Retro Review: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring

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The early 2000’s saw a smorgasbord of awful video game adaptations of feature films, but I can’t recall ever playing one as abysmal as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Despite the film releasing nearly a full year prior and sparking a whole new generation of love for Tolkien’s work, The Fellowship of the Ring video game is void of virtually everything that makes the franchise so appealing.

Although it technically has more in common with the original novel than the blockbuster film, there’s no denying that it was released to try and capitalize off the success of its movie counterpart. From the visual design of the characters, the atmosphere of the different locations, and even the way certain scenes are framed, this game desperately wants to be as popular as the film. Unfortunately, weird design choices and an adherence to the original source material makes The Fellowship of the Ring feel nothing like what it’s trying to emulate.

The core story of Frodo and the gang travelling to destroy the One Ring is still present, but the urgency is almost entirely missing. For example, upon learning of the danger of the One Ring and how it must be destroyed before the Dark Lord Sauron can reclaim it, Frodo decides the best thing to do is go around the Shire and pick mushrooms while helping his fellow Hobbits complete tasks around town. Well it can be argued that this is a problem that plagues a lot of games, it feels more glaringly at odds with the narrative in this one.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Screenshot

The other narrative issue is, well, the narrative. Although the game does its best to create a coherent story, it almost requires the player to have either read the original novel or seen the movie. This is a very shallow retelling of The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes the whole game suffer. Certain events and characters only exist off screen, while some parts are glossed over or removed entirely. The worst is when a scene abruptly ends and is followed up by a message saying “The next day” or “A few hours later” and completely jumps to a different scene, often mid conversation. This makes the story hard to follow, especially when it omits key information on characters, places, and events.

The game also insists on using some of the smaller parts of the novel and turning them into bloated levels, such as a boring and lengthy section involving the obnoxious and ever singing Tom Bombadil. On one hand, it’s nice to have additions like these for the hardcore fans, but they also don’t serve the player any fun or meaningful gameplay. In fact, the game constantly feels at odds with itself. It can never decide if it wants to capture the feeling of the film or the novel, and completely fumbles the gameplay in the process.

Which brings us to the biggest problem of the game. The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most soulless and uninteresting games I’ve played in my entire life. You jump between Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, but sadly all three characters are bland, control horribly, and rarely have anything fun to do.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Screenshot

Frodo’s levels typically revolve around exploring areas for items, fighting bugs, and using the Ring to sneak pass Orcs. The Ring is actually one of the few cool things about the game, offering up a genuinely interesting mechanic. Using the Ring makes Frodo invisible for a short amount of time, which is great for sneaking past enemies, but it also decreases his purity meter. If you use the Ring too liberally and decrease the entirety of the meter, then Frodo will become corrupted and his presence will be alerted to the Dark Lord’s forces, resulting in death. Completing story objectives will refill part of the meter, but I never used this ability more than a few times, so I was never in danger of draining the meter in the first place.

Aragorn has a more action oriented style, focusing almost entirely on fighting orcs, wargs, and trolls. I wish I could say these levels were fun or exciting, but they ultimately come down to mashing one button over and over. There’s no combos, and only two special moves (a thrust and a kick) are available, so these segments all feel repetitive and boring. You have a bow that you can pull out and fire with, but it’s a pretty pointless affair. The bow locks you into place and takes a few second between shots to fire, allowing enemies enough to time to quickly surround you. The enemies in this game can also catch you in a cycle of getting hit, falling down, and being knocked over again the second you stand, resulting in countless cheap deaths.

As for Gandalf, he’s more of a mix of the first two characters. You have a sword that allows you to fight similar to Aragorn, but you also have more exploration segments like Frodo’s, as well as a few puzzles to solve. Sadly, the puzzles are painfully obvious and take no more than a few second to solve, so there’s no sense of challenge or triumph. The one cool thing Gandalf has going for him is the ability to use an assortment of spells, such as fire, a ground pound, and the ability to heal himself. His magic bar is large enough to cast multiple spells before depleting and the magic restoring pickups are plentiful, ensuring you almost always have enough to cast a spell or two.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Screenshot

As if the narrative problems and boring gameplay weren’t enough, the game is absolutely riddled with technical bugs and glitches. From horrible texture pop-ins, out of synch audio, freezing/crashing issues, and super long load times (45 seconds on some screens!) this game is an absolute mess. There’s also CG cutscenes that run at a slow frame rate and constantly stutter. It’s almost as if the game knows it’s bad and is trying to make itself unplayable in the hopes you’ll move on to something else.

FINAL VERDICT

The Fellowship of the Ring is a great film, a fascinating novel, and thanks to this, an awful video game. It’s void of the great world building, fleshed out characters, and impeccable tone of the source material, resulting in a bland and boring game that doesn’t even offer a Hobbit sized portion of fun. From tedious combat, unnecessary breaks and jumps in the narrative, and more technical issues than you shake an orc at, there’s virtually no redeeming value in this game. I wish I could go on my own journey to Mount Doom, but instead of destroying the Ring, I’d destroy my copy of this game.

– Zack Burrows

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