The Lord of the Rings: Gollum Is Not So Precious

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is an interesting game. Initially revealed in 2019 with a 2021 release date, it finally released in May of 2023 after a troubled development cycle, which may be due to the game being a big departure from the point and click adventure titles Daedalic Entertainment is known for creating (also, Covid happened). The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is set in the incredibly established world of Middle-earth and follows the ring-tempted Gollum during his enslavement in Mordor as he tries to avoid Sauron’s minions and find his way to Bilbo Baggins to retrieve his birthday present, the One Ring. It’s an action-adventure title where you run, jump, and even wall run your way to perform mundane minigames, sometimes fun puzzles, and collect items as you go through areas like Barad-dur and Mirkwood.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum begins with Gollum chasing a bird, then a beetle, arguing with himself, and then getting caught and sent into slavery no matter which choice you made. You mostly play a variety of mediocre and very easy to exploit minigames, solve some simple puzzles, get key items, and then move on. There’s little reason to explore the landscape outside of the waypoint indicator that hurries you along to your next task, though there are collectibles that don’t seem to do anything, like nails and a spoon, that you can find throughout the world.

There is some story and additional lore provided in Gollum, though the importance of some of it may fly over your head unless you’re an ardent fan of all of Tolkien’s works. If you simply watched the movies and read the main books through once as a teenager like I have, it may seem like there’s not a lot of story at all, and just lore tidbits here and there. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum takes place after The Hobbit and before The Fellowship of the Ring, chronicling Gollum’s time at a slave camp in Mordor and his subsequent escape, but his time in Mordor doesn’t really elucidate the player to any new or interesting lore as you primarily spend it performing mind-numbing tasks like rounding up pigs and teaching another slave how to… round up pigs. To make matters somewhat worse, a lore compendium and Elvish dialogue for characters in-game was made into separate paid downloadable content, rather than just included into the base package.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum does give an instance of fantastic lore that’s not gatekept behind downloadable content, though it explains why Smeagol hates birds so much. Which, you’d hate birds too if you had to play this bird-raising minigame in order to progress. Gollum effectively jumps you from traversal segment to stealth segment with minigames and puzzles in between, and the largest issue is that the difficulty effectively ranges from boring, to exploitable, to boring and exploitable. Of course, there’s a hidden fourth unintended difficulty setting: Broken.

The things you do to progress could be interesting because this is an entire instance of Lord of the Rings lore regarding a character with an internal conflict whose mind has been tainted by the One Ring… but you spend the largest chunk of the game doing menial busywork, instead. The linear platforming progression of blind jumps, wall climbing, and strict leaping segments coupled with imprecise controls help the disappointing storytelling become an overall less than suitable package.

Stealth segments also suffer, because enemies are myopic, have tiny patrol paths, and are very easily circumvented as a result, meaning that any time you need to follow enemies silently or sneak around, you’re doing the same thing as you’d do in any other part of the game… just more slowly. If you do wind up getting caught, an orc might donkey punch Smeagol in the back of the head, but you can mostly avoid this at many points by simply jumping on a wall or on any surface above an orc or elf’s head (this holds true even when they get bows to shoot you with- break away from their eyesight once and they go, “New phone, who this?”). Sure, losing a bunch of time to a stealth section is daunting and frustrating, but making them too easy, like in Gollum, means they’re simply a formality- and boring as a result.

There are multiple times in the game where you’re given tasks like follow specific characters, herd boars into a pen, guide a random man to herd boars into a pen, etc., but these events are extremely scripted and therefore difficult to fail. In the very first one of these events you encounter, the orc guards Smeagol is determined to follow pass through a gate, and you’re supposed to follow by climbing over a wall and staying above them for a time. The orcs literally will not move until you climb over the wall to progress, so you could just sit in the tall grass for minutes and the entire event comes to a halt with no risk of failure. This happens religiously throughout Gollum. I do appreciate it when a title doesn’t waste my time with arbitrary game overs, but there has to be a middle ground here.

There are some moments where the two facets of Gollum and Smeagol argue with one another, and you have to pick a side and try to convince the other half to go along with an idea the other has, such as kill or don’t kill a beetle, for example. These binary choices happen several times throughout the game but are mostly flavor text: There doesn’t seem to be much, if anything, changed by picking one specific course of action over another. This, of course, makes one question why this choice-making minigame even exists at all.

The visuals of Gollum leave a lot to be desired in a lot of places. Much of the game, you’ll be wandering around drab, brown locations, and even once you get to the Mirkwood, the environmental design becomes more attractive, but still pedestrian in composition. The sound design is much stronger, however, with Gollum’s split personality voice acting being a solid highlight, and elements like the creaks of metal from hanging torches and the sounds of wagons and other things in the background all work very well toward selling the environments in which Gollum finds himself.

To make matters worse, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a special kind of unoptimized game. It’s one of the ones where tweaking performance settings is absolutely necessary, but funny things like lowering Visual Effects Quality will actually make your performance substantially worse rather than better. Sometimes its frame rate would tank to the extent it showed little more than a slideshow, and was disorienting every time it occurred, which was often. To add to it, the sheer number of visual bugs, like characters having glows around them that made them looked like they were poorly polygonal lassoed in Photoshop, or facial expressions completely whacking out, is ridiculous for a game sold at Gollum’s price point.

Even more insulting is that there are a number of progress-halting bugs, as well. One bug that occurred upon hitting chapter 7 involved restarting the chapter until a necessary cutscene finally triggered, only to once again be halted in progress at a mirror puzzle in chapter 9 where you’re stuck in a menu rotating a painting over and over again, unable to do literally anything else. Which, apparently, the workaround for this bug in chapter 9 is to go back to chapter 7 and play all the way back up to chapter 9 and hope neither bug happens again. That marked the end of my time with The Lord of the Rings: Gollum- I was absolutely not going to go back and replay chapters for a chance at being able to progress the game. That’s a level of bugginess that is unacceptable.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum will probably not enter the annals of legendarily bad games in the past, as that’s a high bar to clear. Superman 64, ET for the Atari, Hoshi wo Miru Hito, and many more, are definitely worse overall candidates than this, but the boring chapter-to-chapter progression and myriad technical bugs of a clearly unfinished product don’t really help its case. This is a game that attempts nothing new for the genre, and then subsequently fails at things which platforming, stealth, and general adventure titles improved upon upwards of two decades ago.

So, if you enjoy a title with multiple progress-breaking bugs, visual stuttering, etc., during cutscenes, plus rampant performance issues, then The Lord of the Rings: Gollum may be for you. It’s worth noting that no developer ever sets out to make a bad game, and it’s an unfortunate thing all around when it happens. However, it was ultimately the publisher’s decision to release this absolute vampire of your spare time in this manner, and to do so for a whopping $50 USD. In its current state, I cannot in any fashion recommend Gollum to anyone, unless you’re the most ardent Lord of the Rings fan who must consume any media with Tolkien’s name on it.

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