"Of Orcs and Men feels like a missed opportunity."
The fantasy world earns yet another entry with Focus Home Interactive's Of Orcs and Men, a story of resolve, tolerance, and genocide. Here, humans vie for power at the cost of content tribal cultures to the south. Players take control of a two-person party in which they can focus on stealth and ranged combat or tanky, melee combat. Is this tale believably venerable, or are our victors simply legends?
Of Orcs and Men follows Arkail, a short-tempered orc fighter suffering from PTSD, and Styx, the only speaking goblin anyone's ever found. The nefarious humans have decided that their lands simply weren't expansive enough, so they've begun an onslaught on the orc lands. Arkail's chief has entrusted him and a few others with launching covert missions to assassinate the emperor before he enlists the help of the dwarves and elves. A proud and dutiful orc, Arkail sets forth to complete his mission. Along the way, he encounters Styx, a sly goblin who has been paid to guide Arkail on his path.
Styx and Arkail appear to be polar opposites at the onset of the story – Styx works for money and has a way with words, while Arkail's principles and loyalty are matched only by his uncontrollable rage. The mature script communicates realistically and tastefully. Our protagonists, despite their differences, work well off of each other, both in how they meet their goals and in how they interact. At no point during this 12-hour romp did I find myself tired of following the pair around – I enjoyed their company and found dialogue choices thought-provoking at times.
However, choices don't change the game as much as was foreseen back at E3, and oftentimes choosing one option clearly led into another string of dialogue I had opted against. Here, we find flagrant abuse of illusion of choice, and this gilded layer is chipped throughout the experience. My imagination kept the branching script enticing, with little of that fuel coming from the writing itself. Much like the map laid out in almost every chapter, the game is as linear as Styx's daggers.
This third-person action RPG, as stated earlier, follows our two "greenskins" around narrow corridors, even if the environment calls for spacious arenas. Players can freely switch between the two, though many may find themselves sticking with Styx, since he can stealthily assassinate loitering soldiers and inquisitors using his sneak ability. In this way, many battles can seem like puzzles: how can I optimize my killing potential in order to do less actual fighting? Lighting and positioning are vital here. Of course, killing a soldier standing right next to a friend of his is going to alert everyone in the area, but a soldier inexplicably standing out of sight of his allies may find himself quietly put down.
If and when combat begins, the wrecking ball Arkail can choose offensive, defensive, or special abilities. Primarily a melee fighter, Arkail has a rage bar that fills up over time, and if it reaches its threshold, he enters a chaotic mode in which anyone and everyone in his path will be pulverized over the duration of his now-decreasing rage bar – including Styx. Don't get too excited, because special abilities are quite limited, with a few interesting choices that are only unlocked right before the end of the game. Alternatively, offensive and defensive abilities offer a diverse toolbox with which to stab and bash opponents. Upon leveling, new skills can be unlocked, and old ones can be upgraded. When upgrading, two choices are available, and players can only pick one permanently. Fortunately, these substantive choices are different and diverse enough to warrant some consideration and strategizing.
Styx functions much the same as our brawny buddy, except he specializes in melee or ranged combat. His daggers usually offer ailments to aid in Arkail's mass murder, which made him the character of choice for this reviewer. While Arkail stands in the bunch trading blows with his skinnier counterparts, Styx may find himself running around the map positioning himself carefully, because some of his best ranged abilities must be used with unusual proximity to the opponent. Alternatively, his melee abilities can absolutely debilitate enemies while simultaneously rending flesh. However, Of Orcs and Men offers such customization that this reviewer's tactics may differ dramatically from your own.
These are mere details, though, since the formula throughout the game yields repetitious gameplay. During almost the entire game, players will find themselves running through long, beautiful caverns or halls for twenty seconds or so, notice that the game is quick saving, and then hit stealth mode to murder a couple of the languid foes ahead. Repeat. Unfortunately, customization is a one-time deal in that most situations can be resolved in much the same way. Thus, much of the game feels like going through the motions, and I could never sit through it for more than a couple hours at a time.
That said, Of Orcs and Men at least keeps its environments visually stimulating with countless details and extraordinary graphics. Never before have I been so intrigued by the intricate details on a character's skin. The textures on Arkail's body demand inspection at first, with each dimple, curve, and scar reflecting perfectly in all sorts of lighting with myriad shades. Similarly, leather looks like the real deal with its waxy surface and creases. Tortuous catacombs feel like genuine prisons in the style of architecture and detail in the bricks alone. However! One puzzling oversight hindered my experience throughout: the human faces. I'd love to comment that the way most humans looked identical to each other was a commentary about how the followers who enslaved the orcs were mere sheeple, but I cannot. Also, sometimes the water glistened a little too much, and rain on people's faces was just a little too shiny. This is nitpicking, though – needless to say, Of Orcs and Men is one of gaming's modern marvels, graphically speaking.
Since the game follows Arkail and Styx throughout, one might expect expert voice acting from our heroes. Non-playable characters' voice actors, however, are not always up to the task. While I believed almost every word that came out of our orcish allies, I occasionally raised an eyebrow when a sidequestrian spoke. Combat never missed a beat with typical metal-against-metal and piercing sounds maintaining the bubble of immersion. Musically, the use of violins was a welcome change from the standard horn affair one expects from this sort of game.
In terms of control, glitchy camera issues reared their head when players chose to fight against a wall. Targeting was a chore as well, since battles could include nearly twenty enemies if players aren't savvy enough with assassination. By this, I mean that the only way to change targets was to choose "next," and it wasn't always clear who the next enemy in line was. Other than these minor nuisances, I felt in control of the characters and their fate.
Of Orcs and Men feels like a missed opportunity. Action RPGs tend to be gameplay-driven rather than story-driven, and this game is no exception. All of the trappings are there: visuals, voice acting, script, likable characters, and novel game design ideas. However, the game falters in its execution of those ideas, and one misstep can mean tumbling down a tall tower. Fortunately, like our stalwart heroes, such a long, hard fall doesn't obliterate the game.