If there’s one thing (among a few) that I can credit The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria for, it’s that initial call to adventure. In the Fourth Age, Lord Gimli Lockbearer calls upon the Dwarves from all across Middle-earth to converge on Khazad-dûm or Moria. Briefly seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it was an incredible city until the Balrog invaded and destroyed everything. Driven out, the Dwarves awaited the awakening of Durin, their founder, to ultimately return.
Of course, Gimli being Gimli isn’t interested in waiting any longer. The opening does a lot to set the stakes, helping us empathize with the Dwarves who want to go home. There’s camaraderie and warmth, further reinforced by the mechanics of Light and Darkness.
"As far as set-ups go, Return to Moria does pretty well. It even intersperses bits of lore, like Wizard’s Marks and History Stones for each location."
After a plan to create an entrance with explosives fails, players find themselves trapped in the mines of Moria, separated from the other Dwarves and desperately seeking a way out. They’re assisted by Aric, a raven who occasionally rendezvous to offer guidance, but a mysterious shadowy curse is also afflicting the region. How you survive and ultimately unravel Moria’s various secrets is a core part of the game.
So yes, as far as set-ups go, Return to Moria does pretty well. It even intersperses bits of lore, like Wizard’s Marks and History Stones for each location. Unfortunately, as much as it may be in keeping with the tone of Tolkien’s work, it fumbles significantly in the gameplay department.
Return to Moria is akin to titles like Valheim or, if you want to go further back, Terraria. You scavenge materials like Metal Fragments, Clothing Scraps, Stones and more to fashion torches, pickaxes and axes, creating platforms to get to higher places or traverse dangerous chasms. They’re also used for Hearths, starting from the simple Camp Hearth for cooking basic meals and setting up a bed roll to Stone Hearth, which provides more space to set up a Furnace, Forge and various other features like a Map Stone, Gem Cutter, and Repair Station.
Upon discovering minerals like Iron, Copper and Tin, you refine them into Ingots to craft armor and weapons. Steel is refined with Iron, and higher tiers of tools are required for mining tougher minerals like Silver and even progressing forward as you fashion an arsenal to battle the various Goblins, Orcs, Wolves, and other nasties infesting Moria.
"This loop of exploration, mining and crafting does a pretty good job of keeping you occupied, as you fashion better weapons to deal with tougher enemies."
Of course, gathering other resources like Elven Wood will unlock new options like a bigger pack with more space, a bow for ranged combat, and a Rune table to inscribe your weapons with Runes of Power that increase damage against certain enemy types, among other things, and so on. I didn’t have much use for the pallets over making more chests to store materials, but they provided a nice visual pile of ingots and coal to pick up as needed.
This loop of exploration, mining and crafting does a pretty good job of keeping you occupied, as you fashion better weapons to deal with tougher enemies. Better armor helps in the more treacherous environments, like en route to The Crystal Descent, as you deal with geysers that can inflict corrosion (which can be sealed with stone).
The survival elements aren’t overwhelming, but managing hunger and resting is important, lest you gain the Tired debuff and reduce overall max energy (or Starving, which reduces health over time). There’s also the challenge of light – Dwarves don’t like the darkness, and it affects their morale. Keeping a torch in your offhand can often be necessary, though it prevents you from holding a shield or wielding a two-handed weapon. Setting up standing or thrown torches to provide other light sources can mitigate this while keeping them warm.
The environments shine in their variety, even if they’re not visually overwhelming. Discovering the Elven Quarter for the first time, lush with greenery, before finding it overrun by Orcs, is cool, especially since it leads to the first Great Forge. Unfortunately, it does little to diminish the linear nature of the game.
"While there is enough in the various structures to build, like walls, banisters, wall torches, stairs and whatnot, the actual building leaves much to be desired."
“Linear” doesn’t imply going down a straight route, but you are fairly restricted. You can’t dig just about anywhere or tackle areas in any order. Games like Valheim and Terraria have a recommended progression in place, but you still have the freedom to make your way. Return to Moria doesn’t have that. It’s due to the overarching “story” with its interactions and cutscenes being a core foundation, which is fine, but it goes beyond gated progression.
