Games can be daunting for many reasons. The scope of The Witcher 3 is often so vast that getting lost in its tough world can be too easy. Games like Dead By Daylight and No Man's Sky have so many years of updates that you never quite know where to start. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is one of the most daunting games I've ever had the displeasure of playing, and this is solely down to how little love can be found in every rancid nook and cranny.
Though there have been no shortage of perspective flips in the series, I was tentatively excited to play as the titular Gollum during the interim between going mad and being reunited with his precious ring. This excitement was dashed within an hour and never came back again.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is one of the most joyless and arduous games I've played this year, and I don't see it being topped in quite some time. At least it has that going for it.
A Perilous Climb
Captured by Elves sometime after his imprisonment at the hands of the orcs, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum starts with Gandalf interrogating him in a prison cell. From here, it tells the story of Gollum's time working in a mine, learning how to operate the world with what little sanity he has left. You are fighting both to survive and to be reunited with the Ring.
This isn't a bad place for the story to start, but it immediately feels rather thrown together as you find yourself in a cave, where you run into orcs within minutes. Your short preamble into the world never quite sets the tone right, and the story continues on anyway. You know where you are, but rarely know why. It could play into this disorienting feel but it always feels like an afterthought.
If you're a fan of the series, you will know most of what this game leads up to, which doesn't give it much room to grow. Though there is a lot of story left unexplored in the middle of The Lord of the Rings, but the game doesn't even manage something meaningful or distinct to fill in that space. The story is okay at best and bloated at worst.
Bored of the Rings
Given the story is mostly played out already, Gollum relies heavily on the gameplay and atmosphere to pull it through into an enjoyable experience.It fails at both. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a stealth game at heart, but it never quite grasps what makes the best stealth games work. Controls are finicky, imprecise and imprecise, and the AI is practically nonsensical.
Though AI seems designed to take pre-registered paths to allow you to move past at the right time, they often get entirely stuck, frozen in an animation, or incapable of moving. Sometimes, this works in your favour as being stuck leaves them unable to catch you even when they see you. Other times they simply hog up a doorway, refusing to leave until you reset from the latest checkpoint.
Gollum is filled with so many bugs, glitches, and crashes that it became unclear every few seconds if the problems I witnessed stem from poor game design or poor quality control. If I felt stuck for more than 20 seconds at a time, the quickest solution was always just to refresh from a checkpoint and check the same area again. This almost always fixed it.
Crash and Burn
I met my first major crash in just under ten minutes. The game opened up, I finally got control of Gollum, and the very first cutscene caused the entire app to close down. I booted it up, only to be met with three crashes in the same space. I restarted the entire game and finally made it past the cutscene. I felt elated to make it through, only for the game to close again mere minutes later.
The game did start to run a little more consistently from the second level onwards, but I rarely made it through a twenty minute section without a major issue popping up. On the second level, I fell through a piece of the floor, only to drop below and die. This would then send me back to the previous checkpoint - one conveniently taken right before impact. This required starting the entire level over again.
I could go on for hours about the sheer volume of heavy crashes and bugs I faced in my time with the game, but I wouldn't want to bore you as much as Gollum has bored me. The little fun I got out of this was from rewatching the many issues that arose. Unfortunately, even ignoring all the technical problems here only shows the bigger problems at its core.
On your level
It is hard to enunciate just how tedious and frustrating Gollum's level design is without engaging in hyperbole. Though climbable walls and cliffs are highlighted in white, some are either ungrabbable, not correctly highlighted, or throw you off erratically, only to work again after a game over.
It uses a parkour system like that of Uncharted and most modern action adventure games, but awkward controls and poor colour palettes leave almost every area washed out and hard to read. An accessibility nightmare, nothing is distinct enough to give any real clarity. Even successfully finishing sections holds no reward as solutions often feel random, fumbling around in the dark until Smeagol finally grabs onto something.
The game is almost entirely made up of a mixture of stealth and platforming, and both of these are broken almost entirely.
A little bit of heart
This being said, not everything about Gollum is absolutely awful. There are some rather nice little moments of character building where Gollum finds a butterfly or admits to having a friend. These brief glimpses into a much more human character feel personable and almost touching.
As well as this, you have a small dialogue system when making some decisions, allowing you to choose a side between Gollum and Smeagol. You then have to pick the options to win an argument against the two. In pursuit of this, most characters don't have official names, instead going by what Gollum perceives them as - a nice touch driving home how human he is despite everything.
Smeagol himself is fittingly pathetic. He doesn't necessarily feel manipulatively pitiful like in his story in The Lord of the Rings - he is just a miserable soul in a crueller world. Ultimately, part of what makes these sections so bittersweet is the knowledge the team could have done so much better with the material. There's heart to be found, if you really dig deep for it.
For the aesthetic
The The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is an occasionally hideous game. Smeagol himself often looks entirely wrong, with lighting casting odd colours and shadows on him. Texturally, everything looks incredibly ugly and not in a way that fits the world. Rocks, walls, and enemies are occasionally indistinct and always unpleasant.
Where the game looks okay is in the grander background shots. When you can see great mountains and forests, the colours mostly pull through horrible textures to provide an okay shot. This is quickly ruined by its audio design.
At its absolute best, Gollum's music is unremarkable. At its worst, it is a mesh of hard-to-identify sounds and low quality noise. This is particularly noticeable in more tense moments, like those involving Shelob at the midway point. A tedious boss stage is made unbearable by the clashing of noises. Throwing away the tension of a good boss theme, this purely annoyed me.
Gollum is perhaps one of the best arguments to commit to a current generation console. With repeated crashes, bugs, and glitches, I saved hours of my life loading back up with that beefy SSD, which is far more than it ever deserves.
A copy of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was provided by the publisher.
For more articles like this, take a look at our The Lord of the Rings: Gollum and Reviews page.