When you think of casual games, first-person dungeon crawls probably aren't what spring to mind. They can be slow, difficult, and--if the level designers don't play their cards right--downright boring. id Software showed that this didn't have to be the case by releasing Orcs & Elves for mobile phone platforms, and now the game has made its way to the Nintendo DS. It doesn't hide its simplistic roots very well and the story is paper-thin, but it nevertheless provides quick, accessible fun for those who would normally be intimidated by your garden-variety, rat-infested dungeon crawl.
Playing as the elf Elli, you're tasked with plumbing the bowels of Mount Zharrkarag, where orcs have overrun a tribe of dwarves. Of course, as the fantasy template requires, there is greater evil afoot. Accompanied by a talking wand named Ellon, you'll find yourself going back and forth between delving deeper into the mountain to slay beasts and returning to the top to barter for supplies with the resident dragon, Gaya. What little plot progression there is presents itself through dialogue between Ellon and the ghosts of dwarves floating throughout the dungeons. You'll also come across scattered notes to help fill out what happened before you arrived. Ultimately, you're more likely to remember some choice interactions with an eternally drunken ghost as opposed to the lackluster plot.
It's slightly disappointing that there wasn't a little more put into the story, but the star of the show is really the streamlined first-person gameplay--especially the combat. Orcs & Elves is entirely turn-based--each time you take a step, chug a potion or some ale, or swing your weapon counts as one turn--but everything animates so quickly, with enemies acting immediately after you do, that it almost feels like a first-person shooter. Combat is simply a matter of hitting the A button to attack with a melee or ranged weapon. You can use the touch screen to access potions and other items with a few quick taps, and you'll need it to cast spells with Ellon by tapping runes in certain combinations, but it hardly feels like the menu-wading fare you might expect from other role-playing games.
Because of this, battles with even the most ferocious beasts don't last very long unless you happen to be surrounded. Even in these cases, if you're well stocked with healing potions, the battles aren't overly difficult. The game's challenge scales quite fairly, with the difference between victory and defeat being a matter of moving around and healing at the most appropriate moments as opposed to being at an insufficient experience level. Each area of the mountain has a set amount of enemies anyway, which takes away any opportunity for hardcore level grinding. This simply works in the game's favor by further emphasizing its quick pace.
Elli's quick movement speed and the compact level design make exploration pretty fast as well, but you'll want to slow down to hunt for secret doors by pressing up against certain walls to reveal goodies such as treasure chests and loose gold pieces. The game charts hidden rooms and tells you immediately when you've found all of the secrets in an area. Sadly, this takes away much of the challenge of hunting for secrets unless you consciously choose to avoid the map; the silver lining here is that there's little time wasted wandering around and hunting aimlessly.
Much of the sense of accomplishment in Orcs & Elves, then, comes from satisfying the compulsion to fill out every inch of the map as you watch your stockpile of gold pieces and potions grow. After all, having more cash and exploring every inch of the mountain nets you more vicious weaponry. There isn't a huge variety of weaponry that you can use, but everything is useful in certain situations. You can upgrade your sword and crossbow a handful of times; you learn up to four spells for Ellon to cast; and there's a medusa scroll that turns your enemies into statues (though, amusingly, you might point it in the wrong direction--at yourself--if you try using it while drunk).
All of these weapons are rendered at a decent resolution, though sadly they only have one or two frames of animation. Enemies are animated almost as sparsely, and because they are two-dimensional sprites in a three-dimensional environment, what looks detailed and well-colored from afar becomes pixelated up close. The same thing goes for walls, though you'll notice some creepy details that add to the ambience, such as maggots crawling around certain areas, and random corpses that you can slice to pieces. While the visuals are passable, the real treat with this game's presentation is in the audio samples. The clinking of gold pieces, skittering of monsters, and deliciously gory splattering of downed foes are all crisp and clear coming out of the DS speakers. Make Elli drink a keg of dwarven ale, and you'll hear him groan nauseously until the effects wear off.
While Orcs & Elves' overall presentation is upgraded from its humble mobile phone beginnings, the length of the game quickly reminds you of its origins. Going through the game from beginning to end can take you less than six hours, even if you spend a little time to hunt for secrets every now and again. If you make it a point to defeat every monster, find every single secret, and explore the levels a little more after you've completed the game, it's possible to extend this further, but it's very likely that before the 10-hour mark you'll have seen all that there is to see. An extra area or two, as well as a few more weapons and spells, would have rounded out the experience nicely.
As it is, Orcs & Elves still supplies a quick burst of fun in a genre that normally would be too dense for a casual audience. It makes no bones about what it is, and as such will satisfy anyone who wants to slay ugly monsters and collect loot during their commute without getting lost, dying countless times, or fumbling through menus.