The Lord of Rings is one of the most recognizable fantasy novels that continues to enjoy a massive number of faithful followers, and for good reason. Series author J.R.R. Tolkien has created a massive world with tons of lore, which makes it ripe for telling different kinds of stories within the same framework. Plenty of games have tried to adapt this universe to create their own interactive experiences with varying degrees of success, but Return to Moria feels like a cheap attempt at capitalizing on the franchise’s recognition with little in the name of innovation.
Developed by Free Range Games, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria was released in October on PC to mostly unfavorable critical reception. The game has now made its way over to the PlayStation 5, and after spending more than a handful of hours with it – I’m convinced that little to no effort has been made to alleviate the issues presented with the original release.
Let’s start with the story first. The game takes place during the fourth age, and the story is set after the events of the novels. The dwarves have decided to retake their homeland of Moria, and restore an ancient kingdom by the name of Khazad-dûm. Return to Moria opens up with a brief exposition of this premise, and you end up landing in a dark cave with nothing but a handful of basic resources and a huge adventure ahead of you.
"The game has now made its way over to the PlayStation 5, and after spending more than a handful of hours with it – I’m convinced that little to no effort has been made to alleviate the issues presented with the original release. "
As someone who is only passingly aware of The Lord of the Rings universe, the story didn’t seem really interesting to get behind, though your mileage might vary on that front depending on your allegiances to this fantasy world. But even if you like the concept of dwarves embarking on such grand adventures, the story here feels like a loosely stringed-together plot that’s just there to take you from one objective to the next. Add to that some flat writing on display and poor voice acting end up killing most if not all of the charm that the story could hold.
The same issues of not matching up to quality standards extends over to the gameplay as well. The developer took inspiration from a bunch of survival contemporaries like Valheim and Subnautica, but the end result feels like a hotch-potch of ideas that never really stick the landing. The game starts out with a tutorial that takes you through the basics like collecting resources, crafting items, and building structures but it glances over crucial elements like combat controls which makes it a disappointing start for things to follow.
The core gameplay loop revolves around collecting resources, crafting gear, and using that to explore the depths of this hidden kingdom. There is definitely an element of inherent fun in getting more powerful through hard work, but a lot of that charm gets eliminated with the janky moment-to-moment mechanics on offer. The animations are pretty crude, and the character movement never really feels quite right. You can jump through gaps and climb up certain surfaces, but most of those mobility options end up feeling really awkward because of the aforementioned jank.
"The animations are pretty crude, and the character movement never really feels quite right. You can jump through gaps and climb up certain surfaces, but most of those mobility options end up feeling really awkward because of the aforementioned jank. "
The combat is also pretty basic and unenjoyable, and a lot of that could once again be chalked up to poor animations and stiff movement mechanics. You can either slash your weapon, or block incoming attacks with the push of a left trigger. Combat encounters usually end up being an awkward dance of wobbling around arenas and slowly whittling down your enemy’s health bar. I came across multiple kinds of enemies ranging from goblins to fast-moving wolves and bats, but my approach never really changed in the way I would tackle them. All in all, the combat here is mindless action and it’s not even close to being fun.
Base building is seemingly one of the important pillars in Return to Moria, and sadly that also feels pretty half-baked and unimpressive for the most part. You can collect resources like stone and iron by digging through walls or scavenging around the environment, which can be used to craft structures like platforms, build weapons like iron swords, or upgrade structures in a base camp. It’s a largely familiar setup if you have played any other survival game, though it feels pretty restrictive in nature. Players will struggle to come up with solutions for scaling across obstacles or overcoming challenges when they are crafting different structures, and most of the bigger ones can only be built near bases – which don’t fulfill any real purpose other than crafting higher-quality items from resources.
Return to Moria is a decently challenging game where resources aren’t the most plentiful in most scenarios, and while that would be appreciated in a normal sense, the otherwise frustrating game mechanics like the aforementioned janky movements and frustrating combat makes the difficulty feel like a negative trait that doesn’t add anything to the experience.
" Players will struggle to come up with solutions for scaling across obstacles or overcoming challenges when they are crafting different structures, and most of the bigger ones can only be built near bases – which don’t fulfill any real purpose other than crafting higher-quality items from resources. "
Return to Moria employs a simple art style with cartoony character designs, and simplistic environments. It definitely has its charm, but I wouldn’t say that the presentation is up to the mark either. The lighting feels flat, and environments don’t really have an element of wonder and awe that we have come to associate with The Lord of the Rings franchise. Furthermore, there was no background music while I was exploring the murky caves which makes the overall presentation feel half-baked and unsatisfactory according to modern standards.
Running on the PlayStation 5, Return to Moria isn’t the most optimized game on the console. Despite featuring simple graphics and basic gameplay, I noticed plenty of loading hitches during my time with the game. It isn’t a grave issue, but it’s rather surprising that I faced these issues in a game that should run smoothly on reasonably powerful hardware.
In conclusion, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is one of those games that doesn’t have a soul. There isn’t really anything unique the game does, and almost each and every one of its mechanics have been lifted straight from its contemporaries. Everything from the procedural world generation to a progression loop based on going deeper and deeper can be traced back to popular survival games. Getting inspired from other games is completely fine but the implementation here is unimpressive and very by-the-numbers.
It’s clear that the people involved with this game tried to capitalize on the recognition of The Lord of the Rings and mesh that with the recent burst in popularity of survival games to create a video game, but Return to Moria lacks in quality. It’s not a fun game, and it’s even worse that the developer didn’t put any real effort into fixing these problems with the console release.
If you are someone who is really into The Lord of the Rings, you could find something of value here – provided you are able to look past the buffet of issues present in the final product. Others are advised to skip this game since you will find a much better and more entertaining experience with other survival games.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Works on a very basic level.
Loosely stringed together story, unremarkable visual presentation, janky gameplay mechanics; slow animations