Review: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

25 May 2023

With any mammoth franchise, it’s standard practice to create tie-in media that seeks to fill in the gaps of a greater narrative canon. This is just as true for The Lord of the Rings as it is for other IPs, and when it comes to video games in particular, the series has seen a lot of attempts to tell stories adjacent to the ones we see the nitty-gritty of in the novels.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is the latest game in this style, with developer Daedalic Entertainment and publisher Nacon seeking to fill in the gaps left behind by the titular ring-coveter’s story before his encounters with the Fellowship of the Ring en route to Mount Doom. Players will be able to get their hands on the game starting May 25th, 2023 for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S, with a Nintendo Switch port set to arrive at some point later this year.

Both the PS4 and PS5 versions were played on a PS5 for the purposes of this review, and well… We’ll get into that later when we tackle Gollum’s gameplay below, but let’s kick things off by discussing the narrative.

An Eye on Evil

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum largely takes place prior to and in tandem with the opening chapters of Tolkien’s first Lord of the Rings novel, recounting Gollum’s time spent in Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr, the characters he meets along the way, and the circumstances following his escape.

Leading up to this game’s release, there was a strong sentiment of confusion from some about why there would even be a game with Gollum as its star. Personally, I disagreed with this stance and find it very possible—and perhaps even preferable, at times—for a sub-story to cast a spotlight on the lesser-known and lesser-seen elements of original that spawned it in an interesting way.

In this case, Gollum provides a closer look at the hierarchy and interactions of the servants of Sauron, as well as a different type of perspective of the good guys that we don’t see often in Lord of the Rings media. It also paints a rather serious tone with most of its runtime; I wasn’t expecting to travel with the malnourished, gaunt prisoners of Mordor’s slave pens while orcs spat on us from above, for example, nor did I expect the dialogue to be written in a way that feels as authentic to the source material as it does.

And yet regardless of these silver linings, the storyline of Gollum adds exceedingly little to the character’s story as a whole and never goes out of its way to craft an intriguing plot to push you through the game. It struggles to garner any investment with its characters despite the believable dialogue and feels like it meanders from start to finish, unable to ever establish a solid through line for itself.

The internal clashing of personalities between Sméagol and Gollum is a constant presence, even going as far as allowing you to successfully debate between the two regarding your choices, but the game itself gives only scant feedback regarding what the consequences of your decisions actually are. Moreover, by necessity of the game’s placement in the story, Gollum is unable to change or react unexpectedly as he sees events unfold, making things predictable.

All of this leads to the removal of any surprise from the proceedings, which in turn causes the game’s plot to feel unnecessary—the exact opposite of what you want or expect from a tie-in release like this.

And that goes double when you inevitably collide with the other shortcomings the game has.

Not So, Precious

Putting aside the story, I have to start here by sharing my rather unfortunate first experience with The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. The review code of the game I was given provided access to both the PS4 and PS5 versions of the game. Naturally, I assumed my playthrough would be with the latter, so I gave it a download and was off to the races. I was able to play for roughly ten minutes before the game crashed and sent me back to the PS5 interface. No problem, I thought, these things happen sometimes.

After reloading my save, I was able to take a few steps forward before the game froze and crashed a second time. Things went somewhat more smoothly after my next reload, giving me another ten minutes of play before the game crashed again during a cutscene. I pressed on regardless in an attempt to make some headway and continued to encounter crash after crash, sometimes every ten minutes and sometimes randomly. Reinstalling the game, changing its graphical modes, and turning off notifications did nothing to offset them, and I was left with no choice but to download and play the PS4 version instead.

I certainly can only speak for my own experiences with Gollum (I may have just been very, very unlucky) but I cannot in good conscience recommend purchasing the PS5 version of this game as a result of my experience with nigh constant crashing. The PS4 version didn’t crash a single time (and that’s what the screenshots you’re seeing are taken from), but the PS5 version was virtually unplayable for me, so that as you will. It’s also worth noting Daedalic Entertainment has promised a patch to fix these issues prior to release, but the initial state of the PS5 version turned out to be quite the portent for the game itself.

