Lord of the Rings: The Third Age
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is an awkwardly slavish retelling of the movie trilogy by necessity. During development, the license for the books was reportedly unavailable, so the developers of this traditional turn-based RPG were forced to follow the familiar trajectory of the films instead of the expansive lore of author J.R.R. Tolkien. With a new cast of characters and mere cameo appearances by the major players, the instances when the game actually works well, let alone makes sense, are rare.
The paper-thin plot begins when a member of the Gondor guard is sent on a mission to find the fellowship of the ring and deliver a message to Boromir. Along the way, he encounters a dull elf, a ranger who looks and acts exactly like Aragorn, and other party members. For much of the game, the party is on the heels of the fellowship without ever encountering them. Yes, they also plow through the mines of Moria, the plains of Rohan and other familiar locales, but it’s quickly evident that the mission is just a weak way of reliving scenes from the movie even when it’s nonsensical.
Take, for example, the scene where Gandalf fends off the mighty Balrog. In the films, his companions helplessly watch on as the wizard defends against the beast. In the game, the new characters join the fight. Facing a fiery Balrog is exciting, but in the context of the game it makes no sense. The mission of the early part of the game is to meet up with the fellowship, yet after the fight it turns out the fellowship is days ahead of the party. How did this happen? If the films were any indication, then they were just a few hundred meters away in the battle. It’s moments like these when the plot feels particularly contrived, and the less said about the ridiculous final boss, the better.
The characters, with their limited personalities, are empty vessels who exist solely to advance the plot of the films. The ending, which is a minute long and barely mentions the characters in passing, is proof to this. The interactions between the party members are limited to bland cutscenes with C-list Tolkienesque dialogue. The bulk of the plot is advanced through scenes of the film with new narration by Ian McKellen (Gandalf). He speaks directly to the main character and fills him in on what’s happening around the world, when events unfold this way, it loses its weight. Boromir’s death is casually announced, and then a few cutscenes later Gandalf instructs the party what to do next. Meeting up with Boromir was the crux of the early game, yet it was immediately dismissed in order for the game to continue aping the films. The main form of exposition comes across as a newsflash narrated with the rich baritone of Ian McKellen.
The one part of the game where the crossing paths of the film and game works well is during the huge battle of Helm’s Deep, which takes places during The Two Towers. Essentially, the battle is little more than scenes from the movie mixed with turn-based fights, but the fellowship members team up with the party for this event. Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli fight side-by-side with the forgettable heroes of The Third Age in what turns out be a well-paced and smartly-edited segment. Granted, it’s still a letdown when most of the characters simply regurgitate lines they said in the movie with no new dialogue, which cheapens what should be important moments.
With the developers barred from adding interesting things not mentioned in the films, they did manage to create a well-polished game that has the look and feel from the movies. It seems odd to translate Lord of the Rings into Final Fantasy territory with random battles, skill systems and magic spells, but it’s all held together with decent mechanics, excellent music and sharp graphics. One problematic is the time-consuming nature of the battles. While the random battles occur at a comfortable pace, the slow skills, such as magic spells and powerful physical attacks, are a drag. Making matters worse is that players are incentivized to cast as many special abilities as possible in order to learn new ones. Even a fight against the puniest of orcs can turn into a drawn-out affair if the player wants to learn new abilities.
With solid production values and the Lord of the Rings film license, the Third Age has the basis for a good game. Unfortunately, the clumsy storyline that is unable to add anything of interest outside of the films turns this game into a mere curiosity. Lord of the Rings meets Final Fantasy is an interesting experiment, but it’s not a successful one.