Often relegated to the background as evil fodder for the blades of do-gooder humans, orcs don't usually get a chance to shine on center stage. Of Orcs and Men changes that, instead painting greenskins in a very different light while tackling heady topics of genocide and oppression through the eyes of its dual protagonists: a brutish orc, Arkail, and his reluctant goblin sidekick, Styx. Their dynamic relationship is the central pillar holding aloft a fun-but-flawed adventure that packs impressive depth in some areas, yet struggles with shallow design in others.
Turning traditional fantasy tropes on their head, humans are the villains in this tale. War ignites across the continent when the power-hungry human empire shows its monstrous tendencies by imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering the green-skinned inhabitants of the land. Brought together by a common foe, Arkail and Styx begrudgingly team up to push deep into the empire's territory and assassinate the emperor. Their quest sends the duo on a lot of wild tangents--one minute they're burning a church filled with inquisitor scum, the next they're rescuing an imprisoned wizardess to aid in their quest. Lines between good and evil are blurred constantly, often by the protagonists themselves. Despite their questionable methods, these fellows are oddly likeable, thanks to their strong personalities and enjoyable camaraderie.
The colorful interactions between the burly anger-prone orc and his witty comrade also provide some comic relief that helps counterbalance the somber tone of their bloody mission. Unfortunately, the humor seems forced and at times it misses the mark. Dialogue waffles between witty remarks and excessive F-bombs to the point where it feels juvenile and distracting. It's a shame, because their backstory and ongoing development throughout the adventure is genuinely interesting. They're compelling characters that hold up even as the pace of the story shifts gears--and it does so frequently. The ham-fisted attempt at extra edginess wasn't needed.
With an orc and a goblin walking around amidst a bunch of greenskin-hating humans, the vast majority of the encounters devolve into combat with ease, whether you intend them to or not. Of Orcs and Men's battle system blends action-heavy encounters and more thoughtful RPG strategy by letting you instantly dial down the excitement to a slow-motion crawl at the touch of a button. This gives you time to queue up different attack moves, change between offensive and defensive stances, and trigger abilities for both characters before letting loose again.
Since you can only directly control one character at a time, and the friendly A.I. isn't the most competent, a lot of micromanagement juggling comes into play. But instead of being tedious, it's actually fun to continually swap characters, switch up your strategy, and adapt to the flow of battle as it unfolds. It keeps encounters fluid and gives you a big strategic toolbox to pull from.
Both warriors' distinct personalities also play into their vastly different fighting styles, and it's these differences that make each one enjoyable to play when the need to swap them out arises. Arkail is a powerful but unpredictable melee fighter who wields giant blades and bludgeoning weapons. Every hefty blow he delivers or receives pushes him closer to flying into a berserk rage. When he does fly off the handle, all hell breaks loose. He's uncontrollable for a brief time, his damage is ramped up significantly, and he attacks anyone within range--friend and foe alike. Afterwards, Arkail is momentarily stunned, opening him up to attack, which is why managing his anger level so it peaks at just the right time is an important challenge.
In contrast, Styx is weak in toe-to-toe melee against bigger foes, but his long-range throwing daggers and status-afflicting attacks make him perfect for weakening foes for Arkail to finish off. Equally useful outside of battle, Styx can also turn invisible and sneak up on foes for stealth kills to reduce the crowd of enemies you'll face off against when they notice you. Figuring out the best way to use both characters effectively for each combat situation you're thrown into is satisfying.
You're given a lot of leeway to tinker with both warriors beyond their inherent strengths and weaknesses, as they level up and earn skill points to spend on stat boosts and new abilities. Tactical variety gets further expanded by the great assortment of attacks and custom abilities unique to each character. But what's puzzling, given the game's strong RPG trappings, is that weapons and items are terribly downplayed. New gear pops up at disappointingly infrequent intervals, and half of the time the items you find aren't much of an improvement over your current gear. Sure, there's a rudimentary crafting system to upgrade the stuff you've grabbed so far, but it's minimal and doesn't do much to compensate for the weak supply of killing accoutrements.
Other areas aspects of the game suffer from similar design hiccups. Despite some branching areas to explore and side missions to tackle, much of the game feels painfully linear. You slog from one area to the next killing most of the troops you encounter. The beautifully-detailed battlefields pair well with plot twists and maintain a steady momentum, but the map layouts aren't nearly as complex or interesting. Visual glitches crop up too. During a large stretch of the game, Arkail might carry around and wield a blunt stick on his back instead of the barbed axe he has equipped in the inventory menu. It also could appear to be hovering behind him rather than being attached to the big guy.
Minor issues such as that, coupled with the jarring foul language at times, detract from the game's potent atmosphere. The overall visual design is very sharp and nuanced--except when it comes to the human characters, who are sometimes awkwardly animated (not to mention, poorly voiced). None of this kills the mood entirely, but it makes the experience feel half-baked during times when you should be awash in the thrill of the conflict.
Of Orcs and Men hits a lot of sweet spots. The dynamic dual protagonists, flip-flopped bad-guys-are-the-good-guys story, and deep strategic combat system all do a stellar job of grabbing and maintaining interest throughout the lengthy campaign. It's not hard to get caught up in the violent quest to topple the empire, but there are still quite a few little blips along the way that break up the game's momentum. Though Of Orcs and Men struggles at times, its absorbing moments are enough to keep you in the fight for the long haul.