Cyanide’s previous title, Game of Thrones, while lauded for its combat and graphics was said to boast an impressive story, one that not only stays faithful to the source material but also tells an intriguing tale with fresh characters. Now, Cyanide have released their own title in a world completely of their own creation; a world of persecution, racism, treachery and death. Lots of death. How does it fare?
There is a lot of story to tell; the games starts off with expository narration that tries to catch you up. Basically, men treat Orcs… badly. Wars have been fought and giant walls have been built (those playing the “Game of Thrones drinking game” at home, take a sip). All the Orcs that aren’t killed are taken into slavery and are seen as lower class citizens. You take control of Arkail, a bad-tempered Orc troubled by a dark past, and Styx, his Goblin guide, who is only hired to help him reach the city and accomplish his goal: kill the Emperor.
Things get muddled as soon as you enter the city near the beginning. The end goal is all but forgotten about, first you have to carry out favors, deal with double-crossers and start revolutions to get the job done. For the first two chapters of the game there is little character development or story progression to keep you hooked, the world itself isn’t particularly fresh or interesting either, think of the adult fantasy style popularisd by Game of Thrones, but with more Orcs and Goblins (or as the enemies often yell “Greenskins!”).
This could be seen as either a positive or a negative, but you’re never entirely sure whether you’re the good or bad guys in the tale. Everywhere our “heroes” go, death seems to follow, sometimes on a very large-scale, but no-one ever seems conflicted about it. It is certainly interesting to play from the “Greenskin” perspective for once though.
Things do pick up about half way through as the story is given more focus with most distractions removed. There are always subplots and things stopping you from heading straight to your goal, but from the midway point, these are all but removed and chapters 3-5 are surprisingly short when compared to the first 2; It took me a whole day to reach the end of chapter 2, but took me less time to finish up to chapter 5. Whether this is due to time constraints during development (unlikely since the game has been in the works for four years now) or an artistic decision is unknown, but personally, it is welcome. Even if it is strange for the epic final battle to only ever be talked about and never seen as our characters take care of business elsewhere.
Speaking of the characters, they themselves are also given more time to shine; half way through the game, our heroes are forced into the mind of a sick woman. While helping her, they have to confront their own demons, figuratively and literally. We see the characters at their most vulnerable and “human” for the first time. Hell, you may even start to like them, especially Styx. While an intriguing part, it is partially ruined by the fact that the whole ordeal is called “Psychic Rape” as you have to force the subject to face their past. Why? Why did they have to call it that!
That being said, from that point on, the dynamic between the characters is much more interesting and by the end game, I did find myself somewhat caring about what happens to these characters, though I still couldn’t really give a hoot about the world they inhabit.
The combat system is fairly unique, though unresponsive. Those who have played Game of Thrones will know how it works. You push a bumper to slow down time, giving you a chance to choose an attack or action then press the bumper buttons again to rejoin the action. It can be hard to know what the best course of action is however, as choosing from attacking stances lowers your guard, but choosing defensive stances rarely does enough damage. At times I had to repeat fights over and over again until I won with no idea what I did differently. It simply doesn’t feel like you have a great deal of control over the characters, think Knights of the old Republic but far less responsive.
One interesting aspect however, is the ability to take control of Styx whenever you please and enter stealth mode. While fairly simple (enemies step over their dead comrades without even noticing) it does add an extra level to the combat which is more than welcome. One level where you play solely as Styx was a breath of fresh air, while it doesn’t compare to proper stealth games, it was a nice change of pace.
While it does take some getting used to and there is a certain level of depth to it at times, it is still uninvolving and clumsy at the best of times, though with work can definitely be improved.
Conversations can go on for a while, though every so often you will be asked to provide input via a Mass Effect inspired wheel. You will also be asked to make decisions every so often though they will rarely impact the game a great deal as the story usually finds a way of making two events play out the same way.
The presentation leaves a lot to be desired. There are no two ways about it, this is not a pretty game. There is the occasional lush greenery but as a whole the world is fairly ugly. Even if the argument were to be used that the style is trying to match the dark murky tone of the game, it still doesn’t excuse the lackluster and repetitive backdrops (you’ve seen one castle interior you’ve seen them all.) and the character models, if you were to stand all the Orcs in a line, you’d probably have trouble picking out Arkail were it not for his heavily scarred face.
The voice acting is quite decent, though the sound effects team could have come up with a few more noises of steel slashing flesh. The music is a mixed bag; at times certainly stirring and fitting of the messy tone, at other it simply feels like the violin player has been asked to hold the lowest note he can for about 20 seconds while characters exposite some more. Though I will admit, while writing this review I have been humming one of the battle tunes to myself.
There is a much better game in here somewhere, but for one reason or another it just hasn’t panned out. The story reaches the final third before it gets interesting, the world is uninspired, combat can be an infuriating chore at times and the messy, murky look doesn’t help things. There is nothing inherently awful about Of Orcs and Men, though not enough stands out. Cyanide have proven themselves as a studio to watch however, as their love of adult themed fantasy epics with involving narratives is more than welcome. Although next time they may want to think of not making their title a pun.