Despite its title, Of Orcs And Men isn’t about two green skinned creatures looking for work in central California during the Great Depression (though that’s an indie title waiting to happen). Instead, the game focuses on those two creatures- one orc and one goblin- attempting to stop the genocide of their races at the hands of humans. It’s an interesting twist on the usual fantasy narrative, but one that Of Orcs And Men doesn’t quite pull off.
Developed in conjunction between Cyanide Studios (Game of Thrones: Genesis, Game of Thrones) and Spiders (The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, Faery: Legends of Avalon), Of Orcs And Men is a third-person RPG styled after Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but plays more like an MMO. Players are given control over one lumbering orc named Arkail and a small goblin named Styx. Players manage these characters in combat through the game’s radial wheel system that lets attacks get queued up before being executed. Bringing up the wheel during combat slows the game down to a crawl, giving players time to consider options. Each character has different stances that allow players to tactically direct battles. Styx- for instance- is the only one of the two that can do ranged attacks, making him perfect for staying outside the fray and picking off enemies. Arkail charges right in, but can choose from either defensive or aggressive moves.
The difference in characters is highlighted even further with each character having unique mechanics tied to them. When getting damaged in battle, Arkail has a rage meter that builds up. Once full, he goes on killing spree that takes control away from the player and risks hurting Styx as well. While the mechanic has pulled me out of bad situations, it has also lost me some battles. Rage is manageable with some skills, so an attentive eye is necessary. Styx uses concentration points that he has to spend to do special attacks. He also has a stealth mode that is useless in combat, but can be used before fights to pick off lone soldiers. While it was often useful, it was also inconsistent as I was unsure as to whether I would be spotted on multiple occasions. Both unique mechanics are neat additions, but got in the way of the rest of the game too many times.
While there isn’t quite as much strategy as I’d like during pitch battles, knowing when to stun-lock and when to AOE is useful. This meant that while I was given a plethora of moves, I found myself doing well by sticking to just a few. I managed to get past most all fights with ease and the game never asked me to experiment. This was in spite of the fact that when I wasn’t managing a character, the A.I. would make terrible combat decisions. Arkail would attempt to attack enemies he couldn’t reach and Styx would rush in when staying out was more prudent. In addition, while there aren’t any cooldown periods, the queing up of attacks gave the combat an MMO pace that I found distasteful. As a whole, the system is repetitive and dull, but inoffensive- I never found myself frustrated with it, just bored.
The levelling system is equally bland. Experience is gained from battles and each level earns two points that can be distributed among four attributes and one upgrade for the various combat skills. Upgrading attributes incrementally adds to dodge, attack, health and either the spendable concentration points for Styx or from keeping Arkail’s rage from taking over control. Both Arkail’s and Styx’s starting attributes favor their combat styles, and a good balancing of all four kept me going through the game. As I mentioned earlier, since I was able to get by quite easily focusing on 2-3 skills for each character, getting a new skill/skill upgrade wasn’t very exciting either. What little loot exists in the game isn’t determined by stats, so the game didn’t encourage different routes, leaving the levelling up system little more more than an afterthought.
Now, bland mechanics can be forgiven for compelling story. Story was in fact the very thing that first piqued my interest in the title with its cinematic trailer. Of Orcs And Men shifts the traditional protagonist focus from humans onto orcs and goblins. Humans have homogenized under one religion and empire, giving them the power to expand into the territory of the “greenskins.” The tribal orcs- though physically powerful- are being systematically wiped out, dying either through battle or slavery. Goblins are treated like pests and are killed as such. In a last ditch effort to blunt the human advance, Arkail is sent on a mission to kill the emperor. Styx is an isolationist, claiming loyalty to neither race nor people. He is hired by the orcs as Arkail’s guide and serves as narrator to the story as well. While the tropes of the wisecracking rouge and the blunt warrior may be off-putting, I thought the initial setup was pretty good. I was also impressed how they expressed a real world issue- PTSD- through Arkail’s rage mechanic. Unfortunately none of the elements pay off.
I think all the narrative elements can be judged by one phrase: heavy-handed. The evilness of the human empire is crude, lacking the subtlety that makes evil people worth fearing. The main characters never evolve beyond their stereotypes. The pacing is terrible, having a long exposition and then speeding up as the game closes. There’s a dialogue wheel system that does little more than decide what topic you’re talking about. The dialogue itself is weak, with lame attempts at wit from Styx and the ridiculous sincerity of every other character dragging the story along. The point of view twist sets up strong expectations, but fails to fulfill them.
Two strong elements of the game are its music and environmental art. The cello heavy soundtrack adds to the narrative’s dark tone. Olivier Deriviere has done an amazing job, with compositions that know when to soar and when to retreat. I recommend searching the internet for some of the excerpts that are out there- it’s well worth your time.. While the level design is terrible and the textures are pretty bad as well, the actual environments are quite appealing. While there’s not a lot of variety within them, the little that’s there is attractive. The plot moves from the dank streets of a crowded city to the lush forest, and the relief I felt when moving to that latter environment was surprising.
Of Orcs And Men feels like a game that very much wants to be from the 2003-2009 period of Bioware games. Unfortunately, the game lacks the depth that games like Dragon Age: Origins and the first Mass Effect had. From the lite levelling system, bland mechanics, lack of side quests and interesting characters therein, weak world lore, tired character tropes, and terrible pacing, the game doesn’t capture the magic that Bioware games from that period had. If Bioware’s own flee from those games in favor of shooters and MMOs have left you in withdrawal, Of Orcs And Men might be the shot of methadone you need. For anyone else, you’ll have to find your deep RPG hit somewhere else.
Here’s the Rundown:
+ Well crafted environments
+ Stunning soundtrack
– Dull combat system
– Superficial leveling system
– Story fails to fulfill on all fronts
– Terrible level design
5 and 5.5 are mediocre. These aren’t necessarily bad games, they just don’t do anything that is worth caring about and not worth the time of most people.
Of Orcs And Men was developed by Cyanide Studios and Spiders, and published by Focus Home Interactive. A copy of the game was provided to RipTen by the publishers for the purposes of review.