from too easy to nail-bitingly difficult; and ambushes feature groups of lava beasts or giant centipedes (the majority automatically triggered by fleeing NPCs no less) frequently utilized to purposefully whittle down one's supply of health- or speed-boosting potions, otherwise rapidly amassed during your constant dungeon crawls. Storytelling devices are constrained to occasional scrolls, statue inscriptions and chats with drunken or overzealous ghosts to boot, as you follow a third-grade-level tale about a dwarven stronghold overrun by dark elves and orcs.
Similarly, puzzles amount to little more than boulder-pushing challenges, key/switch-hunts, or searches for combinations to blue, green and red rune doors, unlocked by using the d-pad or stylus to tap in the correct color sequence. Secret doors can be easily spotted as well, letting you effortlessly locate passages deeper into an underground realm that includes catacombs, brimstone pits, magic forges or caches of unguarded treasure. Combat involves endlessly tap-tap-tapping away on buttons or the bottom display, as you watch your sword, crossbow or explosive eggs fly outwards on the top screen towards heavily pixilated and less-than-seriously-depicted baddies (who, for example, suddenly develop giant googly-eyes -- a real hoot to see on an otherwise snarling elemental monster or giant insect -- when a magic ring or especially powerful series of attacks causes them to run in fear). Low-res interstitial sequences, portrayed as non-interactive 3-D movies on the upper portion of your DS, make for clunky transitions between areas, too. And darned if the whole thing doesn't feel like one big adolescent fantasy, what with mandatory drinking of various types of ale -- which amplify your power at the expense of accuracy, and woozy, wavering perspective shifts (you're tipsy -- get it?) -- reinforcing the quest's clich&eacure;d writing and generally juvenile outlook.
But we'd be lying if we didn't also admit that we loved, nay adored, the end result, which taps into a vein of rich nostalgia so few of today's titles recognize as still poignant, let alone pander to. And since its original, award-winning appearance on mobile phones, the addictive, just-one-more-go-type outing has only gained more monsters, catchy sound effects, spells and inventory management options. (Everything from armor repair kits to collectible aperitifs and casks of spirits is now accessible via the touch-screen, with automatic mapping functions -- the salvation of many an adventurer -- instantly available at the touch of a button.) For all the clunky setup, it's as if someone essentially took a casual game and dressed it up in classical fantasy role-playing trappings, disguising a shockingly engaging hack-'n'-slasher in AOL- or Yahoo-friendly clothing. Never mind that superb use is made of traps; strategy actually plays a role in combat, as you're forced to second-guess enemies and literally think one step ahead; it's imperative that players successfully ration potion, item and ammo consumption; and that ambient effects such as walls crawling with insects add flair. Only six to eight hours long (a plus from the working professional's perspective), what we're most psyched about is the surprisingly high levels of polish that shine throughout the entire outing, from its basic construction to overall tongue-in-cheek attitude.
If you're a Mass Effect fan or Final Fantasy junkie, there's obviously going to be a general sense of disconnection, and we can't in good conscience promise that your opinion of the game will be nearly as glowing. But if you're a veteran of SSI's Gold Box titles, or a former resident of its Ravenloft games, then grab your vorpal sword and dragonscale armor... Short, sweet and promising a chance to revisit a style of action too long absent from both handheld and home consoles, what can we say? Orcs & Elves makes a fine fit for those of us who still love codpieces and lightning bolts, but otherwise can't find the time between work and family to don the old chainmail armor and enchanted boxer shorts.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.