Of Orcs and Men – Review
This one time, at Gamescom, I got to see some awesome games. One of them was Of Orcs and Men. You may remember me gushing about how it brightened up my day, and despite the fact I ended that preview by noting that there was no solid release date, I got my grubby little paws on it far sooner than I expected. After what I had already seen I was excited to finally get the chance to fully experience it – its blend of strategy and RPG felt right up my street. I couldn’t wait to start killing humans and roaming the world, so, with my appetite whetted by my brief Gamescom experience, I jumped in with a fair bit of excitement.
You start off in the role of Arkail, one of the Bloodjaws who are, as far as I can decipher, the most elite warriors in all the Orcish tribes. He is also known as the Butcher, which he seems to dislike, and he is a little antsy. So antsy in fact, that when is given a top secret mission to assassinate Emperor Damocles – the leader of the human vendetta against the Orcs – he is positively glowing with excitement.
Emperor Damocles seems like the kind of guy who needs assassinating, as he’s the force behind the war that has been raging for decades and is slowly eradicating the Orcs. He has set his sights on complete genocide of the free Orcs, with those that are not wiped out pressed into savage slavery and forced to build giant towers that Damocles expects to be his legacy. After a decades-long war, the Orcs are slowly being bled dry, and, in a last ditch attempt to end the war for good, they have sent their greatest warriors in what is a mad attempt to kill the source of their pain. Each of the Bloodjaws have their own missions, and Arkail’s is the big one: kill the Emperor himself.
On his way to carry out his mission he meets with Styx, who not only plays the role of the guide, but also of the narrator, and the story is presented from his peculiar point of view. His narration actually adds a fantastic dynamic to the game; his awesome monologue adds a humourous aspect that makes it far more playable. His addition is also the introduction of the real mechanics of the game, with the core pair gameplay taking shape as the two begin to move through the story together. From the moment that they meet they are together, for the most part, for the rest of the game, fighting, leveling up and progressing together. The two play off each other brilliantly, with Arkail taking up the role of tank, absorbing and dealing out damage in fairly equal measures, and Styx essentially taking on the role of ranger, with the ability to use either ranged or melee attacks.
When you do finally enter combat you realise just how tactical the interactions between the two are. The combat itself is intensely strategic, and you’re given the ability to dramatically slow down time in order to decide what each character is going to do next. The fights are controlled in advance, with actions stacked and then carried out by the characters. You can change the actions in the stack at any point by making more use of tactical pauses, and when you are not directly controlling the other character their actions are determined by their current stance.
Each character has two distinct stances, with a third unlocked later on; Arkail has the aggressive and defensive stances, while Styx has Ranged and Melee stances, with each option providing different attacks and abilities. As your characters grow and level up you are given the chance to either unlock new abilities or to upgrade ones that are already unlocked, meaning that you can customise your style of play to a vast degree, especially since both Arkail and Styx have completely different stances and powers. A neat twist to the classic progression is introduced through the upgrade system, as you can only upgrade an ability once. You have to make a decision between multiple options, which can sometimes be a breeze, but can also be a horror. Choosing between a perk that increases damage or one that reduces stamina usage can be an absolute nightmare, but it’s a nice touch that makes the character feel more like your own.
Each character also has a unique ability that greatly influences the outcome of combat. Arkail, as an Orc, has a rage bar that builds during combat and increases with every hit given or received. Depending on Arkail’s stance, the bar will increase at different speeds, and several abilities will slow or empty the bar. Once it’s filled completely Arkail goes into a rage mode and the player will lose all control of him; he deals out far more damage but also takes significantly more. Timing is critical when you’re using the rage bar, because if it activates when Arkail is surrounded by multiple enemies with full health then things are likely to go downhill fast. However, if there are a couple of enemies with a little less health, then Arkail can wreak some serious havoc. Watching him snap a guardsman’s spine over his knee is one of the best sights in the game.
On the other hand, Styx has the capability to go into a stealth mode where he can instantly kill any enemy that he can sneak up on, potentially making a tough fight into a doddle. When he enters this mode he leaves Arkail behind – apparently you can sneak more easily without an eight foot Orc in tow – and goes nearly invisible. This means that you can slip through gaps in patrols that look almost impossible and cut down whole squads of enemies with ease. The developers have done an awesome job of making Styx feel powerful while in stealth and giving him the role of the hunter rather than the hunted, and that makes it a joy to cut throats. It also bailed me out of tough situations on more than one occasion, with Styx taking out a bunch of enemies before engaging in the real fight, allowing Arkail to come in and clean up the mess with little fear of retribution.
The way the skills are distributed did mean that I found myself falling into a pattern that saw me using Styx during the exploratory and movement sections, meaning that the option to quickly fall into stealth mode at any point was always there, and using the lumbering Arkail in combat where I could adapt strategy on the fly to make sure he was dealing ludicrous amounts of damage. Unfortunately, this often caused me to forget about the other protagonist, and several times I’ve found myself losing simply because I left Arkail too far away while I ranged in stealth mode, or completely forgot about Styx in combat and let him die.
