Developer: Cyanide Studios, Spiders / Publisher: Focus Home Interactive / Played on: PC / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
A game like Of Orcs and Men is easy to overlook. At first impression it appears completely unremarkable. Even the simple, unassuming title doesn’t promise new experiences or an interesting setting. However, Of Orcs and Men is an excellent lesson in not judging a game based on initial impressions. With a thought-provoking story and unique gameplay mechanics, Orcs has become my favorite sleeper of the year.
Given that this game aims squarely at the heart of dark fantasy, it’d be easy to compare the setting to A Song of Ice and Fire (the presence of a giant wall doesn’t help either). Additionally, there’s an odd amount of swearing in the script that makes it feel very try-hard in the opening hours, but over time the game develops a unique texture that gives it identity. The backdrop for the entire game is a racial war, though it’s really more of a genocide. The current Emperor has launched an inquisition, which is a nice label for the complete eradication of “greenskins.” To finish the job, the Emperor is now seeking an alliance with dwarves and elves. Naturally keen to prevent this, a group of orcs puts together a last-ditch plan to infiltrate the Empire and assassinate the Emperor.
You play as the brutish orc warrior Arkhail and his roguish goblin guide Styx. As you might guess, the two form a grudging and contentious friendship as the game progresses. Each contradicts and complements the other’s approach to combat and life in general, which leads to interesting conversations and even influences the gameplay mechanics in a manner similar to 2007’s Call of Juarez. This combination of character archetypes has been done before, but it’s executed here well enough to be enjoyable through the game’s story.
Orcs contains numerous other sub-plots that are, for the most part, very well-written. For instance, I was intrigued by the cutthroat businessman Sarkyss who not only enslaves hordes of mindless goblins but also has developed a perverted infatuation with them. There’s also the question of why Styx can talk and reason while all other goblins are little more than feral creatures. My favorite subtext occurs in orc culture. Some orcs believe that they should integrate into human society and abandon their warlike ways, while others find them prideless traitors. Is it okay to trade your culture and way of life for survival? Again these aren’t ground-shattering ideas, but they’re executed with surprising grace.
The meat of Orc’s gameplay is rooted in fairly traditional action RPG style. Every combat area is a roughly linear string of encounters with groups of enemies, but don’t start thinking you can just run in and bash your head against challenges to succeed. Combat in this game is difficult, so much so that flying into battle will usually just result in a series of frustrating deaths. Instead, you must rely on each character’s unique abilities to even the odds. Styx can stealth and run ahead of Arkhail, picking off outliers with one-hit assassinations. This aspect of gameplay harkens Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid style stealth. You watch for movement patterns and observe which direction soldiers are looking to pick off those that aren’t being watched by anyone else. Done properly, you can shave off three or four enemies from a group, which makes all the difference in a gang encounter.
Arkhail, as implied by his demeanor and stature, is the tank in battle but even that isn’t as simple as soaking damage. Arkhail accumulates rage as he fights. If his rage meter tops out he’ll go berserk and attack everyone indiscriminately (including his partner Styx). Losing control of Arkhail can be good or bad depending on the situation — I’ve been saved by the increased damage from his rage-outs and also killed by the inability to tell him what to do.
There are problems with the gameplay, however. The difficulty of combat is extremely volatile. The early game is stocked with difficult but rewarding encounters, but once you start to upgrade your gear and specialize your skillsets, combat becomes much easier. Then, out of nowhere I’d hit a massive difficulty spike and have to play the same encounter ten times. The challenge brings out the best of the fight mechanics, so I’m glad it’s there, but it exists in a very narrow window of acceptability that’s often overshot.
For all that Orcs does right in story and gameplay, it gets wrong with controls. The game is playable but you’ll have to adapt to the game’s numerous control quirks. First off, the game’s keyboard and mouse support isn’t very good. Third-person action games gel much nicer with a controller, which I swapped to after an hour or so. Even then, all of the on-screen prompts stay as keyboard and mouse which is confusing.
There are two control issues in particular that kept tripping me up. First, when you go into stealth as Styx, Arkhail stops moving. I understand and appreciate why, but if you get too far away, Styx will hit an invisible wall and opine that he can’t leave his buddy behind. This has happened to me just short of assassinating a guard, which is frustrating. The in-combat radial menus are a mess too. They’re laid out well enough, but entering and exiting those menus requires some unintuitive button presses. In the game’s first few hours, I’d accidentally exit the combat menus or cancel issued commands over and over. The controls show the greatest evidence that Orcs is not a glossy, impeccably polished AAA game.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Despite control issues nagging on the experience, Orcs’ presentation is amazing for such an unassuming release. The game’s visuals are outstanding. Crisp textures and some of the best lighting I’ve seen in PC gaming bring the world and characters to life and really show what you can get away with on a modern PC. There are rough spots in the visuals though. Not every cutscene is performance captured, and little hiccups in animation cause the game to fall a few visual marks short of the industry’s best.
The game’s sound is equal parts high and low. Complements first — Orcs has a stellar soundtrack. Fantasy scores trend to the high and lilting side of the orchestra, but Orcs’ soundtrack is populated with guttural cellos and thick, oppressive drums. It’s dirty, hot, and brooding and reminds me of the soundtrack for 2001’s Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
The voice acting in Orcs isn’t so successful though, which is a shame because it undersells the merits of the writing. Arkhail and Styx are voiced well enough to be endearing, but most of the game’s supporting cast is flat and boring. I opted to play with the sound turned way down for most of the conversation sections because just reading the subtitles was more immersive than listening to some of the performances.
Of Orcs and Men is a great game that fully understands itself. It’s not an indie darling nor a massive AAA, but is still very enjoyable and priced appropriately. It’d be easy to judge this game as a failed wannabe AAA, but there’s real thought and effort at work here. More than being a thoroughly enjoyable game unto itself, I hope that Of Orcs and Men proves that there’s a viable middle ground between indie and big-budget. Yes, the game is not without real problems, but I really enjoyed the gameplay and already want to hear more stories from this world. Orcs is not a game for everyone, but you should absolutely give it a look if you’re interested in ambitious design or interesting worlds.
+ Brutal, thought-provoking story
- Controls and gameplay are unrefined, uneven
+ Surprisingly deep characters
8 / 10