A boy and his wand.
John Carmack is probably among the best known names in video gaming, almost as much of a household name as Shigeru Miyamoto or Nobuo Uematsu. And even if you don't know who he is, you most definitely know about some of the games he's worked on - Doom, Wolfenstein 3d and Quake to mention a few. For a few years in the mid-90's, video gaming pretty much was all about Doom, everyone talked about it and everyone tried to copy it and it's difficult to overstate the influence Carmacks work has had on video game design since.
But I wonder how many people know that Carmacks Doom RPG engine was also used for a little game called Orcs & Elves however. Originally released in 2006 for mobile phones, Carmack has arguably had the most influence on this little gem out of all his games, as he is credited both as producer, programmer and writer here. Created together with his wife Katherine Anna Wang as an homage to their love of everything D&D, Orcs & Elves uses the Doom RPG Engine to put you in the shoes (slippers?) of a wand-wielding elf named Elli (the wands name is Ellon if you're curious), dungeon crawling your way through a monster-infested dwarven fortress. It really couldn't be any more D&D if it tried.
I came across this many years back on a pirate multi-cart (I played the DS version) and intrigued by the name (Orcs & Elves says pretty much everything you need to know about this game) I tried it out. I liked it, and have no idea why I didn't finish it back then, but it lingered in the back of my head until I decided to buy myself a copy this year and play it through fully. Turns out it's not a very long game, but every minute is well-designed and fun to play.
It wasn't until I was researching some background information for this post that I found out this was originally designed as a mobile game, but looking at the game it makes sense. While the DS version was suped up to fit the DS, with some added menu functions for instance, enhanced graphics and more levels, it still looks pretty basic for a DS game. It never once bothered me though and definitely doesn't detract from the fun.
Graphically it's reminiscent of Doom, but plays out turn-based in which every action you do corresponds to one turn - in short, the enemies move when you move. I've played other games like this, Legend of Grimrock is the first that comes to mind, and I am overall a fan of the concept. I did not have fun with Legend of Grimrock though but unfortunately it was too long ago since I played it for me to make a good comparison to this game to tell you what Orcs & Elves does right where LoG failed for me.
Orcs & Elves is very straightforward, but mixes things up enough to keep it interesting. At first you only have two weapons, but your arsenal will quickly expand as you delve deeper into the fortress. This will equip you with a wide range of abilities, both physical and magical, to tackle the different enemies you encounter. Enemies in turn have varying weaknesses that make certain weapons more or less useful, some enemies you don't want to fight ranged and some you do and so on. To aid you further you've got a bunch of different potions and drinks that improve your stats for a couple of turns. Knowing when and in which order to use your weapons and potions is a big part of the combat fun in Orcs & Elves. While I found the game to be fairly easy on normal difficulty, and rarely requiring too much tactical thinking, I can see how utilizing your arsenal (and your turns) fully and cleverly would be a necessity on the tougher difficulties.
The same touch has been used on the writing. This is not an epic story that will leave you feeling your full range of emotions before the end, essentially you are just working your way through hordes of evil-doers to avenge the dwarven king. But on the way you'll encounter interesting characters that definitely add to the experience with some fun dialogue and neat side-quest feeling adventures. There are some secrets to be found and puzzles to be solved. It takes trope elements from old D&D games and blends it all together wonderfully, you can tell this is done with pure love for the genre.
Honestly, my only complaint about this game is that it's a tad on the short side. I finished it under 6 hours which I guess is a fair amount of gameplay for a 2006 mobile game, but feels cut short for a game on the DS. In the end though, it's only because I want to spend more time cutting through enemies and with the harder difficulties there is some replay-value to be had.
If you're after some well-designed, quick and neat D&D fun, I definitely recommend this game. It's not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it will never leave you bored.