Game Rant

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum Review

In 2019 Daedalic Entertainment and Nacon announced The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, a stealth platformer set in The Lord of the Rings universe where players take control of the series’ most tragic character, Gollum. It’s not every day that a video game adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works comes around, so when Daedalic announced a stealth spin on the Lord of the Rings universe after primarily making point-and-click adventure games for almost two decades, some questions were raised about how this was all going to turn out. Unfortunately, Gollum is one of the worst games that this franchise has seen so far.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a baffling experience. It is uninspired, buggy, repetitive, frustrating, and, worst of all, boring. At all times, Gollum feels like a game that is held together by duct tape and kicked out the door in a hurry when it really should have been left at the concept stage. This game isn’t so much a case of “who asked for this,” because a Styx-style Gollum game does sound good on paper. It is more of a case of “how did this never get scrapped” due to some serious fundamental issues that plague Gollum and are difficult to believe anyone signed off on.

To start on a positive note, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum does feature some bright spots in an overall upsetting package. First and foremost, the game’s soundtrack is actually superb and has some incredibly captivating string work from a very talented orchestra. Every violinist and cellist that worked on this project deserves the utmost praise for bringing tension and atmosphere to a fever dream of a game. Second, Gandalf’s character model looks great, and his voice actor captures Sir Ian McKellen’s essence almost perfectly. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end.

This is an Unreal Engine game launching on PC in 2023, which means it’s filled with stuttering, drastic frame rate changes, and a bare-bones graphical settings menu that is both vague and confusing. There is also no way to limit the frame rate to a fixed number, which means that players will have to deal with the game erratically leaping from 40 fps to 60 fps, to even 120 fps at times, and just generally making leaps in frame rate about as jarring as the same leaps Gollum makes for the bulk of this game. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum runs terribly, and at no point did we ever consider turning on ray tracing, even on an RTX 3080.

If any players had been keeping track of the game’s system requirements up until launch, they would notice that the recommended and minimum specs for Gollum changed from an RTX 3060 to an RTX 4070 to an RTX 3070, all just for 1080p medium settings. There is nothing on display in this game that calls for such absurd system requirements, regardless of what Daedalic finally ended up making the final spec. Frankly, the game is ugly. Textures are low resolution, character models are about as low-poly as anything released this generation, animations are stiff, and the world is visually flat. Toss in the game’s astonishingly primitive UI, and this whole package ends up being quite hostile to the eyes, and it never gets any easier to digest.

But perhaps the most jarring technical failing in all of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is how the game just gives up at times. On more than one occasion, Gollum and whoever he is chatting with at the time simply stop moving their mouths midway through a sentence, and the dialogue keeps going as if whoever was in charge of animating this sequence called it a day and forgot to pick up where they left off. There is an almost surreal feeling that comes from watching cutscenes where two characters are looking into each other’s soulless eyes, trading halfhearted voice lines, and moving like robots while the audience knows that this whole sequence is liable to break at any moment. And it so regularly does.

As far as gameplay is concerned, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is an actual chore. The game begins with Gollum imprisoned by Sauron’s forces in The Dark Tower eight years before the events of the book trilogy. From here, about a third of the game consists of Gollum following someone and then pressing a button to do his designated slave labor. The slave labor in question includes activities such as collecting tags from dead prisoners or feeding the piranhas in the tower’s blood lakes. In some of the more interesting sequences, Gollum leads animals into an enclosure before walking all the way back to his cell for bed.

At one point, the game takes away Gollum’s ability to sprint so that he can’t just zoom past everything and has to painstakingly walk and climb through a drab and poorly designed room to pick up more tags off of prisoner carcasses. Taking away the one thing that was speeding this whole process up felt like a cruel joke. The fact that this game has a solid three to four hours that boil down to “Press Y to Perform Slave Labor” is genuinely bewildering.

Slave labor gameplay aside, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum also features stealth and platforming mechanics that are neither fleshed out nor good. Enemies either spot Gollum from behind a box like they have x-ray vision, or Gollum can simply crawl past enemies like he is part of the patrol. There is no way to know how any stealth sequence will actually play out because it always feels like stealth is somehow based on the game’s temperament at the time. In a pinch, players can also choke out orcs to get past them, but this ended up being a useless mechanic that we only used around six times, three of which being just to say we switched up our usual strategies.

Really, the toughest enemies that players will encounter throughout The Lord of the Rings: Gollum are the controls and camera. This game is not difficult at all, and the only times that it really feels like a challenge is when the game’s general jumping abilities seem almost to be working against the player. The camera, the controls, and Gollum’s own platforming abilities combine to form a wildly inconsistent and grating platter of frustration that never gets any better.

Starting with the camera, the view port would regularly like to go up Gollum’s backside as he is climbing, obscuring visibility, and would also pull into a first-person view in any place that wasn’t just a wide-open play area – each time being as jarring and unexpected as the last. At one point, we even managed to get the whole camera to invert itself by accident during a sequence that required us to navigate across a wall and jump backward at the end. But that was fine because the game never actually shows players the ledge they are supposed to jump back to anyway and instead displays a prompt that tells them to take a leap of faith as a band-aid solution to its camera and level design shortcomings.

Meanwhile, the actual mechanical clunk of platforming was the cause of most, if not all, of our deaths in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. Gollum himself has the basic abilities of a normal jump or a far jump, but it is impossible to know whether Gollum is ever actually going to make it across to the intended platform or fall tragically to his death. He has a habit of either whiffing the grab when it looks like he should have made it or magically snapping into place by teleporting to the intended ledge from five feet away. The only way to know if Gollum can actually get to where the player wants him to go is to make the leap and pray he will snap into place, lest the game sends players back to a soul-crushing checkpoint that always seems too far away to want to try again.

There is also a lot of idling in Lord of the Rings: Gollum between platforming and stealth sections, mostly to set up story moments, but none of it feels worthwhile. Gollum and Smeagol constantly mull over things the audience already knows, and it all just feels like filler in a story that goes nowhere and winds up being pointless. Not even the Gollum vs. Smeagol decision-making moments feel all that compelling when the game only presents two options, and there is generally always an obvious option to choose from.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a series of disappointments followed by more disappointments, and it all comes together quite incredibly a little over halfway through the game. At one point in Chapter 6, there is a huge chase sequence involving Shelob that somehow manages to turn what should be an easy cinematic win and thrilling gameplay moment into an absolute snooze fest that can’t even compete with PS1-era boulder chases. The camera obscures all vision, Gol

lum’s platforming abilities show just how clunky they really are when players are forced to use them under pressure, and once we learned how to maneuver around the jank of this section following a few deaths, it was clear again that once again the only real enemies here were the controls and camera. That was the highest high that Gollum could have until the credits rolled, and it missed the mark completely.

There is no joy in Lord of the Rings: Gollum. It is a linear stealth platforming experience where none of its systems are designed to make either sneaking or platforming a smooth process, let alone a fun one. In fact, it is actually a frustrating game to play as a result of its issues. Assuming that Gollum’s myriad bugs one day get ironed out, nothing can really save it from its poorly executed gameplay core and baffling mission structure. Boring, clunky, and pointless, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum should have been cast into the fires of Mount Doom long ago. At least Gandalf’s hat looks neat.

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