The Lord of the Rings’ story is imaginative, riveting, and heart-rending all at once. However, the franchise famously built something larger than Frodo, Gandalf, or even the one ring to rule them all. Middle-Earth is populated with mythical creatures both large and small as well as innocent and ravenous. The story of Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring of power is only impactful because of the entire setting. Now, an unlikely and somewhat sympathetic character within that world is at the heart of Daedalic Entertainment’s latest offering.
While Gollum stalked Frodo from the shadows in hopes of claiming “the precious” for himself, there was always a victim of Sauron’s buried beneath the conspiring goblin-esque visage. It’s the beating heart of Sméagol (Gollum’s former alias prior to being twisted by the ring’s power) that The Lord of the Rings: Gollum attempts to uncover. Despite the storytelling potential for a tortured and complex character like Gollum, just how effective and engaging is he as a video game protagonist?
"While I may not have any gripes about the platforming as presented in Gollum, there isn’t anything to write home about either. It’s fairly average gameplay that doesn’t do much to innovate with the genre basics."
Most games based on The Lord of the Rings saga position players in combat-enabled roles considering the bulk of the conflict involves fighting Orcs and the dark forces of Sauron. Talion and Celebrimbor’s adventure in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War is one such example. But Gollum isn’t at all the combative type. He’s frail and rather small in stature. But anybody who knows anything about the character knows he’s also not to be underestimated. Direct combat in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is out of the question. Instead, the gameplay loop is based on platforming through linear story paths and engaging in stealth when the moment calls for it. Though, Gollum can strangle an orc lacking armor to death in some circumstances if you can get the drop on him.
The game acts as a prequel to The Fellowship of the Ring but takes place quite some time after The Hobbit. In fact, it’s been almost six decades since Bilbo Baggins came into possession of the ring after encountering Gollum. Needless to say, Gollum is bitter and his thoughts often linger on Bilbo “the thief” in this adventure. The game begins earnestly enough with Gollum imprisoned by the elves. Gandalf visits so that he can speak with Gollum and learn his story. For the first half of the game, you play through Gollum and Gandalf’s discussion over the former’s time as a captive in Mordor. Being as he was the last individual known to have the ring, the Nazgûl find Gollum and ultimately bring him to Mordor where he is forced into hard labor for the orcs.
As you complete tasks beset upon you by the leadership in Mordor, Gollum will inevitably conspire against those he deems as enemies and also plot his eventual escape. Throughout each chapter, you’ll experience plenty of linear traversal that occurs in the form of platforming. Gollum will do a lot of climbing, swinging, and jumping. The controls are rather fluid and are complementary to this type of gameplay. If you find yourself missing a jump multiple times, it’s likely that the game is telling you that there’s another way you’re supposed to go. Sometimes, the path forward isn’t totally obvious. There are many environmental cues such as white lines painted on walls that Gollum can run up or wall-run across. Additionally, grip-able surfaces are made pretty clear by specific textures. Still, the lighting and position of some ledges or paths can often conceal them from you if you aren’t looking hard enough. While I may not have any gripes about the platforming as presented in Gollum, there isn’t anything to write home about either. It’s fairly average gameplay that doesn’t do much to innovate with the genre basics.
"Gollum might be mischievous and a schemer, but solving puzzles just doesn’t seem like his cup of tea, and it interrupts the pacing of the traditional gameplay."
When sneaking through hostile camps of orcs or elves, you will sometimes have to be quick and decisive or slow and quiet. Gollum can pick up rocks to toss at metal contraptions to make noise and distract guards from their posts. Additionally, Gollum can hide in tall grass or in the shadows. Keep in mind, that shadows accompanied by mist are the spaces that will conceal Gollum. Once inside, he’ll be covered in total blackness except for his glowing eyes – this is how you know that you’re invisible to the naked eye.
Platforming and stealth are ultimately the expectation of Gollum. However, these particular gameplay loops, as well as the pacing of the story are sometimes upended by strange sequences such as guiding a partner through a hostile area through commands. These moments are almost too simple and interrupt the flow of the game’s best moments. Infrequently, the level will ask you to solve a puzzle of sorts to continue forward. These aren’t common. But when they occur, they often feel out of place. Sure, Gollum might be mischievous and a schemer, but solving puzzles just doesn’t seem like his cup of tea, and again, it interrupts the pacing of the traditional gameplay.
One of the more fascinating elements of the game involves Gollum’s light and dark sides of his personality. His more ravenous side is labeled “Gollum” while his more soft-spoken and often innocent side is represented by his original name, Sméagol. Many times, you will have to make choices whether in conversation or during gameplay to respond or act as Gollum or Sméagol. In many circumstances, you might make a certain choice, but the other personality disagrees and you must convince them. For instance, you might choose to trust a particular NPC with the Sméagol personality. You must then select from a few options in conversing with Gollum to convince him that’s the right course of action. If you win the argument, then your choice will play out as selected. If you lose, well, you get the idea. This story is truly one of two separate identities that have been crammed together in a bottle so-to-speak. Each is vying for control in their own way.
It’s also interesting to note that Gollum doesn’t necessarily represent “evil” and Sméagol “good” as you might think. Even that area is murky as Sméagol sometimes believes murdering a person is the best way to handle a situation despite his deep regret over murdering his friend Déagol for the ring all those years ago. Gollum and Sméagol very much live in a grey area. This level of storytelling is thoughtful and engaging, even when the gameplay feels average.
"Gollum aside, movements and facial animations are rough and never fully sync well with the audio."
As you parkour through Mordor, and later, an Elvish country, the world feels very much like a character all on its own. While it’s clear that the developers didn’t go for photorealism by visual design, the style with a tinge of exaggeration and plenty of fantastical elements is easy to appreciate. The NPC and character designs, however? Not so much. Gollum aside, movements and facial animations are rough and never fully sync well with the audio. And while natural for creatures like Gollum or the orcs, the rest of the world’s characters including humans and elves aren’t very appealing visually. While it’s hard to put my finger on it, the exaggerated style just doesn’t seem to work here.
Platforming fans can enjoy the game’s challenges. While stealth is naturally a part of the gameplay loop, it’s certainly no Splinter Cell. There really isn’t much depth to it beyond simply staying out of sight and distracting enemies when you can. However, when all is said and done, there’s some meat here for to chew on if you can look past some scuffs, rough edges, and simplistic gameplay.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Beautifully realized world; Tight and intuitive controls; Engaging story.
Poor NPC designs; Rough animations; Poor pacing caused by out-of-place sequences not typical of the majority of the game; Not much depth to the overall gameplay.
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