Orc: Vengeance is a beautiful and atmospheric dungeon-crawler that shows exactly how a console-style experience can work on smartphones without compromise. It demonstrates a clear understanding of the strengths and limitations of touch-screen controls and the end result is a gripping adventure that is both intelligent in design and uncommonly substantial in content.
Its unlikely hero is Rok, an orc fighting in a dwindling resistance against the undead army that rules over the grim world of Argon. Imprisoned at the outset, Rok must escape back to his clan to lead a charge against the evil commander of this ghoulish force. It's a straightforward setup for a story whose role is of limited importance: outside the occasional piece of lore you find scattered about Argon's dungeons, which you explore from an isometric perspective akin to Diablo or Torchlight, the story plays a minor role. Ultimately, it’s merely there to serve as the most basic of motivations for the bloodletting to come.
Each large area is broken up into bite-sized chunks, with an intuitive tap-to-move control scheme guiding Rok around the environments. Holding your finger briefly on the screen, meanwhile, has him break into a gentle jog if you’re in more of a hurry to get somewhere. There’s plenty of loot to collect and basic puzzles to solve as you explore the cavernous crypts and rain-lashed battlements of this ruined city, but the focus is firmly on combat.
Fortunately, the action very satisfying, with a terrific sense of weight. Rok's movements might be slow, but you sense the sinews straining as he winds his arms back before bringing his mace down on an enemy's skull. Defeating basic grunts is simply a case of tapping on them and waiting until they die, though soon you find yourself overwhelmed by sheer numbers. At that point you need to use simple gestures--double-taps, circles, and zigzag lines--to pull off area attacks and dash charges, to roll out of harm's way when surrounded, or to glug a potion that will refill your armour or health bar. Special moves deplete a vengeance meter, which slowly regenerates during normal combat or can be instantly topped up with another potion. You’ll need to choose your moves carefully: only four of these vengeance skills can be equipped at once, and each of them can be levelled up for a small fee.
Fortunately, you're rarely short of money. Coins are in plentiful supply, dropped by enemies or contained within smashable pots or chests that Rok uncouthly opens with a satisfyingly aggressive kick. Any items you collect can be sold to a vendor at the end of each stage. In a smart piece of design, any duplicates are instantly converted to gold. You can, of course, spend real-world cash on a boost to Rok's account: though the more expensive items make the difficulty curve a little smoother, you can only upgrade weapons to Rok's own level, so it never feels unbalanced.
Given the range of pauldrons and vambraces found in other dungeon-crawlers it's disappointing that loot is restricted to weapons and shields. At least there are a pleasing variety of both, with swords, daggers, maces, and axes to choose from, each offering different benefits and buffs. There’s something inherently satisfying about finding an item that’s just a little better than the one you currently own, and once you’re caught inside that addictive loot loop, you’ll find it difficult to wriggle free.
As enjoyable as it is, the moment-to-moment combat doesn't change a great deal, though after slugging it out toe-to-toe in the early stages you’ll find you need to back off increasingly frequently, with undead enemies that can deplete your armour in a couple of hefty hits, and wraiths that drain your health alarmingly quickly. There's a different tempo to the boss encounters, but even there the rhythm finds itself repeating eventually. It's a less noticeable issue if the game is played in short bursts, as clearly intended: stages are broken up into chapters that neither feel too stingy, nor outstay their welcome.
Besides, Argon and its inhabitants provide another compelling reason to continue. The world represents an austere slice of Tolkienesque fantasy, with a distinct lack of natural light: the brightest it gets is when rain-swept castle battlements are briefly illuminated by flashes of lightning. Outside it's almost constantly raining, while inside you plough through dimly lit environs gated off by crumbling masonry and burning objects. It sounds unpleasant, but there's a bleak beauty to it all. A bombastic orchestral soundtrack, meanwhile, provides fitting aural accompaniment for the grunts, thumps, and splats of the game's meaty skirmishes.
In some respects, Orc: Vengeance is a fairly generic dungeon crawler, but don't let that blind you to its achievements. Its controls, interface, and audiovisual qualities are exemplary, while its use of in-app purchases is pleasingly unobtrusive and sensibly balanced. This is a textbook example of how core games needn’t be compromised by a smartphone interface, and an entertaining journey through a delightfully brutal world.