The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review: you shall pass on this one

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review: you shall pass on this one 1
A close-up of Gollum.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

MSRP $59.99

“The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is such a mess of barely formed ideas that it feels like a game still in its pre-alpha stage.”

Pros

  • Faithful to Tolkien’s writing
  • Solid Gollum performance

Cons

  • Disjointed story
  • Clumsy platforming
  • Underdeveloped stealth
  • Half-formed mechanics
  • Performance issues
  • Lifeless visuals and sound

As I struggled to wrap my head around an unclear platforming puzzle in The Lord of The Rings: Gollum, a game from my childhood flashed into my brain: The Grinch.

See, gaming was a very different experience for kids in the year 2000. There weren’t a bevy of excellent free games available to play on virtually any platform. Instead, kids like me were largely at the mercy of the adults in our lives. I didn’t so much choose the games I wanted to play as I inherited whatever my mother brought home one day. With no easy tool like Metacritic to check review consensus, that usually meant that she was buying games that featured some IP she was familiar with. Unfortunately, licensed games like that weren’t the high-quality projects they tend to be today; they were bottom-of-the-barrel bargain bin tie-ins.

One day, The Grinch magically appeared in my house. It was a PlayStation game published by Konami that was built as a tie-in to the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas film adaptation launching at the time. Since I had seen the movie, the adults in my life deemed this would be the one game I’d get to noodle on for a while until I was given another. I played for what felt like months and barely made any progress. I couldn’t figure out its obtuse objectives or navigate its clunky platforming. It’s really hard to discern the quality of art at age 11, but it would be the first time I’d realize that a video game could, in fact, be bad.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a throwback to that Wild West era of carelessly greenlit licensed games. It’s the kind of game your mom would have lovingly bought for you 20 years ago and that you’d rib her about forever. With an incomprehensible story and haphazardly assembled gameplay ideas, I’m left wondering if the Lord of the Rings’ rights holders are still under the impression that video games are the same throwaway profit machines they were decades ago.

A tricksy story

When The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was first announced, fans had one recurring question: Who asked for this? Sure, it’s a reductive thought. I can’t imagine Lord of the Rings fans were clamoring for a game that went deep into the life of a cave-dwelling creep with a split personality, but that shouldn’t dictate how art is made. If the team at Daedalic Entertainment felt that it had a strong creative vision for Gollum, then I respect and welcome any left-field artistic swing that defies expectations.

The problem is in what exactly that vision is. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum aims to tell a somewhat definitive story of the enigmatic character, and it goes to great lengths to do it. The story stitches together various anecdotes about Gollum’s travels pulled straight from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing. It chronicles his life as a slave, showcases his run-in with the fierce spider Shelob, and eventually builds to his interactions with an Elven kingdom. On paper, it’s a respectful way to honor the less celebrated parts of Tolkien’s world.

In practice, it feels like the video game equivalent to the infamously botched restoration of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables; it’s a monkey face painted over a masterpiece. The disjointed story feels like crumpled pages from various unedited manuscripts stapled together. Plot beats are stitched together with little regard for narrative flow or cohesion, making it difficult to follow Gollum’s journey from set piece to set piece. When scenes aren’t just abruptly ending, they’re often punctuated with “weeks later …” title cards that give little sense of time and space. On several occasions, I began to wonder if the PC build I was playing was accidentally skipping some cinematics entirely. It was the only logical explanation for why it would be so hard to follow what seemed like a simple fantasy tale. That wasn’t the case.

It doesn’t help that the narrative is largely told through the eyes of an erratic character who speaks exclusively in riddles and broken sentences. It’s hard to really identify any important plot points or emotional beats from Gollum’s intentionally confused way of speaking. The story seemingly tries to rectify that by adding a frame tale where Gollum tells his story to a wizard, but that narrative device is all but forgotten for most of the adventure. Good luck trying to piece the rest of it together from the antihero’s ceaseless ramblings.

Gollum stares at a cruel woman in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum.
Daedalic Entertainment

To its credit, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum does at least turn in a fine adaptation of the character. The voice performance here closely follows the groundwork laidby Andy Serkis in the series’ film universe, bringing some endearing moments for the Sméagol side of Gollum’s brain. Though nothing makes much sense on a pure plot level, there are some empathetic moments to be found in a story about an outcast struggling to find their place in the world.

Perhaps it’s thematically fitting that the game itself is such an oddball outlier that’s been met with cruelty and misunderstanding since its announcement. There’s poetry to that, but it didn’t make my 11-hour playthrough any more enjoyable.

Not so precious

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum tries to smash together a few different gameplay ideas, none of which are particularly good. At its core, it’s a stealth adventure game that’s heavy on Uncharted-like climbing and platforming. In a deceptively fine opening sequence, Gollum scrambles through Mordor in a scene that would have you expecting a boring, but fast-paced cinematic adventure. From there, things go downhill faster than an eagle diving into Mount Doom.

Gollum hides behind a rock in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum.
Daedalic Entertainment

The main issue is that every gameplay hook introduced only feels half-formed at best. The platforming is the most complete feature, but even that feels like it’s a few playtests away from working as intended. Poorly signposted footholds make it difficult to see where you’re supposed to grab next while finicky jumping and wall-running leads to frustrating deaths (Gollum’s health bar is so low that a tumble off a high school auditorium stage would kill him).

