There’s a popular internet meme called “Yes Honey” that people use when it’s time for a routine task that’s dry, boring, or generally unpleasant that they just don’t want to do. That was me when it was time to do anything in The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria that didn’t involve building. It takes the worst parts of survival-crafting games – the checklists, the shallow storytelling, the bland environments – wraps it in a stale combat system, and worst of all, doesn’t even take any risks with the Lord of the Rings narrative.
Through the long dark
One of the biggest – and most confusing – disappointments is how Free Range Games uses the Lord of the Rings license, although “uses” is a little generous. Return to Moria is light on story, and while that might be understandable in a genre not known for its narrative complexity, this is one of the first Lord of the Rings stories set after the Third Age. It probably would’ve been better without the Lord of the Rings trappings, though.
Gimli, former Fellowship member and hero of the Lord of the Rings books and films, brings his merry band of dwarves back to Moria in a bid to revive the city of his ancestors. The door is closed, and speaking “friend” gains you no entrance, the first of many nods to popular moments from the game’s source material. Your self-made dwarf falls into the ruins, and this is essentially all you get for story.
A shadowy power blocked the gate because of course it did, and orcs are back. Or maybe they’re goblins. Return to Moria seems just as confused about the nature of the foes you face underground as Tolkien was between The Hobbit, when they were goblins, and The Fellowship of the Ring, where he retconned them into orcs. It hardly matters anyway. Their motivations are somehow less complex than the orc-goblins of Tolkien’s works. These creatures exist in this space, at this time, solely for you to beat up with sticks or chop with axes.
Free Range also wants to make very sure that you understand this is the same place from the Fellowship of the Ring. You can find the room where Frodo was stabbed, the hall where Gandalf said the adventurers would have to press on through the mine, and even – somehow, in a world made of loose stones – the very stone Pippin dropped in the well that alerted the goblorcs.
I don’t mind fanservice when it’s done well, but Return to Moria’s approach is pretty shallow. There’s no meaningful interaction between the Fellowship’s story and the Fourth Age tale Free Range is trying to tell – nothing to evoke emotion, not even an attempt to build new stories. It’s the equivalent of those on-rails theme park rides where a guide points out all the big attractions, waits for you to “ooh” and “aah” and then moves on to the next one.
The most frustrating part is that Return to Moria has hints of something more interesting. One of the earliest areas you uncover is an ancient elvish settlement right on the outskirts of Khazad-Dum. It’s a welcome, thoughtful nod to the complex past of Middle Earth’s most fractious people, but Return to Moria quickly moves on and doesn’t revisit the idea. It’s the same for pretty much every other new or interesting piece of storytelling.
They are coming
Combat is tedious and frustrating in its simplicity. Approachability in a game designed for broad appeal is understandable and even appreciated, but Return to Moria somehow has less variation in its battles than the 2003 version of The Hobbit. Whether it’s an orcoblin, a wolf, or whatever the weird badger things are that infest Moria’s halls, they all behave in the exact same manner. They approach you, hesitate, feint, then attack, and do it all again. You block, slash, and repeat.
That’d be bland but okay, if there weren’t so darn many fights in Return to Moria, but it feels like something wants to kill you every time you turn a corner. It’s genuinely impressive how many creatures managed to make it inside a sealed-off mine and thrive off of nothing, but I guess that’s the power of the Shadow or something.
Crafting reminds me too much of Pioneers of Olive Town and other, similar games that don’t understand the genre’s soul. Crafting games are about blending your creativity with the environment and seeing what happens – not about waiting around while a dozen machines process your materials so you can put them in a different processor and wait for them to spit on the finished product before doing it all again. The grind starts early, too. Completing the tutorial requires you to scavenge stone so you can build a furnace, then iron so you can smelt ore, and then more iron to forge items to make an even better piece of equipment. You have limited pocket space to work with as well and a hotbar that automatically populates with the most useless items. Thanks, but I don’t need a shortcut for raw meat and some dead guy’s clothes I picked up in a hallway somewhere.
Return to Moria also suffers from taking place in, well, Moria – land of stone, ruins, stone, dead things, and more stone. The moments of wonder and beauty, such as finding those old Elven ruins or stumbling on an abandoned home, are few in number. That means the balance between endless cycles of crafting and finding rewarding things to do in the world around you just isn’t there, and Return to Moria wears thin very quickly as a result.
This is an awful lot of complaining, but once I stockpiled enough stuff, I did enjoy actually building with it. Return to Moria makes putting things together simple and enjoyable, as long as you meet a few basic requirements. Free Range uses logic in the best possible ways. It’s important if you’re building something top-heavy that would and should collapse without the right supports. It’s out the window completely for other things. Wanna stick a tiny wooden platform in a sheer stone wall so you can climb around? Do it! Does it make physical sense? No! But it does make exploring and building more fun.
I just didn’t really want to do any of the other things Return to Moria expected me to.
This review is based on a PC digital copy provided by the publisher. The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is available now on the Epic Games Store and launches on Xbox Series X|S in early 2024.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria
- Creative building system
- Shallow story
- Frustrating, tedious loops of collecting and crafting
- Stale combat
- No incentive to explore
- Clunky inventory management
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria review: Shallow survival
I'm not that far in, but I'm enjoying the game so far. Yeah, it's not doing anything super novel, but I'm finding the more directed exploration through hand built then chained together environments to be a nice change of pace from the aimless wandering that often crops up in survival crafting games. Similarly, while there's a certain amount of waiting for smelting to happen, at least so far there's way less than in certain other survival crafting games I could mention.
I'm playing with my 9 year old and it's pretty perfect. A more complicated game might be too much.