Review: Of Orcs and Men
A new perspective on an old setting.
You might think we're done with single-player real-time, turn-based RPGs, but you would be very wrong about that, as that's exactly what Of Orcs and Men is. Developers are moving away from that idea (see: Dragon Age 2), but there are still people out there in the market for this type of game, as World of Warcraft is still going strong, despite all the doomsayers. And you all still like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, right? Of course you do.
The year 2012 is basically My Year of MMOs, and so I felt right right at home with the combat in Of Orcs and Men. It's pretty simple. You play with two characters, a massive orc named Arkail (who looks like The Incredible Hulk with a beard) and a tiny little Goblin named Styx. Each of them has a pair of ability wheels from which you draw your attacks. You can, as you would hope, bind skills to numbers, from 1 to 9. But there is no skill bar like you would see in WoW or The Secret World, and so if you want to choose an ability that isn't bound, or if you can't handle keep track of more than four numbered skills, like me, you have to press space to slow the game to a crawl and bring up the ability wheels. Yes, a skill bar would have been nice.
You can switch between the two characters on the fly, but you'll probably decide which one you like more and stick with him. I went with the orc, because I have more fun dealing damage, but that doesn't mean Styx is useless. It just depends on what play style you prefer.
Even if you love Arkail, though, you'll be getting a lot of use out of Styx, as a lot of the battles are unwinnable if you don't take advantage of Styx's stealth abilities prior to diving in. Styx can go almost invisible (just don't get to close to their eyeballs) and skulk around the area slicing throats to thin the crowd. Nobody will be mistaking this little minigame to Splinter Cell any time soon, though, because roaming soldiers never seem to take notice of their downed brethren. They just keep on walking as if nothing has happened.
Even when you stealth kill as many baddies as possible before fully engaging, you'll find many fights are extremely tough. I had such a hard time with a few fights that I had to lower the difficulty, and even then I usually had some trouble. I'm not sure if that means the game really is that tough or if I am just not very good at it. Either way, that combat was difficult at times did not frustrate me, because it just meant I had to think a little harder about my tactics, and I enjoy thinking harder.
But enough about the meat. Let's talk about the bones. From a technical standpoint, Of Orcs and Men is not particularly accomplished. I noticed few bugs, but animations are stiff, and lip syncing looks like it's right out of the original Deus Ex. But the game turns on subtitles by default, and that will distract you from that.
You kinda just get used to those things, however, because the voice acting is solid, the visuals look good for a game without a major publisher-sized budget and the story that the game is delivering is quite engrossing. It tells of a world in which men are evil and out to subject the orcs to slavery, and Arkail is tasked with assassinating the human emperor before he can make a deal with the elves and dwarves to go after the orcs and take them down for good. Styx is his guide on this journey, and they make a fun odd couple, as Arkail is angry all the time and Styx just likes to make vulgar jokes. By which I mean he says "fuck" a lot and uses many slang words for "penis."
Side note: I always enjoy it when people in fantasy stories curse a lot. That's what drew me in to both the Game of Thrones show and Matthew Stover's Cain novels. And so when everybody in this gabouts armed busting out the f-word regularly, I was very happy.
I like this story because it comes from an unusual perspective. Having a protagonist orc fight against evil humans is akin to Battlestar Galactica sympathizing with suicide bombers. Well, it's sort of like that, anyway. It's a nice angle, and one that immediately gets your attention.
The journey is not wildly long — expect it to take you 15-20 hours — but a lot happens during it. It gives off a bad impression early on when in order to go have a conversation with someone you have to fight your way through crowds of enemies across a small town, but most of the time when you have to crawl through a dungeon, figuratively speaking, it is for a grander purpose than that.
There is a nice twist near that end that most folks would think is obvious, but it's perfectly believable that a dummy like Arkail wouldn't see it coming. I actually buy that. Seriously. The story ultimately holds up to scrutiny, and I appreciate that. And it is just epic enough that it'll keep your attention while you make your way through the game.
I do have one complaint about the developers' attempts at world-building: this game has no codex. If you really want to sell me on your brand-new fantasy world, you need to try to feed me a bunch of information about it. But they don't, and I was left feeling like I had missed some context.
Of Orcs and Men is coming in under the radar, which surprises no one as Focus Interactive, while consistently delivering solid games, does not have the cache that 2K (XCOM) and Bethesda (Dishonored) and Microsoft (Fable: The Journey) do. So in a week like this, it would be easy to miss this one. But it would be a shame if you did. Though Of Orcs and Men probably won't be grabbing much awards attention come December, it does make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience that you won't regret playing, unless you're just a curmudgeon who hates games like this. And since this game gives you a AAA experience for a mere $39.99 on PC, you could certainly do worse with your money. I, for one, recommend you don't skip over it.
Of Orcs and Men: 4 stars out of 5.