Cyanide Studio’s Of Orcs and Men is a cross between an action-role-playing game and a buddy-cop film. And although the name does conjure a reference to John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, there is really no correlation between the two other than one character is small and crafty and the other is a large brute.  No, what makes this game interesting is how they took a great core gameplay concept and mechanic, added some good writing and dialogue, and then surrounded that with a lot of superfluous extras.

As I previously said, the game’s core mechanic is solid.  You can play either as the goblin Styx, who can travel into small places, dissolve into a stealth mode in order to assassinate enemies and can participate in ranged combat or you can play as the orc Arkail, who is your tank, meant to stand on the front lines, absorb damage and deal heavy blows. What makes this system work is how easy it is to change between characters with one button push, along with the ability to slow down the action into a “bullet time” mode in order to queue up moves for each character to enact.   It really takes the chaos of battle and makes it more manageable.

The downside to the battle system is how it is enacted in the overall game structure. In order to move from one plot point to another, you must travel down these linear corridors that have set battles placed at intervals.  Unfortunately, this becomes fairly monotonous by the end of the game.  Essentially, at each battle point, there are X number of enemies.  Most of the time, there are too many enemies for Styx and Arkail to handle straight up.  So, it becomes like a puzzle where you drop Styx into stealth mode and sneak around, eliminating as many enemies as possible before you must alert all the remaining enemies for the two of you to mop up – rinse and repeat.  I am thankful that the parts where I moved in stealth mode felt refreshing and fun, since the battles themselves felt repetitive and mind-numbing.

Where I felt Of Orcs and Men really shined was in the writing and dialogue.  The story dealt with some heavy issues like racism, slavery and betrayal with a serious tone while providing points of comic relief in the dialogue between the two protagonists.  The dialogue is well written, and although it is occasionally overly vulgar, it accurately captures the personalities of the protagonists.  My only complaint regarding the story and dialogue involves a concept with the Mages referred to as “psychic rape.” While I understand the authors were expressing a concept of going into someone’s subconscious and pulling them out, the use of the word rape was unnecessary and unwelcome.

While the core mechanic, story and dialogue made the experience enjoyable, there were so many other aspects of the game that felt pointless and tacked on.  The biggest offender was the inventory, trade and loot system.  As far as loot goes, there were maybe three sets of armor for each character and maybe six different weapons.  Even the upgrades to these pieces were nothing worthy of noting.  Even finding pieces of armor were so infrequent, I stopped exploring because it felt futile to bother looking for new equipment. The other big offender was this concept that Styx could travel places Arkail could not.  I think this feature was available to me a total of three or four times during the game.  It really felt like they had this grand idea and simply ran out of time to incorporate it into the game.

My biggest criticism is the camera.  In battle, more often than not, I found myself staring at a wall or a tree trunk or a close up of one of my enemies’ faces.  I couldn’t see my partner or the kind of damage I was inflicting upon my enemies.  Most of the time, I had to play as Styx, run away from the battle so I could see what was going on, then intervene.  I realize that programming cameras in third person action games is difficult, but this camera was atrocious.

Overall, Of Orcs and Men is a solid offering with an excellent core game play mechanic and an enjoyable story.  It is not without its faults, especially repetitiveness, and at times, those faults detract from the overall experience.  While I would not recommend this title to everyone, I think core RPG players will find this a nice diversion from your typical open-world western RPG or organized Japanese RPG.

Of Orcs and Men is out now on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.  For review purposes, I completed the entire game on Normal on the PlayStation 3 in approximately 13 hours.