Exploring as Styx is something I found myself doing particularly often, especially as there are nooks and crannies scattered across the map that are more goblin friendly than Orc. It was a particular joy to explore because of how wonderful the game looks – something that’s tough to pick up on when you’re frantically trying to balance what your characters are doing in combat. The environment is astonishingly good looking, and wandering around the place simply marveling at the visuals was not a one-off activity. As the title takes you through a bunch of different environments your eyes keep getting treated to one pretty sight after another. At one stage I was wandering through a forest in autumn, and all I could do was sit in awe; the golden leaves drifting around Styx in this forest of Autumnal tones quite literally took my breath away, and is perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in a game. It’s tough to explain how much of a visual treat Of Orcs and Men is, even on my Xbox.
Equally impressive is the music; it’s not often that a soundtrack to a game makes me sit up and take note – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. Of Orcs and Men’s is brilliant, perfectly accompanying the mood at all times. Not once did it feel jarring in the least, and far more often it made me simply sit and enjoy it for a couple of seconds before moving on. It’s full of pounding drums and strings that actually get you going along with the mood; listening to a couple of the tracks had me grinning like a maniac, while others had me grumpy and in a foul mood. I’ve never come across a game that had me moving through such a wide spectrum of emotions with its soundtrack alone. It’s utterly fantastic.
Not so fantastic sadly, is the obsession with being a dark and adult RPG. On the plus side, it addresses a lot of issues and does so in a very adult way, but in far too many other facets it lets itself down. The first and most grating of those was the overuse of “fuck”. I can understand using expletives in order to make your game seem more mature and adult, but when you’re using them every second sentence it tends to do quite the opposite, especially when the word is completely emotionless. It got so bad by the end of the game that I had gone from quite liking Arkail as a character to hating him, simply for how often he used “fuck”.
Some of the violence the game showed off had a hint of immaturity as well – it wouldn’t have been surprising to see dead bodies lying around, but instead they plumped for horrific disfigurement and body parts. I know it’s meant to show the inhumanity and savagery of the world that Styx and Arkail inhabit, but it’s just a little tasteless instead.
Tasteless is also the word I would choose to describe the way that they handled several sections about traveling into the subconscious of several characters. You get the feeling that in the search for maturity they’ve horrifically overshot, especially since they decided to call it “Psychic Rape”. Which wouldn’t be all that bad, but to harp on about it, referring to it explicitly as rape every time? Well, that’s just a step too far. That section left a bad taste in my mouth, and put a bit of a dampener on the rest of the game.
By far the most irritating part of this title was its pacing; it is obvious there are problems right from the get-go, and doesn’t get better as you continue. The game is composed of five chapters, each of which is held in a different location. The first two of these feel like the set up for a huge story, as they took nearly five hours apiece to complete. Once you have finished with these locations, which are replete with side missions, optional quests, and people to save, you are then rushed through to the end in three completely linear missions. It was both disconcerting and disappointing, as it felt like I was being set up for an epic and then rushed to the end.
Perhaps the best example of the poor pacing can be seen in Of Orcs and Men’s very first moments. Rather than get into the action straight away, you are, instead, forced into sitting through a series of plodding cutscenes – complete with a ton of f-bombs – that set the scene for the game. Exposition has never been one of my favourite things in any form, but the amount of information shoehorned into the first fifteen minutes is astonishing. It attempts to explain the entire state of the world, along with the mission that you will be going on, and some of the intrigue that comes with it, all with only a few scant minutes of gameplay to keep the player interested. In the first twenty minutes or so, you play perhaps all of thirty seconds. It’s symptomatic of the problems that the game has throughout.
It’s not all bad. Underneath all of its issues there is an enjoyable title, it’s just a shame that it’s buried beneath a ton of glaring problems. Despite the fact that it often misses the mark, there are still plenty of good points about Of Orcs and Men, but it had so much potential that it failed to harness. It’s disappointing, because despite the fact that it is a good game, it could have been a great one.Pros
- Intensely tactical combat
- Beautiful graphics and score
- Attempts to tackle some touchy issues
- Exposition. So much exposition
- Often goes too far in search of maturity
- Tasteless and immature in some of its portrayals
- Shocking pacing throughout the game
A good game wracked with issues, Of Orcs and Men is rather hit and miss. An immensely tactical combat system, coupled with a wonderful narrator, forms the basis for an enjoyable experience, but a seeming obsession with being mature and 'grown-up' casts a pall over some of the more interesting story points and debates. It does address some touchy subjects like racism with aplomb, and there is also a pair of decent protagonists, though their very sweary dialogue means that they quickly lose their shine. Pacing issues seriously damage the experience and mean that the final segments of the game feel slightly like an anti-climax after a rush to the end.
Having said that and despite all the issues it has, it is a truly beautiful game with a wonderful score to match, and I enjoyed my time with it. I just can't help but wish that a few of the blemishes weren't there, so I could really enjoy Of Orcs and Men to the fullest.
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