The Oddest Couple
HIGH The ‘odd couple' character dynamic and fantastic writing.
LOW The rushed, unnecessary origin/dream sequence.
WTF Psychic rape? Really? It couldn't have been called anything else?
As a gamer who puts a premium on interesting stories and strong characters, I'm willing to be lenient on a lot of things as long as the narrative elements are done well. Of Orcs And Men is exactly the kind of title that hits that soft spot, and what might have been a trashy throwaway became a wonderfully memorable experience.
The stars of the show are a pair of unlikely anti-heroes—Arkail, a massive orc with an intense code of honor, and Styx, a grizzled, pessimistic goblin who'll do nearly anything for money. Conquest-hungry humans are enslaving these "greenskins" and conquering their lands, so the pair undertake a suicide mission to strike a blow for their people.
Right off the bat, I find this to be pretty intriguing stuff. Of Orcs And Men positioning humans as evil aggressors is fairly unusual on its own, but then racial issues arise since the heroes are obviously green. The point is constantly reinforced by how the world reacts to them, and then driven home when elves and dwarves align themselves with the humans. Spoiler: everyone in the enemy alliance is white.
Also in the mix? The incredibly dark tone of the tale. I can't think of many games where the protagonists have absolutely no qualms about killing others, and frequently decide the fate of innocents (and not-so-innocents) without having any sizable moral dilemma. Throats are frequently slit as a matter-of-fact, people are murdered for who they associate with, backs are stabbed, doubles are crossed and nobody loses sleep over any of it.
As dire as this setup sounds (and granted, it's all pretty dire) it all comes together to create a world of brutal fantasy that's absolutely in tune with the tale Of Orcs And Men aims to tell, and the capstones are the characters themselves. Not only are they written as clear products of the world they inhabit, they remain consistent, thoughtful, honest and wonderfully voiced throughout. I was sucked into their tale immediately, and was quite impressed with the two of them from start to finish.
As for the technical parts of the game, there are some neat ideas on display but they don't fare nearly as well as the narrative.
The core conceit during gameplay is that the player controls both Arkail and Styx in battle. Pressing a button switches between them, and the AI handles the inactive character when the player is minding the other. While jumping back and forth, it's possible to slow time to a near-stop and skills can be queued up before getting back into the action. It's a fresh take on semi-realtime action that shines when the pair's skills have been unlocked with EXP gain. Setting Styx to armor-break a tough enemy before sending Arkail in with a bone-shattering charge adds a nice hint of strategy to the proceedings. Unfortunately, things don't always go as smoothly as they should.
For starters, the targeting reticle usually defaults to an enemy that's absurdly far from the pair, often totally out of sight or in another room. Picking an immediate threat should not require this much babysitting. Of Orcs And Men also has a difficulty curve loaded with surprise spikes, especially near the beginning when the pair have few skills and low stats. Small mobs easily overwhelm and some encounters feel nearly impossible, so I absolutely suggest playing on the easiest difficulty setting and saving after each win.
Otherwise, each level of the game is linear to the point of being a hallway with a branch or two. There are still satisfying sidequests to be had and I didn't mind the lack of exploration since small-scale games are fine with me, but some players might be dismayed at how narrow the world can feel at times. In terms of graphics, the art design is strong but the engine chugs and everything has a loose, slightly janky feeling to it. Triple-A production values these are not, so expectations should be appropriately calibrated.
For players who'd be interested in a truly dark fantasy world and don't mind pushing through roughness to enjoy top-quality writing, worldbuilding and characterization, Of Orcs And Men is an overlooked gem waiting to be discovered. Sketchy combat and low-end production might not be worth putting up with for some, but for me? I loved every minute of it—and even better? There's a semi-sequel in the works. I can't wait.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: strong language, blood and gore, and intense violence. Parents, this one's absolutely not for the kids. Besides the crazy difficulty spikes, everything about it is aimed for mature audiences. There's a ton of salty language, lots of graphic killing, and several scenes that will be too intense for young ones.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: No problems here. All dialogue is subtitled, and there are no important audio cues necessary for gameplay—everything necessary is shown on-screen.