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Orcs and Elves (DS) Review
~by tankMage (November 2017)
Orcs and Elves is a good old fashioned dungeon crawl from… Id Software?! Well this is something I did not expect to encounter on the Nintendo DS, especially considering the generic title. While Id Software has a special place in my heart and there’s something about the month of November that makes it perfect to play an Id game, I was really skeptical about the quality of Orcs and Elves. The game looks like an old beta from the 90’s that the company had laying around and decided to port to the DS to make a quick buck. Apparently my guess wasn’t too far off the mark: this game is a mobile port. Of course looks can be deceiving and Orcs and Elves is actually a fun and well crafted RPG that bridges the gap between turn based roguelikes such as Nethack (though Orcs and Elves lacks the roguelike permadeath feature and procedurally generated dungeons) and first person RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls. With that said, this title is without doubt a niche one and a slow burn at that.
Visuals usually take a back seat to stuff like gameplay and plot in my book, but Orcs and Elves’ art style spoiled a generally positive experience. The extreme genericness of this game is striking and, while some of this can be attributed to technological limitations, such as limited storage space, one would think a veteran developer like John Carmack could work around such limitations. For those unfamiliar with the name, Carmack is the co-founder of Id Software, the company that made eminent titles such as DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D. With that said, I expected to confront some really freaky monsters, but Orcs and Elves failed to deliver. Instead, the creatures that inhabit the depths of the dungeons are trite to say the least. Players will meet orcs, slimes, dark elves, and wraiths (to name a few) that look like something from RPG Maker’s built in visual assets. I have to concede to the fact that some of the creatures in this game were sort of original (like wererats, which don’t frequently appear in games), but they made sure to wear that bit of novelty thin by palette swapping them so much that there was a wererat variant for nearly every color of the rainbow.
Not only are the baddies bland, but good guys are lame looking as well. There’s a generic dragon and a host of dwarf clones that are perhaps the most cliché representation of the mythological race one could imagine. At least the dwarves were ghosts, which mixes things up a tad. Speaking of the art, the quality of the sprites is somewhat lacking in places. To be fair, most of the creatures are at least decently drawn, but some of the monsters looked awkward, like the artist wasn’t sure how to draw them. In fact, I initially thought the spiders in Orcs and Elves were some sort of squid monster, though it didn’t help that the area you first meet them in is flooded with water. To top it off, the animations are also just one or two frames (usually a sprite flip) to represent walking and a few attack frames. To be honest, I liked this touch for nostalgic reasons, but I know in reality this is something of a turnoff to some people and the overall middling quality of the graphics doesn’t help.
Not all is lost with this game’s graphics however. The dungeon is very nicely done and has a sense of depth that makes it feel more immersive. It also captures the old school feel this game seemed to be trying to project. The various weapons and tools the player finds are also imaginative. You start the game with a rather common looking sword and a cool wand that emits a blue aura. There’s also a number of sword upgrades, crossbows, and even exploding eggs that are fairly well designed; I guess whomever whoever did the artwork was better at drawing weapons and stuff than monsters.
The premise of Orcs and Elves is interesting enough for a dungeon crawl thanks to Ellon the talking wand. Even better, the game didn’t take itself too seriously and there’s a bit of humor sprinkled in here and there to lighten the mood of the somewhat dark plot. Of course, by dark I mean it’s grim compared to a Zelda game, but not quite as edgy as something like Diablo. So, your character, Elli owns a sentient wand named Ellon, who has been summoned by Brahm, king of a dwarven mountain citadel (the name of which I’m not going to attempt to spell). Ellon and Elli arrive to find the kingdom in shambles from an orc invasion and resolve to find King Brahm.
Like everything with this game, the story is a slow burn and it takes some time for it to get moving. Events unfold in a direct and simplistic manner, which is fine since this type of title doesn’t really lend itself to a complex and multifaceted narrative. Throughout the game you’ll meet some colorful characters, both on the side of the dwarves and on that of the orcs. Most of the cast are the sort of one dimensional caricatures you’d expect from a video game, but they’re amusing and add some zip to the story. In fact, Sarbok, a drunken dwarf the player meets early on quickly became one of my favorite side characters from a dungeon crawl.
Orcs and Elves is a turn based RPG despite it’s first person perspective, so the actual responsiveness of its buttons is not really a major issue. With that in mind, there really isn’t any sort of lag associated with command inputs aside from the fact that you have to wait for everything around you to have its turn, which happens mercifully quickly. The touch screen interface is also just fine, though some of the icons were a bit small, so one has to be careful when using the stylus.
Selecting weapons becomes tiresome, however. You can either cycle through your arsenal with the X button or use the stylus to select the desired weapon. This system works fine when you are just starting out and have two or three weapons. One encounters problems later on, after finding the other items and it takes for or five button presses to select the appropriate weapon. The touch screen remedies the issue somewhat, though it still takes a second to get to what you need. Just to further compound the problem, you’ll be switching arms frequently, because there are times when you have to battle a variety of foes that must be dispatched carefully, using the appropriate tools.
While rotating through weapons may be an issue, the system works well for rings and potions, which need to be changed or used less frequently. The magic system also works nicely, since players need only tap an icon to select and cast a spell, but the game forces players to activate nodes on the touchscreen to actually cast the spell. It’s basically impossible to fail at the spellcasting process since there’s no time limit and cues are given to the player so he or she knows what node to hit. In the end, the spell system just felt like a gimmicky waste of time. Maybe some incentive like decreased magic consumption for inputting a spell quickly would have fleshed out the system and made it more rewarding.
