So I recently picked up the Nintendo DS version of Orcs & Elves at Gamestop for ten bucks. For those of you that don't know, this was ID software's second foray into the cell phone gaming market; The first being Doom RPG. So when I first heard about this game being ported to the DS wrote it off as nothing more than John Carmack's fuck you letter to Nintendo. That may have actually been the case, but the port turned out really, really good.
Speaking of Carmack, this entire game was actually a one man show. Although I'm pretty sure he had someone else do the artwork, the engine and level design are Carmack. This surprised me for two reasons. To begin with, I was under the impression that John Ramero had done the bulk of the level design work for Doom 1-2 and Quake. The second reason this surprised me was because of how well balanced and paced the levels of this game are. On further reflection, the second point isn't really all that shocking when you consider that Carmack is a genius graphics programmer and, by default an accomplished mathematician. If anyone could keep an RPG level curve in lock step with the challenge, it would be a man that can juggle statistics and do advanced calculus in his head.
If you look at the original cell phone game, you'll notice that the DS graphics got a major touch up. This game doesn't push the DS hardware by any means, but it's not a total eyesore either. The game actually pulls off the retro look effortlessly. If you've ever seen games try to be retro, you'll know that it can be done wrong.
The gameplay is turn based with every step being one turn. you're allowed to switch weapons and change your facing for free, but once you attack, quaff a potion, cast a spell, or take a step forward or back, all the other mobile features in the dungeon get their turn to act. It sounds pretty boring on paper, but if you actually play it you'll be amazed at how briskly the game chugs along. The whole thing has more of the feel of an FPS than an RPG, despite the fact that you gain levels and abilities as you continue.
Story? Well... There really isn't one... The setup is that you're an Elf who, with the assistance of your talking wand, have traveled to meet a Dwarven king only to find the mountain crawling with monsters and the spirits of dead Dwarves. And with that you set out to discover whats going by journeying through the mountain's ten levels and killing every living thing you encounter.
and that's really all there is. A short, satisfying dungeon crawl that will make you feel like you're ten years old again. If you've been playing computer games since the mid-80's, you'll get a warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling. If you cut your teeth on Final Fantasy 7, you'll probably return this after about two minutes of playing it. I'd urge you to stick with it though. The game gets hella challenging in the later levels. Plus, it'll only take you about two hours to complete. So if you're looking to get an RPG fix during your lunch break at work, this is what you want. There's currently a sequel available on cell phones if you don't get enough here.
At any rate, this game has everything I love about RPGs in a highly concentrated form. It isn't a hard formula to figure out really. Why modern RPGs and MMORPGs can't seem to grasp this, I'll never know.