Okay, so Cyanide Studios don’t have the best track record with large scale projects. There was the Game of Thrones RPG and strategy game that reeked of potential that just fell flat, and then there was Dungeonbowl, the stand-alone expansion for the legendary Dungeonbowl that actually looked really good – until the dull online-only play and complete lack of tutorial for beginners surfaced, of course. The truth is, the studio has a bit of a reputation for disappointment, so when the first trailers for Of Orcs and Men surfaced we waited with baited breath, not sure whether to do a little excitement wee in our collective underwear or discard it out of hand because we didn’t want to be hurt again. So have Cyanide finally made good on their potential, or have they simply disappointed us yet again?
It’s hard to say, because from the first moment you’re introduced to the game world, it really feels like you should be all over it. The graphics are excellent and the world is a little bit reminiscent of The Witcher 2 in more ways than one. The first cinematic feels like it should be a little more, well, cinematic, and by the time it rolls around to actually getting to step into Arkail’s big green shoes, any enthusiasm you still had left is gone and you find yourself coming to terms with the fact that the game’s just been letting you down slowly. They’ve got the character design spot on – these are easily the best looking Orcs in visual media for years, ditching the almost cartoony brutality they’ve been accumulating over the past few years in favour of an all together more focused and realised visceral humanoid look. It’s just a shame that there are so many aspects of the game that feel out of place.
For example, Arkail is meant to be the elite of the elite, part of a fearsome legion called the Bloodjaws, tasked to kill the Emperor himself. Even his fellow eight-foot tall green mean killing machines call him The Butcher and give him some space. Then why does he start the game essentially butt naked with the Orc equivalent of a rusty kitchen knife when all the other Orcs are fully armoured with weaponry that doesn’t look like it would fall apart the first time he tried to stab someone with it? Did he lose a bet or something? It’d make a bit more sense if all the other Orcs weren’t clothed – otherwise it just looks like they hid his clothes for a laugh after he’d gone swimming.
The script is typical fantasy fare aside from the occasional moments where people drop modern day swearwords and slang in a very obvious way – there’s a reason why most fantasy games omit English swearing, and if The Witcher couldn’t make it sound right, there’s a pretty solid chance that no-one else can. The script is made shoddy by some bland, unconvincing voice acting across the board that makes the beautiful, detailed visuals look like someone dubbed over Avatar or something with dialogue from 80’s pornography, with cheesy American accents intact. The sound quality and visual quality don’t match up, and this obviously detracts from what is a very good looking game. There are points where I thought it would have been better without dialogue at all. This would all be a pretty minor gripe if not for the fact that even combat itself feels decidedly un-Orklike.
Of Orcs and Men uses a combat system very similar to Bioware’s Dragon Age. You switch between the lumbering Arkail and the sneaky goblin Styx at will, and to the game’s credit they feel pretty distinctive. You can slow down the fight whenever you wish to choose the actions you want the character you’re controlling to do, but the game doesn’t make this as clear as it could at all. The following is an actual extract from the game’s tutorial: “Press to switch to the Tactics menu. The tactics menu slows down the action and lets you select the skills you want to use”. Notice a big missing chunk of information there? Perhaps what you’re supposed to press in order to bring up this pretty vital gameplay aspect? There aren’t any pictures or illustrations to show you where it is, either – you’re just told that the Tactics menu exists and that it’s important. To make it even more clear, Arkail has two stances he swaps between in combat, a Berserker one that focuses on heavy damage and a rage meter that fills every time he gets smacked around, and a more defensive stance that lets him soak up damage – it’s pretty vital to his survival, too, because despite his size he hits like a complete sissy at first and a few humans with spears can down him in seconds on the game’s normal difficulty mode unless you figure out how to switch between stances.
Combat isn’t the exhilarating rush it feels like it should be, creeping around and assassinating humans as Styx doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying or brutal as it should and Arkail’s combat feels stilted with no real flow to his punches or sword swings. There isn’t enough of a balance between his offensive and defensive stances so you can’t really play how you want to, most combat scenarios force you into playing it defensive when all you really want to do is let loose. It’s odd having to fight in such a restrained way when Arkail is constantly made out to be a berserker death machine.
It’s not all bad. Once you’ve adapted to the fact that you can’t really play the game as brutally as you’re told you can and accept that what you’ve just bought is more of a light conventional RPG than a revenge-fuelled gorefest, what you’re left with is a pretty average fantasy game. It might not be the best thing to happen to gaming this year, but it’s not the worst by far – imagine it on the premium end of the “Games destined to be £5 in the Steam Christmas Sale” list. It could have been so much more, but as it stands, Of Orcs and Men is decidedly average.
Incidentally, you get to the Tactics menu by pressing space bar on the PC version. You can thank me later.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.