J.R.R. Tolkien's universe of Middle-earth is both timeless and highly influential. Many fantasy novelists credit his books for structuring common fantasy mechanics, and the films show that the stories are still entertaining for every generation. With such a highly regarded series in their possession, WB Games is still making games based on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and they've taken a new approach with the latest title in the franchise. The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest is an adventure game intended for a younger set, and while it isn't the best LotR game, it is quite enjoyable and easy to understand for all gamers.
By now, almost everyone knows of the basic story behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The armies of men, elves, and dwarfs band together to fight off the dark lord Sauron while Frodo Baggins and his companion Sam Gamgee make the trek to Mount Doom to throw the One Ring into the fire and destroy it forever. Fifteen years have passed since the ring was thrown into the fire, and plenty has changed. Aragorn has become king, and peace has arrived during his reign. Sam has become the mayor of Hobbiton, and while Frodo went off with the elves, his name is still heard in town thanks to Sam's son, who is also named Frodo. News of King Aragorn's visit to the shire has prompted the town to throw a celebration in his honor, so Sam is busy making sure everything is in order. With most of the work completed and hours to go before Aragorn arrives, Sam tells of Aragorn's adventures from the attack at Weathertop to the final battle at Mount Doom.
For the most part, players will take control of Aragorn as he goes through the battles that defined the classic trilogy. From Weathertop to Helm's Deep, you'll be spending your time hacking and slashing goblins, orcs, wolves and other enemies while your computer-controlled companions do the same. Throughout the journey, you'll accumulate coins, which can be spent on more moves, better attributes, and better gear for Aragorn as he fights his way to the end. Since each battle is treated like a story, each major skirmish marks the end of a tale. At that point, you can take control of Frodo as he participates in party events to earn more coins before hearing more stories about Aragorn.
Though the game was built primarily for a solo player, there is the option to bring in another player for offline co-op. The second player takes control of Frodo's sister in the shire and the wizard Gandalf in the adventure portions. Unlike other games of this type, where the second player is simply a re-skinned version of the first player, Gandalf is a completely different fighter from Aragorn due to his projectile-based attacks. With that in mind, your strategy changes when you're playing as Gandalf since your main goal is to keep enemies at bay and prevent Aragorn from being picked off at a distance. Likewise, the player controlling Aragorn has to make sure that Gandalf is protected from melee attacks. The co-op dynamic makes the game feel different enough that you'll want to play the game twice just to see for yourself.
The good news is that Aragorn's Quest is quite lengthy for a children's title. Clocking in at around 10 hours for the main quest, the game is a good length and certainly makes the most out of its eight levels. This comes at a time when kids' games seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and it's definitely a welcome feature. Each level also contains a plethora of alternate paths and side quests, so you have the opportunity to get more cash and gear for your character. While the minigames in the shire aren't the greatest, the cash does carry over into your main quest, so you'll have a reason to play them after all. If there is a caveat to this, it would be with the difficulty level. Like most children's games, it is easy to defeat because of the numerous checkpoints after just about every battle. While that may be disappointing news for some, the game's length makes for a good trade-off in the end.
The controls are both intuitive and problematic. The game is only controlled with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk and uses just about every function that the control scheme has to offer. On the Nunchuk side, the analog stick controls Aragorn's movements while the Z button brings up the shield, the C button centers the camera behind Aragorn, and a shake of the Nunchuk performs a shield bash to break up an enemy's block. On the Wii Remote, the d-pad selects items for your Nunchuk hand, such as a torch or a shield. Both the A and B buttons are used for a bow and arrow as well as stronger attacks.
For basic attacks, your Wiimote swings translate into sword swings, with the direction of your swing determining whether your attack is vertical or horizontal. This is where the problems in the control scheme start to creep up. Even if you exaggerate your vertical movements or stabbing motions, most of your motions will be translated as horizontal slashes. Even minimal movements of the remote will translate into a readable attack, usually the horizontal one. This lack of control also applies to Gandalf's actions, so the second player shares in the same grief as the first player. While it doesn't cause as many problems as one may think because almost any attack is good enough against enemies, it makes the game feel like you're never fully in control over what you want to do, and that's akin to a cardinal sin in video games.
The graphics are done in a style people haven't seen in the series for some time, and the end result is quite mixed. The backgrounds are done nicely with some bright colors that paint the more famous landmarks in Middle-earth with a more family-friendly look. They look good and sport some nice fog and particle effects but suffer from some pop-in with the abundance of foliage and trees in every level. Likewise, the character models are more like cartoon caricatures of the actors portrayed in the films. Both the enemies and heroes animate nicely, though it is disturbing to see the mouths remain static as characters speak, and the hands resemble stumps. While the frame rate holds up well, it takes a hit when you're playing co-op, especially when Gandalf starts attacking and large groups are present on-screen. The graphics are good, but the system has certainly seen better.
As expected, the sound for Aragorn's Quest is quite good. The music contains some snippets from the film score, but for the most part, the music in the game is based on original compositions. The good news is that the original material meshes rather well with the movie score, so unless you know those compositions by heart, you may never be able to tell which pieces were originally in the movie. The effects come through strongly, and there isn't a case where an effect goes underplayed or feels muted. The use of voice in the game is rather interesting, though. John Rhys-Davies and Sean Astin reprise their roles as Gimli and Sam, respectively, to add some fresh dialogue to the game. Both actors haven't missed a step, as they sound comfortable in their roles. For the rest of the characters, like Frodo Baggins and Aragorn, the development team decided to lift their lines directly from the film instead of having a sound-alike read them. The technique fits well since they only employ spoken lines during the appropriate cut scenes, though it feels odd to hear the characters screaming in preparation for a battle when the crowd isn't very large. For the sections where sound-alikes are used, the actors do a good job of trying to match the original voices, and while it is still easy to tell which lines come from the movie and which were made specifically for the game, the vocal inflections are done well enough that the performance doesn't feel forced.
The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest isn't that bad of an adventure game. The main game is quite lengthy, and the side quests only add more enjoyment to the adventure, especially if you go questing with a friend. The side quests are enjoyable to a lesser degree, and the game is quite forgiving, so it seems ideal for the younger set. The graphics and sound are acceptable, but the controls feel too loose and dampen the quality of the overall game. If you're looking for a good adventure game to play with someone younger and are tired of the countless Lego iterations in the market, this one makes for a very good rental or purchase if you have an immense love for the series. Just be wary that continued controller waggling will be the order of the day.
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