Of Orcs And Men Preview: It’s Not Easy Being Green
Despite its generic title, Of Orcs And Men has a novel concept. Co-developers Cyanide and Spiders wanted to create an RPG for mature audiences, which meant re-thinking and refining fantasy archetypes. This scrutiny resulted in an interesting inversion of common RPG tropes, which usually cast the humans as heroes and green-skinned Orcs and Goblins as savage enemies. By contrast, in Of Orcs and Men, you’ll control Arkail, a hulking Orc, and Styx, a sneaky Goblin, and guide them through a world in which humans are bigoted, xenophobic oppressors.
The game has a welcome emphasis on story — Arkail and Styx are both well-characterized and well-written, and dialog choices will have story and quest consequences, both in the short- and long-term. Listening to NPC’s converse during quests will also unlock new dialog choices later in the game.
These quests will take place largely in linear dungeons, which are then linked by hub areas. In addition to the main story, Arkail and Styx can embark on secondary quests, changing potential plot outcomes and pushing the game’s playtime towards its estimated 30-hour maximum.
Combat takes advantage of the asymmetry between the game’s two protagonists. The Orc is brawny and powerful, more of a warrior/tank type; the Goblin is small and sneaky, a classic rogue with the ability to enter stealth, sneak up on enemies, and perform instant assassin-style kills. During more traditional combat, each character has two different stances — offensive and defensive for the Orc and ranged and melee for the Goblin — which come with corresponding sets of abilities.
These abilities are activated using a distinctive tactical system that Cyanide introduced in its Game of Thrones RPG. A single button press slows time to a crawl, allowing players to select abilities and add them to a queue. Press the button again, and these abilities are deployed in order at full speed. To succeed, players will want to switch often between Arkail and Styx, taking advantage of synergies between their respective abilities.
In practice, this system is an exercise in frustration. Shoddy AI means that both characters are next to useless if not told what to do at all times, and you’ll spend entire fights hammering the pause — excuse me, “slow time” — button in order to succeed. Both characters, even the hulking Orc, are surprisingly squishy, and you’ll often miss that cool animation you just triggered because you’re busy bailing out the other character on the other side of the battle.
Abilities and equipment can be upgraded using the expected suite of RPG mechanics, and a simple, attractive UI organizes the information without trying to do too much. Unfortunately, the game fails other graphic design challenges. The environments are bland and grainy and the uninspired art direction never rises above tried fantasy cliches. Considering the game’s willingness to innovate when it comes to story and character, this is a shame.
Given the strength of its more prominent competitors, and the way that it’s qualities are counterbalanced by its flaws, Of Orcs and Men is unlikely to make a strong impression when it releases this fall. Cyanide is currently on a bad run — their Game of Thrones adaption was widely panned — but they’ve got some good ideas, and hopefully future projects can implement them without missteps.