It’s the lack of little details that really create pain points here. In most polished games with this kind of climbing, there’s a common trick where the character will reach their arm out if there’s a ledge they can safely jump to. It’s a smart, practical hint that naturally guides players’ eyes without explicitly lighting up the way forward. Gollum borrows that visual, but not the context. The character will reach out as if to signal that a ledge is nearby, only to result in a jump to his death. Poorly designed levels don’t help either, as platforms are often hidden somewhere off-camera, forcing players to rely on a “backwards jump” prompt that appears when he can safely leap to another ledge.

Gollum stealthily creeps up on an orc in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum.

Unfortunately, that’s the most thoroughly developed gameplay hook here. Its simplistic stealth is in much worse shape, as Gollum simply slinks around the shadows to avoid orcs that behave with the same intelligence as a guard in a PS1 game on a strict patrol. He can sneak up on guards from behind to choke them out by holding a button, but there’s no real way to carefully creep up on someone. I’d often just move my stick as slowly as possible, hoping that the button prompt would appear before the game decided I’d gotten too close and alerted my prey. Getting caught by an enemy results in an instant death, abruptly triggering a lifeless animation of an orc picking up Gollum and punching him in the head — with no sound effect to emphasize the impact.

Other gameplay bits feel like ideas that were fully designed and implemented after one casual brainstorming meeting. Gollum has his own version of “Spidey-sense,” allowing him to illuminate his path forward. Well, sometimes at least. Most of the time, pressing the button does nothing at all other than turn the environment gray. At the very start of the adventure, Gollum picks up a rock that appears like it’s going to be the central basis for stealth and combat encounters. The idea barely ever pops up again, as rocks are only useful when thrown at a small number of noisy objects that can draw an orc’s attention.

The worst offender is a completely left-field companion system, which is so terribly implemented that you could easily convince me it’s a pre-alpha feature the team forgot to entirely remove. In a handful of very specific encounters, Gollum can “direct” a companion to pull levers or walk to a designated glowing spot. The first time it pops up is during a mission where Gollum teaches a prisoner how to herd creatures into a cell by acting as bait. After struggling to figure out how to manipulate the animal AI correctly, I inadvertently soft-locked the game by dropping the cage before the creatures could get into it, freezing their character models in place permanently.

There isn’t a single moment here that I’d describe as fun. From menial tasks like fetching tags off of dead prisoners to a sudden Shelob escape sequence that plays more clumsily than the original Crash Bandicoot’s boulder chase, most missions are only tolerable at best – and it’s not often at its best.

Split personality

The more I played, the more I struggled to understand what ambitions Daedalic Entertainment originally had for the character. That especially comes to light in a bizarrely underdeveloped choice system that squanders the one element that makes Gollum such a unique character. On a few sporadic occasions, players are presented with a morality choice that they can either solve with Gollum’s selfish villainy or Sméagol’s gentle empathy. It’s a great idea presented in the least appealing way possible.

Those decisions play out in a Telltale-style dialogue minigame that takes place on a black screen with text written out in the most basic computer font possible. There isn’t much to the debates other than picking one of two or three obvious options that determine the end result. Other dialogue choices have incredibly unclear results through the bulk of the game. Gollum’s decisions can lead to certain characters’ deaths, but the journey jumps between unrelated set pieces so often that those mishaps don’t have any emotional impact. It feels like a prototype system created to give a vague idea of how that could work were it fully built out.

What’s especially bizarre, though, is how stripped down it is compared to the version of the system we saw in pre-alpha screenshots years ago. An old development image shows a UI with significantly more personality, complete with more fantasy-appropriate fonts and some iconography to give options a little more flair. How we got from that to the bland dialogue screens presented here confounds me more than any of Gollum’s riddles.

That mystery best speaks to the overall state of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. It very much feels like a game full of ambitious ideas that never came together due to time and budget constraints. While the game never crashed on me during my PC playthrough, I often felt like I was one misstep away from melting my computer. Some load times exceeded an hour, I’d get long freezes from time to time, audio often desynced from cutscenes by multiple seconds, and more. I’d say it feels like it’s built on spaghetti strings, but a plate of pasta is still able to support a nice Sunday sauce.

I thought we’d long passed the days where a game as transparently bad as Superman 64 could exist.

Even its visuals seem like they were scoped down from what was shown in original pre-alpha renders. Though Gollum’s movement is expressively animated as he skitters around on all fours, his lifeless face feels significantly more dated than his CGI counterpart in a film that came out over two decades ago. Sound design only feels half finished as well. Some of Gollum’s pained grunts when he takes damage sound like they’re coming from an entirely different actor doing placeholder sound effects.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a disaster in a way that I sincerely thought wasn’t possible anymore. With so much money on the line, I thought we’d long passed the days where a game as transparently bad as Superman 64 could exist. Popular IPs are like gold in 2023, and companies carefully guard them like protective dragons. And yet, Gollum seems to have slipped by the watchful eye of so many stakeholders undetected. It’s a rare sight in the modern gaming landscape, and one that almost makes me nostalgic for the bad games of my childhood. In some sick way, it makes me happy to know that a naïve parent might mistakenly buy this for their kid and give them the kind of weird lasting memory I had, one that will shape their understanding of artistic quality forever.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was reviewed on PC. We originally tried to review it on PS5 prelaunch, but found the build too buggy to assess before its day one patch.

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