This game's protagonists aren't as handsome as you'd find in many other games.
A great many fantasy RPGs released in this last round of consoles have generally speaking kept to the same Tolkien-esque races and their roles in the world while at the same time attempting to appeal to a broader audience of gamers with simpler combat and reduced character progression options. Of Orcs and Men attempts to turn many genre presentation conventions on their heads while adhering to classic gameplay mechanics that some players may feel have been dumbed down or removed entirely from recent western RPGs.
The game tells the tale of orcs attempting to overthrow a human empire who essentially treat them like slaves. Throughout the campaign the player will take control of Arkhail the orc and a goblin known as Styx. The story and characters are actually quite well drawn despite the script’s reliance on profanity which does occasionally pull you out of the experience but otherwise the dialogue is pretty sharp. The voice work for the protagonists is usually strong despite some of the more irksome lines they need to deliver while ancillary characters tend to have a somewhat more scattered quality of acting. The game starts relatively cutscene heavy as with many other RPGs but soon they become much less frequent although occasionally they do break the flow of play but it never reaches the self-indulgent lows of many recent higher budget titles afraid of letting you play. Throughout the story the player gets presented with various dialogue and action choices, some of which do make you stop and think before making a decision even if at times the choice often leads back onto a dialogue tree you may have wanted to opt out of.
The player controls one of the two characters throughout the game with the ability to swap between the, at any point. Arkhail’s main role is to use brute force in combat while Styx can fit into areas that the orc is too big to squeeze into. Styx can also activate a stealth mode which makes walking up to enemies and quickly dispatching them almost too easy. It’s not possible to simply leave the stealth mode activated however as Arkhail will just stand in place and the game won’t allow for the two characters to become too separated.
Upon initiating a battle by either beginning an attack or being spotted by a hostile the player can queue up various attacks in real time. By opening the tactical menu the action dramatically slows down allowing players to select various attacks while easing any pressure from hostiles. Both characters have two battle stances that affect their combat strategies. Arkhail acts as the main attacking force using close range attacks and has an offensive and defensive stance. As Arkhail receives damage his rage meter builds up and once full unleashes his berserk mode as he blindly attacks all enemies with increased damage but also carries the risk of turning on Styx as well. By using defensive attacks and techniques it’s possible to control the rate at which Arkhail’s rage builds up thus making him less of a liability, although sometimes his berserk mode can be used effectively to quickly finish a battle. Styx’s main abilities in combat normally consist of inflicting status ailments on enemies as well as healing Arkhail.
The two player characters are very likeable.
Generally in combat Arkhail acts as a tank/assault combination depending on what stance he takes while Styx is supposed to hang back inflicting debuffs on enemies while healing Arkhail. Although it’s a pretty standard combination of characters it can sometimes feel fiddly as Arkhail doesn’t seem to draw the aggro that his tanking and damage output would in other games and often combat descends into two different fights as Styx seems to end up holding off a splinter group of enemies who just seem to get bored of being battered by Arkhail. Throughout my playthrough I found it more viable to favour Styx while occasionally switching to Arkhail to make sure his rage doesn’t get too high. Styx’s various abilities generally offer for a little more flexibility in how combat can be approached even if as the game continues you’ll find yourself going through the motions as you encounter each new group of enemies. Outside of combat I also found it preferable to use Styx as his stealth abilities cut down on the amount of unnecessary fights.
On the console versions there is an option to hotkey two attacks so they can be executed without initiating the tactical and command menus but is only really useful against weak enemies who can be taken out with little thought. The PC version does offer more hotkeys and as a result would offer a much quicker interface for more complex commands on the fly. Overall the more strategic battle system is engaging and after levelling up the warriors does offer a lot of flexibility in how groups of enemies can be dealt with. The player should always be in control of both characters and never feels like a spectator mode running on autopilot as with something like Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Combat does require interaction from the player however; if you decide to control only one character and leave the other to act automatically you will soon find yourself facing defeat as the AI is incapable of using anything other than basic attacks. With the consoles’ few hotkeys swapping over to the other character to quickly initiate a series of attacks becomes quite cumbersome unless you only ever use two different attacks. Swapping between both characters isn’t as tedious as it could be but can sometimes be quite fiddly for battles that happen very frequently throughout the course of play.
There is a standard levelling up system for both characters along with the ability to unlock new techniques and bolster player stats either to enhance their current strengths or mitigate some of their weaker attributes. Disappointingly the environments throughout the game offer very little in the way of exploration and are in many cases simply a winding path from point A to B. There’s a Map found in the menu but it feels redundant as it merely displays a string of narrow roads normally with the occasional more open area to give the player more mobility during combat.
Although the game can offer a variety of different battle strategies it's likely you'll just settle into a routine.
Extra equipment and loot is also scarce as any of the few drops found in the campaign only offer a marginal upgrade to the standard weapons. There is a limited upgrade system but it never really feels necessary to upgrade as the techniques have more bearing on the outcome of a battle rather than what weapon is used. There are a few merchants to be found at various points in the main quest offering a selection of weapons but as with the other weapons it never really feels necessary to get them for any reason other than to spend your money.
Despite not having a massive budget the game does have a generally excellent atmosphere and presentation. Although for the most part well designed the visual style is something of an acquired taste. The orc character designs are fairly strong and the environments are occasionally impressive. Technically the graphics are fine for the most part but there are occasional glitches with the foliage and character movement is quite stiff. A highlight of the presentation of the title is the beautiful soundtrack composed by Olivier Derivière which impresses throughout.
Of Orcs and Men is a game that could have done with a little more development time to iron out the kinks. The flipped story, dual protagonists, engaging combat and overall atmosphere are all excellent for the most part, it’s just a shame that the odd technical issue and sometimes over restrained level design and gameplay elements hold the game back from being something special. Overall the game is quite fun while its lengthy campaign lasts but the linear campaign and lack of any real reason to replay through the game could easily put off players who prefer their RPGs to be more open.
Orcs or men then?