Music and Sound
Orcs and Elves features little music and this is another one of the game’s weaknesses in my opinion, since a good sound track could have added to the game’s emotional impact. What music happens to be present is fairly decent and got me excited about the game when I first saw the title screen, so it left me wanting more in the end. There is one thing this game does very well: ambiance. In fact, once again, Orcs and Elves looks to first person RPGs and FPS games of old for inspiration, emulating the spooky sound effects one would find in a game like Daggerfall. While the game does a good job replicating the ambiance of such titles, the lack of music causes the ambient sound effects to fade so far into the background that one barely perceives them after a while.
The sound effects for monsters, weapons, and spells are all good, though they suffer from being a bit generic, much like the game’s graphics. I have some gripes about the sound effects that play when you cycle through weapons. When you draw a weapon using X or the touchscreen, a sound will play, which can get old after playing the game for a while. The Phoenix Egg was the most irritating of the lot, because it would produce a screechy bird call when drawn…luckily the nose isn’t all that loud.
Orcs and Elves has some trouble with its overall presentation, but the actual gameplay is the sort of addictive hack ‘em up RPG fare that I was hoping for when I fired this title up. First off, I played this game on “Difficult” which would actually be considered normal or medium if we lived in a sane world, considering the fact that difficult is the second tier of challenge. With that in mind, my experience with the game was likely different from that of someone who played on normal (easy) or nightmare (hard). For me the game presented a moderate challenge with a pretty mild learning curve. You fight a new type of enemy in a relatively safe situation or gain a new toy to play with and the game will gradually throw more complex situations at you. There’s also the threat of failure in this game that I liked, because there’s a finite amount of resources to be had and one could theoretically squander precious gold or potions making it impossible to progress.
Ultimately this title is a hybrid of First Person and Turn Based RPGs, which makes it more of a tactical game oddly enough. Players are provided with a wand that can fire a simple blast of magic or cast powerful spells (both at the cost of magic points that recharge over time), a sword that is good for close range combat, and things like crossbows a bit later. Early on you can just hack through enemies blindly, but you’ll have to think your moves through as the game goes on. There are plenty of things to fight and though the monsters may be generic, they often did unexpected things like spit poison or eat the bodies of their allies to replenish health. Sometimes the game puts players in unfair situations, but you have all the time in the world to figure out what you want to do and hardened RPG veterans won’t be daunted by enemy ambushes. I did find the scarcity of bosses disappointing, but oddly enough the fact that a boss didn’t wait at the end of each area made the game feel less formulaic.
The dungeon itself was designed competently and even imaginatively in some places. Players will explore a forge, a feasting hall, and even a cave infested with vermin to name a few of the areas in Orcs and Elves. Most of these areas are what one would expect from an RPG about a dwarven stronghold, so don’t expect to be blown away by massive amounts of originality. Secrets abound in this game, though they mostly boil down to smacking walls with your sword to find hidden doors. The game also incentivizes players to explore by awarding them extra experience for killing everything in an area or finding all of the secret rooms.
Expect fairly mundane quests, however. NPCs will generally ask you to go somewhere and do a thing, because reasons. A lot of locked doors that need to be opened with a code were put in to facilitate these quests and drag out gameplay, but they are not so numerous as to make trudging through the dungeon onerous. Speaking of dragging out play time, there’s zero need to grind in Orcs and Elves, which is beautiful. Id essentially replaced grinding with the bonus experience system I mentioned earlier, so the overall RPG feel of your character becoming stronger depending on how much effort one puts into the game is still present, which is brilliant in my opinion.
Finally there are the weapons, spells, armors, and potions. In the end its the weapons that shine, since you get to use everything from swords to exploding eggs. One item, (which I won’t describe in detail so as not to spoil the surprise) is the coolest thing I’ve seen in an RPG in quite some time and those who choose to play this game will know what I’m talking about the second they get it. There’s also a variety of magic potions and rings that bestow a number of effects on the player’s character, most of which are standard RPG stuff. Also, you can combine weapons, rings, and/or potions for some interesting effects. In addition to the usual potions, players can find and imbibe in different types of ale, which was a clever idea, since getting drunk has is pros and cons in combat.
Sadly, the magic system falls short once again, partly due to the fact that there are only four spells in this game. Two of the four spell are redundant, because they deal very little damage and their effects can be achieved through other means, despite the fact that they are learned later in the game. What’s worse is the cost of each spell. The player’s MP maxes out at 99 and three of the four spells cost a whopping 80 points to cast. Consequently, most players will rely on one or two spells throughout the game. In the end, the magic system is an underdeveloped let down, that could use an overhaul.
I try not to look at scores or reviews of games before I write my own, because I don’t want my own opinions colored by those of others, but I accidentally saw the meta scores for this game while looking up basic info on it and was surprised at how poorly it was received. Sure, Orcs and Elves is a crappy looking mobile port, but there’s a decent game underneath it’s conspicuous flaws. Actually, if not for the poor graphics and some other issues, I would have scored this game higher. Admittedly, Orcs and Elves is a niche game, but it’s not that hard of a niche to fill. My guess is that a lot of people were turned off by the weak graphics and thought the game was trash after only playing a bit of it, since it starts off fairly slow. But that’s just conjecture on my part and everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, my opinion of Orcs and Elves is that it is a game worth trying.
Orcs and Elves is a hidden gem in the DS library, but it is not for everyone and those looking to play it will have to look past is very obvious faults.