Game Review -- Orcs and Elves

I don’t have a cell phone that can run cell phone games of any complexity, because I use my cell phone as a phone, not a low-end Gameboy. But games on cell phones are kind of a big deal now, as I was informed by a co-worker who showed off the various games he had on his iPhone -- Mega Man 2, NetHack, and a bunch of other piddly time wasters. It’s funny that yesteryear’s phone/game system, the Nokia N-Gage, failed as badly as it did, only to see cell gaming become massively popular on iPhones and Blackberries. It’s also sad, because the N-Gage was the only way to play Falcom’s Xanadu Next in English, legally.

But what surprises me is the idea that anybody would port a cell phone game to one a commercially viable console. There are a few examples, like Deep Labyrinth on the DS and Final Fantasy 4: The After Years for the Wii’s virtual console, but the concept still baffles me to the point that when I read a review and it simply states that game x is adapted from cell phone game franchise y (and it isn't a puzzle/popcap game) it's surprising.

Orcs and Elves is another cell phone game ported to the DS, and like Deep Labyrinth, it’s a first person dungeon crawler. The DS is already a popular system for RPGs, with both Japanese and western style games (and Japanese riffs on western style dungeon crawlers) readily available, so to stand out, a game either has to utilize the DS’ unique features (touch pad, dual screens) in an unusual way, or just be really, really good.

Orcs and Elves doesn’t stand out. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. It simply means that the stylus/touch pad control doesn’t add anything and that it’s a merely decent game rather than an excellent one. Considering its origins, that’s as good as anybody should hope for. It looks much like a mid-nineties era PC game, and plays similarly with a simple, turn-based system (your enemies don’t move until you do). But it was developed by John Carmack, the man behind Doom, and the cell phone game, Doom RPG. It’s fitting.

In fact, the game can be compulsively playable. The level designs contain a few secrets each, although they don’t really feel like mazes -- they’re cake compared to the more obtuse dungeon crawlers released for DOS PCs. The game limits what you can do with your character, but it never loses its identity as a role playing game. Stats provide the basis for what your character can do, and there’s plenty of potions that will boost stats (for a limited number of turns), and upgrades for the sword, and other stuff that can be bought. The magic system comes from your talking wand, itself a character with more personality than the player’s never-seen avatar. The Wand shoots projectiles which deplete magic points, as do various items and spells activated by tracing a pattern on the touch screen, but not until after they’ve already been selected, making the stylus tracing little more than an interruptive formality.

So what other reason might one play Orcs and Elves? Nostalgia comes to mind most readily, and humor too. The graphics -- pixelized sprites against low resolution 3D environments -- remind me of Bethesda’s old PC games, as well as old fantasy themed PC shooters like Hexen. It seems like the limitations of its original platform dictated that the graphics look as they do, but it also seems that the developers intententionally evoke memories of those older fantasy-themed games. After all, they could have easily added more animation when porting to the DS. It’s nice to see some retro-PC style outside of an indie game, if only on the DS.

Also, the story is preposterous enough to be funny. Particularly as it is relayed through notes scattered about the labyrinth, which are written in first person but frequently include (cough)s and ***Wheeze*** as if the author actually took pains to write out his bodily failings while he died. It’s an old gag (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among others) but the developers seem to think it’s so funny that it’s easy to laugh at in spite of itself.

I beat Orcs and Elves in just under eleven hours, because I was being thorough. Rushing through without bothering with secrets or monster hunting, it’s probably a nine hour game. I don’t know what it was at full price, but I bought mine used and was fairly satisfied with it. The problem: it’s a cell phone game, and that’s probably the best platform for it. The game is playable and fun in short spurts, but tedious when you’ve played it for a few hours, because it’s only meant to be played for as long as you sit on the bus. It’s both unexpected and strange to think that a game might actually work better on a cell phone, but that is absolutely the case with this one.

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