If there are two things that Tolkien fans have learnt this year it’s that, one, The Lord of the Rings can be made into a movie that does justice to its namesake, and two, it’s not as easy to do as it looks. The latter is most evident in the fact that every LotR videogame that has ever been released has missed the mark by a substantial amount. (I’m hoping that The Two Towers PS2 will prove me wrong.) Perhaps it is not too surprising that this game is less-than-stellar, I mean, how can a dev team on a budget and a deadline hope to capture the spirit and feel of a timeless story? I’m not completely convinced that it can’t be done, but I’ve seen no proof of it so far.
The first thing you should know about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is that it is an isometric adventure/RPG. The second thing that you should know is that the game is based on the book, not the recent movie of the same name. I know some furry-footed Frodo-fan out there is saying “that sounds like the best idea since sliced Elven Waybread to me!” but riddle me this; what is it exactly about simple 2D sprites and boring text-menus that you think would do justice to the amount of depth found in the book? Good question, I gotta say, and I’m glad I asked it to .. myself, one good turn deserves another so I’ll go right ahead and answer my own question for you: nothing, the answer is nothing about this game does justice to its namesake. I know that may sound a little harsh but you have to understand, this game is confused, tedious, and while performing the various required objectives can be mildly amusing at times, more often than not it tends to feel like a chore instead of entertainment.
Its hard to pinpoint exactly where this game went wrong, perhaps it’s the weird character models that only vaguely represent their Tolkien counterparts, or maybe it’s the confused objectives that have you wandering about all over Middle Earth in search of the next progress point, or it could be the fact that slow-paced story progression actually makes the LotR universe seem boring. In actuality it’s most likely a combination of all of the above.
Not everything about the game is bad though, there are some pretty entertaining sequences via inventive puzzles and musical elements that give LotR an occasional whimsical style that is paralleled in the books by Tolkien’s frequent use of songs and rhyme. You’ll also notice a bunch of characters and situations that weren’t featured in the movie, this game is purely by-the-book, sometimes too much so. Unfortunately, in all of Black Label’s attention to detail the main focus of the story is lost, expect to be entertained in spurts.
The combat system used as you take on various enemies on the way to dispose of the ring in Mount Doom is strictly turn-based. The enemy encounters are not random however and instead opt for the when-they’re-dead-they’re-dead method, in other words once you clear an area of baddies you can freely explore it without the looming threat of being thrown into a concentration-breaking fight. This adds a nice sense of strategy to an otherwise confused experience. You’ll commonly have multiple people in your party so equipping them with weapons, and armor is necessary to stay at the top of your game. The system for attacking, defending, and other combat-related maneuvers takes a little getting used to though, as it is not completely point-and-click and requires that you shuffle around in sub-menus some of the time, but it won’t be long before the overly-tedious battle mechanics are memorized.
Graphically, LotR: FotR looks passable but far from impressive. The small character sprites are really lacking in detail and personality, though the character animations are pretty fluid. The environments throughout Middle Earth are impressive on their own merits though, painting a believable picture of what the various locales might actually look like. Nevertheless, some areas are a tad repetitive and confusedly laid out, forcing you to traverse the same location multiple times before memorizing where everything is situated. The music featured in FotR is definitely a highpoint in the experience and features rich and enthralling orchestrations, which fits the theme of the game nicely. The sound effects are too simple and unvaried to warrant favorable mention though.
What all this boils down to is an experience that only loosely represents its subject matter but does have a few moments that are surprisingly enjoyable. Unfortunately, a few cool sequences do not a good game make. Moving your character around, with the cumbersome tank-like maneuvering mechanics, gets annoying very early on in the game and doing simple things like engaging townsfolk in conversation is more complicated than it should be. Fans of the novel will inevitably find a few things to like with this title, like the lengthy 20+ hour quest, and the inclusion of characters not found in the movie, but after coming to the realization that you are just not having much fun, the good-qualities of LotR: FotR slowly melt away into the Elvin woodwork.
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