[Review] The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment, Nacon
Platform: PC
Also on: Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4, Playstation 5
Release date: May 25, 2023
Review date: June 23, 2023

Take my nerd card away because I have very little experience with the Lord of the Rings franchise – I've seen Rankin/Bass's animated adaptation of The Hobbit from 1977, I watched my brother play through the action games on Playstation 2 based on the films based on the last two books, and I've played Lord of the Rings: Gollum. Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a game that exists. Why they would choose to make a game based around a mildly famous, shriveling, malnourished troglodyte I'll never know, but here we are. I played it, and I can't un-play it.

In fairness, it does make a little sense how this came to be: author JRR Tolkien was exceptionally comprehensive when building his genre-defining high-fantasy world of Middle-earth. In addition to the Lord of the Rings novels themselves, he wrote many other books to create a sort of extended universe, including side-stories, exposition dumps and unfinished concepts. One such concept tells of how Gollum got from where he was in The Hobbit to where he was in Fellowship of The Ring. Based on how this game turned out, some stories are better left untold.

Lord of the Rings: Gollum begins innocuously enough, with Gollum meandering around in the mountains of Mordor shortly before getting caught by Nazguls. The first half of the game takes place in one of Sauron’s prison mines or some shit I don’t know. The orcs there routinely task Gollum with doing some sort of mundane odd-jobs. Within the first hour the game starts to feel like a slog – get used to it because that’s the entire game. In the second half, Gollum then becomes a prisoner of the elves, where he has a little more freedom and there’s a little more environmental variety, but that doesn’t stop the game from dragging on and on.

About 95% of Lord of the Rings Gollum’s gameplay is either Uncharted-like climbing-based platforming, half-assed stealth segments, or a mixture of the two. Gollum himself does control with a reasonable amount of response, he’s snappy and can jump pretty high, but his stamina runs out faster than the patience of anyone playing this game. You would think getting around would be straightforward, but that’s often not the case, with level design that repeatedly does a poor job of conveying where to go next. Sometimes Gollum will not move where you want him to along walls, and sometimes he just jumps off in some random direction. You’re given a map that appears to be hand-drawn by Gollum himself and is damn near useless, a yellow objective marker that is less of a tool and more of a suggestion, and a Tomb Raider-esque “Gollum vision” that should show you a visualized path, but that trail straight up doesn’t appear the time.

Stealth, meanwhile, is pretty awful, thanks to mediocre enemy AI. Gollum can’t fight, but he can throw rocks to distract guards, and can even kill some of them by sneaking up and strangling them, a process that involves holding the Y button for 8 seconds. Orcs and elves will walk back and forth on preset paths, rotate in place every few seconds, and stand around facing walls for no good reason. They also forget where Gollum is if they haven’t seen him long enough, even if they follow him where he goes. When Gollum hides in tall grass or shadows, his character model goes dark and his eyes glow a solid green. I’m sure the developers thought this was cool as hell, and it would have been in 1999, but not 2023, or even 2022 when it meant to release.

Most of the other 5% of gameplay is the occasional puzzle. Early on you’re taught (very poorly, I might add) how to use Companion Mode, which lets you direct an NPC to a specific objective. In addition to being poorly executed, only letting you choose from a limited group of nodes that you can’t see until you look at them, you’ll only use this a whopping three whole times over the course of the entire game, and you never use it again past the half-way point. Other puzzles involve hatching a bird out of an egg with vague instructions, piecing together an attack on a group of elves by using the “Gollum vision” to see trails to pieces of evidence, and connecting dots on a giant door to make a deer shape. If I didn’t forget any, those are all the puzzles in the game. It’s very meager. Finally, there are the famous arguments that have seen widespread scrutiny online, where every so often Gollum and his alternate persona Sméagol have conflicting interests and you as the player have to pick a side. When you do, you have to convince the other ego to come around, with the reward for doing so being neglible impact on the overall plot, and virtually no impact on the overall gameplay. I think there was maybe one choice in the entire game that mattered.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 2023 release without bugs up the wazoo. There’s the usual ragdoll wackiness, but the game softlocked me into a respawn loop multiple times, characters in one cutscene simply didn’t load at all, leaving Gollum talking to air, and a spinning wheel you’re expected to climb on decided it wanted to rotate in any illogical direction it felt like. Even without the bugs there are many questionable design decisions – for example, there’s a mechanic where you can pick up food to eat later whenever you’d like to restore health, but you never have to because dying will always refill your health, not to mention most of Gollum’s deaths and game-overs are instantaneous anyway. Speaking of dying, when you select the option in the game over menu to restart from a checkpoint, it has a confirmation pop-up, as if it’s asking “are you really sure you want to keep playing this game?” Not very confidence inspiring.

It sometimes looks pretty good in specific set pieces, but most of the time it doesn’t look any better than Skyrim from over a decade ago. I played it on an RTX 4070, and at its unimpressive max settings it still struggles at 1440p, with constant stutters and pop-in, especially on Gollum’s hair (which has its own setting for some reason). I used DLSS and frame generation to hit over 120 FPS, but that’s not an excuse for poor performance, and if the system requirement chart they released shortly before release is any indication, don’t expect it to run well on virtually any hardware. They’re planning to release this on the Switch, but I think it would be a miracle if it doesn’t end up getting canceled.

As bad as Lord of the Rings: Gollum is, it’s not the worst game I’ve ever played. There are occasions where it at least resembles a competent game, but it’s harmless at best, and when it is at its best, it simply isn’t fun. It feels like a game stuck not in the past, but in several pasts. In the era we’re in, filled with hit-or-miss remakes, I can’t help but feel like what we got is from an alternate universe where Gollum was a beloved, yet flawed classic released on the first Playstation around the turn of the millennium, then spat out as a lousy remake. It should go without saying, but I don’t recommend it.