Review: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Despite being one of the largest IPs in the world, there have been few games based on The Lord of the Rings license lately with even fewer have attempting to tell lore-abiding stories based outside of Tolkien’s writings. Perhaps that is why The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is so fascinating. Developed by Daedalic Entertainment, Gollum is a narrative action game that expands Middle-earth without altering the source material by telling a unique story centered around the titular character. With a unique take on Middle-earth and an unlikely protagonist in tow, does The Lord of the Rings: Gollum usher in a new era for The Lord of the Rings games or should this game be thrown back into the fires of Mt. Doom?

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Having lost his Precious to Bilbo Baggins, Gollum sets out on a quest to reclaim it. From Mordor to Mirkwood and beyond, Gollum and Smeagol will not only face-off against imposing physical forces, but must also face the inner corruption caused by the One Ring.

Daedalic Entertainment’s tackling of this subject matter is fascinating. Though Tolkien did mention Gollum and Smeagol’s adventures in his writings, the fine details about what transpired remain shrouded in mystery. Gollum takes that canvas and manages to tell a mostly-compelling story, fleshing out overlooked aspects of Tolkien’s world. This is most true of Barad-dur’s dungeons and how they operated, something never-before-seen due to no point-of-view character in the books or films ever being there.

The story’s biggest success is its interpretation of Gollum and Smeagol. Though the game pulls heavily from Andy Serkis’ masterful performance in The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy, Daedalic’s take on the tortured character is a compelling exploration of what drives him. The story hits the right themes and serves as a strong foreshadowing of Gollum and Smeagol’s drive and ultimate fate in The Lord of the Rings.

What doesn’t work as well are the cast of side characters, whose stories ultimately go nowhere despite the story building them up. This is particularly true of a particular character whom Daedalic appeared to want to position as an answer to one of Tolkien’s greatest mysteries, but ends up being nothing. They’re all profoundly disappointing and aren’t helped by the terrible technical presentation. There are a lot of uncomfortably close shot-reverse shot angles that do the story’s presentation no favors.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum has a compelling tale to offer with great character work from Smeagol and Gollum, but the surrounding elements don’t live up to the titular character. All the side characters are dull with unsatisfying arcs, and the way the story is told is uncomfortable due to the technical presentation and the overreliance on shot-reverse shot angles.

As a story-based game, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum offers up a healthy playtime of 12-15 hours spread across ten chapters. There are hidden collectibles littered across each chapter, but other than that, the game is solely focused on telling its story.

That focus on telling a story factors into the level design, which is primarily focused on driving players towards the next event. Though linear, there’s still a surprising amount of variety within each chapter outside of stealth and platforming. In some missions, Gollum will need to recover tags from deceased workers, guide allies out of danger and run for his life. Even when engaging with platform and stealth, there’s a sense of variety thanks to different pathways available to Gollum. The levels themselves are varied despite taking place primarily in two locations. During your time in Barad-dur, you’ll traverse lava-filled caverns, an ornate palace and sickly sewers. Meanwhile, Mirkwood is filled with vegetation, Elvish architecture and glittering streams. There’s always some new aspect of Middle-earth to explore.

Gameplay in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is boiled down into two categories: platforming and stealth. It’s a smart choice given Gollum’s frail stature, but the game never evolves beyond its base mechanics of wall-running, jumping, clambering up walls, crawling and hiding in bushes. It’s all extremely simple and rudimentary and makes it easy to get going, but the game rarely offers any platforming challenges. Every platforming section is laid out cleanly and is easy to follow, but there’s never any challenge outside of bugs and inconsistencies.

Stealth is also rudimentary, with Gollum able to hide in dark spaces, distract enemies with rocks, and on occasion, stealth kill orcs. Much like platforming, stealth never evolves beyond its core fundamentals. Enemies are laid out in obvious, easy patterns and never group up to create a sense of challenge. Gollum’s stealth boils down to patience more than anything else.

Simplicity itself isn’t a negative, especially for a game more focused on story, but it does become a negative when the gameplay is inconsistent and janky. Unfortunately, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is extremely unpolished and uneven, with a level of jank that seeps into every mechanic. Expect Gollum to get stuck on random pieces of geometry when walking about, button inputs that bug out and don’t register or checkpoints that respawn Gollum in death traps. These inconsistencies extend to platforming, where the greatest fear isn’t missing a timed jump, but Gollum bugging out and not performing the right action. What should be a simple, fun story experience is ultimately ruined by the large amount of jank present.

The one aspect of gameplay that truly works is the internal Gollum vs. Smeagol arguments. While these moments don’t truly affect the story, they do highlight the best aspect of the game: Gollum and Smeagol’s relationship. Hearing both personalities banter with each other as they try to convince the other of what decision is right is entertaining and it’s the only part of gameplay the lack of polish doesn’t touch.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a relatively simple game to play. Its mechanics never evolve, nor does it offer much of a challenge across stealth or platforming. As a story-focused game, that would have been alright. The numerous and frustrating technical issues sap away any enjoyment that could be found in the gameplay, though.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s presentation is dated. From an artistic perspective, Daedalic Entertainment has put in tremendous effort into bringing Tolkien’s locations to life. There’s a sense of horror and dread when trapped in Mordor, while Mirkwood is whimsical and dreamlike. It’s unfortunate that the artistic vision is let down by a poor technical presentation. Whether it be inconsistent lighting that makes characters look like clay, off-putting facial and eye animations or low-quality textures, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum doesn’t fare well compared to today’s standards. The game has its moments of whimsy, but those moments are rare.

Making the situation worse is the dire technical state the game is launching in, at least on PS5. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum launches with persistent crashing issues tied to the autosave system and Gollum’s hair. The former consistently spawns Gollum into death upon restart, and the latter crashes the game every couple of minutes of play if turned on. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum has no business launching in such a poor state.

Closing Comments

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum could have ushered in a new era of The Lord of the Rings-based games. One that had the daring to fill in Tolkien’s gaps, but still showed respect for the source material. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum isn’t that game. While the story is compelling with a great performance from Smeagol/Gollum, the remainder of the game is a woeful mess. While Daedalic’s vision for Middle-earth is filled with artistic beauty, it’s altogether let down by a terrible technical presentation that’s far behind today’s standards. Ultimately, though, it’s the lack of polish and jankiness that is its undoing. From the myriad gameplay issues that bog down the simple mechanics to the mind-numbing crashes capable of hampering progression, there is little about The Lord of the Rings: Gollum that’s polished or enjoyable. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum crafts a compelling story around Gollum and Smeagol, but it fails to craft a polished, stable or enjoyable gameplay experience. Unfortunately, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum isn’t the Precious we’ve been searching for.

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