Most walls are unbreakable, with dirt surfaces indicating the way forward. Having more routes would have been nice, but this restrictive exploration also affects the resource gathering. When mining, you’ll spot distinct patches that yield materials after thwacking them enough times. After that, you’re hitting the unbreakable portion, which only gives a piddly one Stone or so after every five swings.
When desperately looking for stone to build structures, construct a Hearth or repair a statue to unlock the many weapon and armor blueprints, and you’re left with no other option than to hit the indestructible walls, it can get irritating.
Also, while there is enough in the various structures to build, like walls, banisters, wall torches, stairs and whatnot, the actual building leaves much to be desired. Many explicitly require a Hearth – so if you’re trying to construct some stairs to repair the first Great Forge, it can get very awkward, given the limited space available for a Hearth. Even worse is that it doesn’t work properly, never mind other issues with alignment that can arise in other places.
"Another core issue with Return to Moria is the combat…The overall feel is very awkward…"
The snapping of structures can also range from unwieldy to nonexistent, causing your wall torches to get built inside the walls. Being able to deconstruct anything you make on the fly and creating platforms to traverse environments or a Camp Hearth at specific points to serve as a checkpoint is nice, even if there are a decent number of established Hearths that require repairing and serve as temporary bases.
Another core issue with Return to Moria is the combat. You can slash, block attacks or hold down the attack button for a charged attack, while bows allow for ranged combat. The overall feel is very awkward – sometimes, you may misjudge the amount of available energy and intend to hold a charged slash…then awkwardly unleash a regular attack.
The lackluster animations also don’t help, and while many other survival games could also boil down to basic hacking and slashing, it just doesn’t feel as polished or fluid here. There are some different weapon types, from one-handed and two-handed swords and axes, but it’s not the craziest variety.
Enemy AI is also lackluster, especially during Sieges, where you can kite a train and take them down one after another. It doesn’t always work, especially when facing enemies that can poison you despite blocking their attacks. They’re more annoying than a threat due to sheer numbers in some situations, but at least they don’t get caught in the environment too much.
"It’s probably why I kept, well, returning to Return to Moria. Even with its flaws, there is a certain charm and magic to the experience."
Return to Moria’s animated art style can look decent, even on Medium settings. However, some more polish is needed. After wearing a helm, my character’s hair remained permanently clipped through their neck. At one point, some enemy heads were visible and seemingly hovering in place before suddenly disappearing. Don’t even get me started on stones mined from those unbreakable walls seemingly phasing into the ether, never to return.
The sad part is that there is some fun to be had with the game, even with these glaring issues. When mining and going into an Ore Frenzy, swinging your pickaxe consumes no energy, and your Dwarf starts singing, adding to the atmosphere. When attempting to cross a lake and activate some pumps, I discovered a Watcher. My bow was ineffective, and it summarily destroyed my structures and life with one attack, prompting me to regroup. There’s also that feeling of wanting to see what lies around each corner, even if many ruined structures are more for their materials than any noteworthy loot.
It’s probably why I kept, well, returning to Return to Moria. Even with its flaws, there is a certain charm and magic to the experience. If you can tolerate the issues enough, there’s a hefty survival crafting experience with interesting environments to explore, which could be good with friends. Perhaps with more updates, this could be a solid experience worth diving into for its lore and unique environments, but for now, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria falls woefully short.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Compelling set-up and atmosphere, with decent lore. Interesting locations like the Elven Quarter. Strong progression loop as you explore, mine for materials, craft better gear, venture further and repeat.
Combat feels awkward and borderline unwieldy at times. Underwhelming enemy AI that's more annoying than threatening. Limited opportunities to mine due to unbreakable walls (which also hamper freedom of exploration). Lackluster animations and other jank, like hair clipping through faces and models failing to completely load.