PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
October 24, 2023
North Beach Games
Free Range Games
After accomplishing the utterly daunting task of reviewing The Lord of the Rings: Gollum earlier this year, I was itching to play a game set in the universe of Middle Earth that isn’t a potential contender for the worst game of the year. The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria was already on my radar, so it seemed like the best bet.
Return to Moria piqued my interest when I first heard about it last year. There are very few pieces of media that explore Middle Earth’s Fourth Age (the time after Sauron’s defeat, for those not in the know) and it’s always been something that has interested me. The War of the Ring certainly had a devastating effect on much of Middle Earth, and any game that explores the ripple effect of that has the potential to be something completely new.
While The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria did largely advertise itself as a game about reclaiming the Mines of Moria, it really isn’t about that at all. The game opens with an expedition into the kingdom of Khazad-dûm helmed by Gimli himself (John Rhys-Davies reprises his role here, and does a great job as always) who is planning to retake Moria for the dwarves. You play as one of the dwarves on this expedition.
During a brief opening cutscene, you (and any other friends you might be playing with) get caught up in an explosion and tossed 200 fathoms deep into the mine with seemingly no way back out. From then on, the game reveals what it truly is, a survival game, and not a particularly intuitive one either.
Plenty of expected survival game staples are here, like a focus on hunger and weariness meters, base-building, and weapon degradation. Where Return to Moria falls flat is in its decision to maintain these elements, while also making the path to the main plot perfectly linear. You aren’t able to tunnel in any direction, as you might expect, only breaking through small areas of rock that lead you further down the linear path, to wherever the game wants you to see next.
A linear story isn’t inherently an issue, the problem is that this form of storytelling just doesn’t mesh well with the gameplay loop. There is little incentive to stick around in one place and spend lots of time working on building a home base when the plot will quickly take you away from that base and into a new area. It doesn’t at all feel like you are reclaiming Moria, because you leave most areas just as dilapidated as they were when you first arrived, apart from a rebuilt hearth and a forge at most.
Each area also has a designated spot where you can find most of the crafting equipment you need already half-built, so it makes little sense for you to build a base for yourself, knowing that if you explore for long enough you will surely find the base the game developers always intended for you to use. Most of them even have three solid walls surrounding them, meaning that you only need to build the final wall yourself in order to make the room completely safe. This takes away a lot of the player agency that is so popular in survival games and makes the game feel even more railroaded than it already is.
“Combat is another big element in Return to Moria, probably a bigger element than it ought to be.”
Combat is another big element in Return to Moria, probably a bigger element than it ought to be. There is little enemy variety to be found in Moria, and while this does make sense given the setting, very little is done to make fighting these enemies demonstrably different in any way. The game also fails to make enemies more difficult to fight the longer you have been playing, instead just increasing the amount of damage they take before dying. Every time you move to a new area of the mines, upon hitting an enemy with whichever weapon you have equipped, your character will loudly proclaim that they need stronger weapons for this encounter.
This is Return to Moria’s main method of creating difficulty, and it grows tiresome quickly. It takes a lot of time to dispatch an enemy with one of these older weapons, and the materials you need to craft a new one will always be located in the new area you have just traveled to, meaning there is no way to sufficiently prepare before making your journey. So you will spend quite a while in each new location, running and attempting to hide from enemies as you frantically hunt for whatever material you need to create the newest weapon type available. It’s a tiresome exercise, and not at all satisfying.
While the meat and potatoes of The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria leaves a lot to be desired, it’s upsetting to see just how much effort was put into the little things. For example, the character creator is great. There are no restrictions on body types, face types, or facial hair, which is especially pleasing given the utterly disappointing lack of female dwarves with beards in most The Lord of the Rings-associated media. There are also multiple voices to choose from, and all of the voice actors do a wonderful job, which is very important because one of my favorite parts of the game is the singing.
Any fan of The Lord of the Rings (the books specifically) will be familiar with how much Tolkien loves a good song, so it makes complete sense for the dwarves to sing a mining song as they tunnel their way through the stone. Multiplayer makes this even better as singing alongside your fellow dwarf will cause the both of them to harmonise in brilliant ways. It’s a killer detail.
It is a game that is very clearly designed to be played in multiplayer and I can imagine that playing alone would be an incredibly boring fare, but playing online resulted in a lot of issues. We suffered from some severe lag problems, issues with items only being able to be picked up by one player while they were intangible for the other, and one situation where I fell into a river and the game just failed to load me back into the game. In this example, when I did a full restart, it loaded me back in on the other side of the loading wall for the area my player-2 was in, with no way to get back.
Return to Moria is not able to load the whole world at once, instead loading each chunk of the world when you get close enough to it, but sometimes, as if we had moved too fast, we would arrive at a new area and find the entryway blocked by a strange black fog with orange spots that would not let us through. Then, if we left and came back, it would just be gone. We eventually realised that these were the game’s loading walls, that we were not meant to be seeing them, and definitely not meant to be getting separated on either side of one.
At one point, after stumbling into a new area, we were excited to find a pit filled with an entirely new mineral to mine and the beginnings of an elevator that could be built to take us down. However, I quickly noticed a series of platforms and ladders leading into the pit and ran to climb down them, only to fall straight through. It turns out these platforms were not even visible on my player-2’s screen, and I should not have been seeing them. The bedroll you respawn in after dying was ages away, and I now had no weapons I could use on my trip back to recollect all my lost items. It felt like such a cheap death that I lost all motivation to keep playing that day.
It’s errors like the above that sour the experience, turning a promising title into one that needed more work before release.
- Cute immersive elements
- Great character creator
- Unsatisfying progression
- Bugs galore
- Lackluster gameplay loop
- Uninteresting combat
The Lords of the Rings: Return to Moria has some very solid ideas. A game set in the Fourth Age is incredibly interesting and exciting. This is why it’s such a shame that Return to Moria is not a success. There is a lot of heart in it, sure, but the core gameplay loop just isn’t engaging enough to make the game worth buying over other survival titles, even if you are a big LOTR fan.