When Spiders or Cyanide Studio commits to a crazy idea, it commits. Of Orcs and Men is a gritty yet heartfelt exploration of prejudice in a CRPG about an orc and a goblin that plays like a strange lovechild of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Army of Two. It’s rather fitting given Of Orcs and Men’s gruesome-looking leads, Arkail the Bloodjaw orc commando and Styx the goblin assassin.
Despite all their butchering of foes in a bleak world and swearing like sailors between cracking wise, the duo is on a quest for hope. It is a last-ditch effort to stave off an orc genocide by an impotent king who could care less about the fate of the “greenskins.” Add a damsel mage in distress for good measure. Sprinkle in some one-liners for spice.
What surprises is how Of Orcs and Men hits differently nearly a decade after release. The game is unflinching in its portrayal of an oppressed society, slavery, and religious persecution. There’s no lingering indulgence or attempt to pander to a Hollywood lens. The elves and dwarves have barely glanced at the slaughter, with the humans holding their favor as they erect ghastly, Tolkien-esque towers to display their so-called might. Everything is awful, but maybe if you knock the crown king of the humans into an early grave, you’ll stagger them long enough for saner voices to stem the tide of violence.
The orcs are as brutal and unrelenting as they are across most fiction, yet there’s more to them than that. Their spiritual evocations bring to mind pagan traditions, as do how they signify their home tribes. They speak of families and loved ones that have long since fled deep into the Southern Lands to escape the unceasing blades of human slave masters. The orc dialect is both rough yet quiet, with terms like “kwarsan” and “rakash” rolling off the tongue like leaves against gravel. One orc is the last of his entire tribe, sharing their ways after bonding with Ark. That Spiders and Cyanide manage to delve into all of this while still cracking jokes is impressive, and it’s all achieved in just a 12-hour game.
Of Orcs and Men is leanly designed, able to complete in a weekend. Each location feeds directly into the central narrative while spooling out smaller threads that weave back in. Killing a ruthless hunter who’s slaughtered orcs by the dozen opens up a crucial tactical option mere hours later. The obvious choice isn’t always the best one, while other times pragmatism can save you time. Taking the risk of letting players make bad choices is great to see as so many studios would be leery of letting players experience a worse course of events.
This daring energy flows through Of Orcs and Men. Ark and Styx’s respective character development is tied into major upgrades to their arsenal, defining them both on and off the field of battle. Ark’s rage meter constantly hangs over your head as a tool if harnessed right, yet also as a risk if you let him blow his top. Though he’s a tank by nature, he can later develop into an unblockable brute or a fearsome beast that sends his enemies panicking. Styx is just as malleable — he can become a brutal opener who can cripple enemies, a skittish ranged support keeping enemies from swarming, or an unpredictable wrecking ball dealing out as much damage as Ark.
The pause-and-play RPG combat starts out clunky but grows smoother with time, bolstered by a gratifying heft to the sound design. Difficulty spikes are rare, though Styx and Ark do need to be able to stand on their own in combat, as certain sections will split them up. The potential difficulty in these sections at least emphasizes how essential the two characters are to each other.
They share as much of the spotlight when talking things out. Dialogue choices aren’t good or evil, but a mixture of what either might interject. Styx is often skeptical, observant of the ins and outs of con artists, but he’s been in the world of crime for so long that he forgets the ways of the orcs. Ark is quick to anger if prompted, yet deep down he just hopes to one day embrace his family again. His struggle against rage frames all of his decisions, with both Styx and the player trying to guide him back from the dark hole he fell into during a defining battle in the war. Granted, many of those times Styx is probably making a crass remark, but the intention is clear.
That does lead to an unusual problem though. With English not being the first language of all the developers, there are some particularly odd translation issues. Notably, the concept of mind melding is inexplicably described as “mind rape” and “psychic rape” despite there being no other connotation or aspect of assault present. It comes so out of nowhere that whoever wrote the line must’ve intended something else. It’s a shame, as there’s some great vocal delivery from the leads and several of the supporting orcs — typically only the humans drop the ball.
Of Orcs and Men is the sort of RPG most publishers would balk at, but Focus Home Interactive is the same folks that later brought us Vampyr and A Plague Tale. Getting weird is its whole focus. As such, Of Orcs and Men is a foundational game for every party involved. It set the stage for Spiders’ many wild and weird RPGs, with its latest on the way in a steampunk revolutionary Paris. Meanwhile, Cyanide has continued to expand Styx’s tale with two prequel games exploring his origins, which makes sense, as Styx steals the show with his anti-Obi-Wan Kenobi sort of demeanor.
Yet, Of Orcs and Men has never received a true sequel, despite teasing a new war with the orcs at the end. It’s not for lack of output (or interest, given the Styx games), yet Spiders has only returned to its other downloadable CRPG, Mars: War Logs, with the indirect sequel The Technomancer. With the budget and acclaim afforded it now, a proper follow-up would be great to see.
Regardless, as it stands, Of Orcs and Men is an enjoyable romp. It’s smart, boasting far more than a downloadable double-A game from its console generation has any right to. I won’t call it flawless, oh goodness no, but it’s precisely the sort of game this column exists for. Whether you want another Knights of the Old Republic-esque CRPG or a candidly dark yet empathetic tale of two grizzled heroes, Of Orcs and Men deserves to be in your library. As for me? To quote a wise poet as fond of smashing mouths as Ark and Styx: “I’m a believer.”