From World of Warcraft to Warhammer 40K to Orcs Must Die!, video games love to represent orcs' unchecked penchants for blood and war. Of Orcs and Men still commits to that stereotype, but the developers attempt to humanize these hardened warriors as victims of man’s unrelenting expansion. Emperor Damocles seeks the fictional equivalent of Manifest Destiny, arrogantly claiming the rights to the orcs' southern lands. Greenskin or not, Inquisition soldiers torture or enslave those who resist. Unfortunately for the tyrant, one hero can undo this problem, and you wouldn't like him when he's angry.
Among others, the fearsome Bloodjaws stand in Damocles’ way. Despite the clan's small numbers, their chieftain intends to execute the Emperor, with Arkail as the tool of his demise. Nicknamed the “Butcher of Bay Harbor,” Arkail’s fury knows no rival, yet even he would be cut down by the human Inquisition before crossing the wall into hostile territory. He needs an escort, or someone that knows the lay of the land. Lucky for him, Arkail finds a guide in the goblin assassin, Styx. He’s the only goblin capable of intelligent speech, which, including Arkail’s rage, factors into later narrative developments.
The two aren’t exactly friendly with each other. Styx’s focus on self-preservation clashes with Arkail’s tribal pride, and not even their origin stories pardon the narrative's negligent pacing. The early game establishes the deep-seated hatred between the orcs and humans while Arkail expands his circle of influence. Less scathing dialogue choices and multiple side quests gain you more sympathizers, but not fighters. Nearly all your allies abandon you by the end of act two. The promising campaign then takes a dive, hastening players through linear levels to the inevitable conclusion. What could have been a massive struggle between orcs, dwarves, elves, and men ends on such an anticlimactic note that it still rings in my ears. The true villain receives too little face time (let alone dialogue) for his downfall to actually matter. Once he sheds his false pretense, his motives for betrayal prove terribly unconvincing.
Arkail and Styx commemorate their journey with a group photo.
That disappointment stings, honestly, because how many games strap players in the size-thirty boots of an eight-foot-tall mass of muscle? Combat occurs in real-time, and though you queue up to four attacks like a traditional RPG, the developers clearly put in the man hours ensuring the “Butcher” fights like a fantasy Hulk. The orc’s mix of fast, heavy, and sweeping blows establish him as the main damage dealer, while Styx and his throwing knives provide ranged support, stunning and poisoning Damocles' soldiers. The two work surprisingly well together when not threatening to rip each other limb from limb. Paralyzing a guard with Styx’s homemade bombs before Arkail grabs the man and breaks his spine just sounds brutal, yet Arkail’s savagery remains subject to the incompetent gameplay.
Skirmishes are a constant battle of beating one's head against the wall. The unforgiving difficulty will drive many away, and unless you manage both protagonists, you will die. As Arkhail inflicts damage or sustains it, his rage builds. When the gauge fills, Arkail goes berserk temporarily, ignoring player commands, attacking friend or foe, and leaving himself vulnerable. Letting the "Butcher" engage too many enemies can be disastrous, but even when you queue up abilities, there’s no guarantee they will make contact. If the enemy you targeted with said abilities happens to perish before Arkail or Styx executes those moves, the pending attacks do not transfer to the next enemy. That’s not the most egregious mistake the gameplay makes, either. Arkail and Styx should react if their aggressors engage them first, automatically retaliating to ensure they don't stand still when not under direct supervision. What actually happened: The AI did not acknowledge approaching reinforcements, remaining completely rigid despite the assaults made on his health bar.
That aggravation gradually decreases once you acquire new equipment specific to each character, and waste some inexpensive trade points to enchant gear at merchants. Spending skill points on additional abilities also helps, but for the best results, avoid all healing powers. You often lose more health during the process of fighting than the spells replenish. Until then, you’ll find yourself grinding out levels against intimidating opposition and saving after each fight.
At least Arkail and Styx don't discriminate based on gender.
As least preemptively eliminating targets reduces tensions. Styx can cloak indefinitely unless he’s within a guard's fields of vision, but assassinating lookouts leaves the corpses for patrolling militia to willfully ignore. It’s difficult not to sigh when the same band of soldiers tramples a fallen comrade for the fifth time as you continue to pick off the stragglers.
You’ll have plenty of time to let the buyer's remorse sink in throughout ten campaign hours as well. Styx and Arkail’s hostility gives way to a mutual friendship, except their insufferable dialogue left me confused and unable to differentiate when the duo were insulting or joking with each other. Swear words punctuate their sentences frequently, with utterances of "shit," "fuck," or a genital reference every other line. These attempts to sound edgy and mature fail miserably. The greenskins tone it down by the closing chapters, though the dialogue had already left a caustic impression.
Once you block out the incessant profanity, the two heroes deliver decent vocal performances. The remaining cast, on the other hand, mixes Irish, British, and southern U.S. accents into a melting pot of mediocre acting. Whomever the blame falls on, something about a gray-haired orc speaking in a high-pitched tone just sounds wrong. Perhaps the dialogue would be more convincing if characters could emote correctly, because Styx and the NPCs repeat the same two hand gestures and head nobs out of context.
Styx seems a little too happy to see Arkail shirtless.
The lack of polish doesn’t stop there. Characters regularly clip through environment textures, from the flora to solid stone. Even armor is content to phase through its wearer's body, and humans look strictly last-gen. Their waxy, crazed complexions belong to killers in horror films, not a tale of fantasy. Still, some of the developers’ visual work does outshine the rest of the presentation. Each orc carries the scars of battle on his gnarled skin, wearing these imperfections as a badge of honor.
Of Orcs and Men's scars, however, should not be taken as a compliment, even if I recognize the underlying ambition. Too often gamers witness one side of the man versus orc conflict: the human side. The set-up meets all the criteria for a sympathetic narrative, though the developers shackle the storytelling to emotionless actors and archaic gameplay designs. Perhaps the niche set of players that love an unfair challenge will enjoy banging their heads against the combat's brick wall. They’ll need a concussion if they hope to overlook Of Orcs and Men’s faults and appreciate the magic within.
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developers: Cyanide Studios, Spiders
Release Date: October 11, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3