Once you’ve managed to actually play the game, you’ll find it’s predominantly a platformer with shorter stretches of stealth gameplay. For the most part, you’ll be guiding Gollum from point A to point B and carrying out some sort of objective, whether its tailing NPCs undetected, scavenging for items in a set area, or lurching your way through a zone of patrolling enemies to avoid or distract.

This platforming focus ends up being a rather tragic one, as Gollum himself feels clunky and erratic to control. When trying to make sharp turns or specific jumps, he can feel irresponsive and overly sensitive to your inputs all at once. He also has a tendency to get stuck on jutting rockfaces and objects like glue, which causes frustration when you’re in a sequence that forces you to run away. The game over screen is mercifully quick, but it often feels like you’re grappling more with Gollum himself than the enemies trying to track him down.

The more stealth-oriented segments don’t fare any better for their rigidity. As you make your way through each one, it often feels as though there’s only one specific way to deal with each placement of enemies and one clearly optimal path to follow. This is to be expected, to some degree—there can’t always be different ways to accomplish everything—but the game does a poor job of informing the player of their options at many points, and enemy pathing is excessively static and scripted.

The muddy visuals are partly to blame for these moments when they crop up, but most of it can be attributed to the level layouts themselves feeling more like they were designed to be looked at rather than moved through. What’s worse, the game fails to switch things up with the gameplay either, making every sequence feel the exact same to play through.

And all of the above is regarding the game when things are functioning as they should. Technical issues were very common in my time with Gollum, and they affected every facet of the experience. Cutscenes would often make the game freeze before they began, jumping onto railings or bars at certain angles would fail to play the landing animation before resulting in a soft-lock, and Gollum would often snap to grab railings that I wasn’t trying to aim for after a jump.

It was a challenge to overcome these issues. If ever there was a primary takeaway from Lord of the Rings: Gollum it’s that, even if you were to somehow set aside the clunky controls and technical hiccups, it simply feels aged and unrefined. The various gameplay situations and objectives cause every portion to feel like something you’ve played a thousand times before, but with worse execution and polish.

Textures in the Dark

Gollum’s presentation also leaves much to be desired. The game runs fine with regard to framerate, but the actual assets themselves are rough around the edges. Textures are somewhat barebones, with many of them appearing stretched, low resolution, and inconsistent in quality even when right next to each another.

This is especially true for non-orc characters. The orc models are largely fine, though much of their armor appears comically large for reasons I can’t quite pin down, but human models are inconsistent at best and move oddly. Lighting feels heavy-handed in the sense that sources of light are often too dark or too bright without the shades between, struggling to make the models and textures really pop.

Animations also feel noticeably stilted, mostly in cutscenes, which will switch camera angles jarringly and feature animations that play out with unrealistic speed and motion. Many scenes feel awkward and unnatural entirely because of the animations, which is a shame because the voiceover is quite good from Gollum and others alike, though the soundtrack is unmemorable.

On a more positive note, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum does succeed in faithfully creating the scale of its locations. Despite not getting to see anywhere close to their entirety, each area does feel as sprawling as it should when looking off in the distance. Gollum becoming shrouded in darkness while sneaking, complete with brightly glowing eyes, is a really nice touch as well.

In short, the designs themselves are decent and everything feels as it should to match with the aesthetics of other Lord of the Rings projects, but there’s an undeniable distance between this game and its contemporaries in most respects of the execution.

Stuck in Shadow

Lord of the Rings: Gollum struggles under its own weight from the word go. Any benefit from a grimmer, more unvarnished look at the characters of Middle-earth from an atypical perspective is immediately undercut by a bevy of technical issues, clunky controls, unexciting game design, and stilted presentation at constant odds with the player.

When you get down to brass tacks, Gollum feels undercooked from all sides in its attempt to snatch the One Ring, leaving it with no recourse but to plummet straight into the mouth of Mount Doom.

~ Final Score: 4/10 ~

Review code provided by Nacon for PS4/5, review primarily focused on PS4 version. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Nacon.