The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria might lovingly depict one of the most recognizable fantasy worlds ever created, but to my surprise, that’s not actually the most recognizable thing about it. This is a survival game first and a Lord of the Rings game second, content to replicate all the familiar mechanics of the genre while leaning heavily on its Tolkien backdrop to compensate for a lack of original ideas. If you’ve played any survival game in the last 15 years, you’ll immediately know what you’re in for as you build bases, upgrade your pickaxes to mine better ores, craft armor and weapons to fight hordes of enemies, and run back home when it gets dark. The loop of exploring deeper and deeper into a dangerous mine filled with monsters as you collect resources and improve your character can be entertaining, but in the 20 hours I’ve played so far, there’s also no part of that tried and true blueprint that Return to Moria does better than any of the games that came before it.
Return to Moria’s story takes place during Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age, after the fall of Sauron and the conclusion of the War of the Ring – an interesting choice since this era has not been explored much at all in the canon. Everyone’s favorite dwarf and occasional projectile, Gimli (who is once again voiced by movie trilogy actor John Rhys-Davies), has called all the dwarf factions back to Moria in order to reclaim it from the goblins and orcs who have taken over. As one of those summoned dwarves, you and up to seven friends are sent into the menacing bowels of the lost kingdom to cook rat meat, decorate hastily assembled hovels, and juggle dozens of materials between haphazardly placed chests like the unrepentant hoarders you are. After an opening cutscene that throws you into a dark hole, that seems to be where the story ends from what I’ve seen. I haven’t met any characters, made many significant discoveries, or found new pieces of lore – I’m basically just making my way through increasingly dangerous areas for the heck of it, occasionally fighting a named orc or finding a note left behind by a member of the Fellowship when they passed through.
The main thing Return to Moria gets right is the almost rhythmic pattern of gathering more and better resources to feed your growing base-building needs. While at first you can get by with a dusty pickaxe and sword, you’ll quickly find yourself outmatched by enemies further down in the darkness, and therein lies the fun. You’ll need to acquire rarer raw materials, upgrade your gear, and improve the accommodations at your base to make the going easier, like a very necessary keg filled with beer to maintain morale. It’s easy to get lost in the continuous grind as you aim for the latest shiny thing that’s going to enable you to brave the next leg of the journey. This loop will be very familiar to anyone who’s stayed up too late running around in Minecraft or slaying giant spiders in Grounded, so we’re not breaking new ground here, but it’s extremely important that Return to Moria at least retreads that ground well.
Unfortunately, the actual building, combat, and especially exploration that come along with that enjoyable grind miss the mark, and all for the same reason: a shocking absence of freedom. While you can set up a base from scratch almost anywhere, each new zone I’ve found has had at least one or two preset camps that are extremely beneficial to use as starting points, making it very difficult to justify dumping a bunch of resources into making camp anywhere else. Combat has been a very dull pattern of blocking, stabbing, or shooting arrows with only a few weapon types that feel far too similar. Worst of all, Return to Moria makes the perplexing choice of not actually letting you mine in any direction you want, instead putting up hard, impenetrable barriers wherever you go, and only allowing you to dig through laughably small hallways that connect one area to another. No Man’s Sky and Ark have longevity because there’s no end to the ways you can make the world your own, build creative and interesting bases, and express yourself. Return to Moria has bafflingly little of that. It’s just wild to play as a dwarf in a mine without being able to actually dig through… basically anything.
On the bright side, the three or four different areas I’ve discovered so far all have a lot of personality to them, from the Elven Quarter filled with trees and beauty, to some gross depths covered in glowing mushrooms and clouds of poisonous corruption. Highlighting one of the only ways Return to Moria differentiates itself from its peers, traveling through this underground kingdom’s linear path feels like a proper Lord of the Rings adventure. Even if very little of it stands out as particularly impressive, I’m still enjoying the gratifying process of building up my base in an area, improving my gear, and then packing my things and journeying deeper underground to see if I can survive what’s next. The enemies along the way have been less compelling than the areas they are in, with the same grubby looking goblins and orcs popping their poxed faces out at you in large numbers and only slowly increasing amounts of health and armor to keep things arbitrarily difficult, but here’s hoping that’ll change in the back half.
As a big fan of both The Lord of the Rings and survival games, I think it’s great that I can dive into a genre I already know and love with the rich lore of Middle-Earth to keep me company, but it’s been disappointing to see such a promising concept do little more than a passable impression of better games. I appear to be about halfway done with the adventure if some in-game clues are any indication, so I’m hoping things will turn the corner with some more interesting areas, enemies, and especially story developments down the road. But for now, it’s proving to be a decent survival game with a Lord of the Rings skin loosely draped over it.
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Author: Tom Marks