There are a slew of video games out there that are based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s various tales of Middle Earth, especially since Peter Jackson adapted them into films. Most of the games available have been based on said films but there are a few out there that are based solely on the books. Black Label Games’ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is one such game. Eschewing the style and characterization of the popular film franchise, The Fellowship of the Ring blazed its own trail in an attempt to please hard core fans who may have felt that the film adaptations weren’t faithful enough to the source material. Despite the best efforts of the game developers however, most fans that played this game, including myself, were sadly disappointed because, simply put, it was and is still not good.
Even though this game isn’t meant to be associated with the films, the inspiration of the movies is definitely seen throughout; from the capri style pants of the Hobbits to the obvious Ian Mckellen impression emanating from Gandalf’s voice actor. Various inspirations aside, the game does an admirable job of paying attention to the story itself and even offers players a chance to see and experience characters and settings that were omitted from the film franchise. This, however, has resulted in one of my biggest problems with the game. After being such a huge fan of the film franchise I have just come to accept that the characters I see on the movie screen are in fact, the characters themselves. They have been engraved in my mind as such. To me, Elijah Wood is Frodo, Viggo Mortensen is Aragorn, Andy Serkis is Gollum and seeing these characters portrayed differently just doesn’t seem right to me. It may be nit-picky and you really can’t fault the game for this but that’s just how I feel. Sorry Charlie.
That being said, I probably could have handled the new electronic cast if they had been pulled off well but most of them sadly aren’t. Aragorn has been reduced to some generic action hero, both in voice and appearance, who could have easily been a part of any fantasy themed video game. The rest of the cast doesn’t really fare any better. There’s nothing glaringly horrible about any of them but there is a real air of mediocrity hanging over each and every one of them. Character design isn’t the only poor design choice either as levels are either bland and boring or confusing and frustrating. For some reason no one in this particular fellowship can stay together to save their lives and every time I turn around I seem to be tasked with tracking down various members through long and poorly designed mazes. The Mines of Moria are particularly frustrating. Apparently these dwarves were only concerned with constructing big boring rooms connected by winding and poorly constructed bridges.
The control scheme doesn’t come across any better. I find myself struggling the entire game just to land hits properly and line up cross hairs which do NOT give you an accurate estimation of where your arrows will hit. Luckily the arrow supply never runs out because you can easily shoot six or seven of them before you hit something that’s right in your sights. The underwhelming control problems are compounded by the fact that you are forced to deal with the wonkiest camera that’s ever been thrust upon us. It makes Resident Evil 6’s camera system seem glorious in comparison. I’ve gone into the menu system countless times being sure that there would be an option to tweak some of these controls but alas, there is not. Between the controls and camera, boss battles quickly devolve into frustrating tests of player endurance. The Balrog battle, which incidentally, looks as if it takes place in a room the size of a corner office, is a standout in terms of frustration. On the plus side, most enemies are rather weak and do not take many hits to bring down. There are no weapon upgrades of any kind but when you play as Frodo you can put on the ring to avoid detection but you’re only allowed to wear it for about twelve seconds at a time before you die of corruption so it’s largely a useless gameplay mechanic. I think I’ve used it a grand total of two times during my entire playthroughs.
Other aspects of the game are largely hit-and-miss. Graphically, The Fellowship of the Ring is an all-around ugly duck. There are random fully CG cutscenes that look rather nice but these moments are few and far between, leaving you with character animations and environments that resemble something that wouldn’t look out of place on the Nintendo 64.
Between you and me, I have a feeling that the CG cutscenes were outsourced to other companies because the characters in the cutscenes are always wearing clothes that their in-game counterparts aren’t wearing. It’s a little jarring and quite comical to witness such an obvious oversight. As for sound design, it’s a mixed bag. Half of the voices, like Frodo and Sam, are merely passable but others, like Aragorn, are painful to listen to as he sounds like some random action hero from an 80’s cartoon show. On the other hand, the score is rather professional sounding, with most of it sounding like it wouldn’t be out of place in a big budget fantasy film, so while the game isn’t always nice to look at, it’s largely pleasant to listen to. Until the characters start talking that is.
The story, which should be a highlight considering the legendary status of the source material, has winded up being a bit of a garbled mess. All the components of the narrative are there but they never flow like they should and have as a result, ended up coming across static and choppy. Various plot threads drop in suddenly and disappear just as quickly. I’m pretty convinced that had I not been so thoroughly familiar with the books themselves, I would have no clue as to what is supposed to be going on.
The Fellowship of the Ring had been one of the few The Lord of the Rings themed video games that I had not played and I’m glad I finally tracked it down but it will never be something that I will have any desire to revisit. Nothing about it is memorable and almost everything about it is frustrating. If nothing else, this game finally gives fans a chance to see Tom Bombadil on screen but he turns out to be such a freaking goofy character that I suspect that Peter Jackson knew what he was doing when he cut him out of the film. Oh, and he sings too. It’s terrible.
All ratings given to ‘Bagogames Retro Reviews’ are awarded based on the qualities of the titles during the time in which they were released and are not graded against today’s standards.