Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: May 25, 2023
To its credit, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum presents a unique idea for a video game based on the works of fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien. Previous games set in Middle Earth have cast you as a legendary swordsman, a sharpshooting archer or a powerful mage. But this time you’re playing as a bad guy, and quite a repugnant little creature at that.
Exploring the sights of Mordor and beyond through the eyes of Gollum should be an enticing proposition. Unfortunately, the final product presented here is anything but. In a year that has already seen the launch of excellent games set in the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises, Lord of the Rings fans have not been quite so lucky.
To be blunt, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum does not meet the quality bar you would expect from a blockbuster game released on the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Its numerous failures are too many to count, but its most fatal flaws range from painfully bland gameplay to a story that just retreads familiar ground. And that’s before I’ve even touched upon the laundry list of technical issues, including one persistent problem that almost forced me to abandon my playthrough. (Developer Daedelic Entertainment issued a statement on May 26, the day after launch, apologizing to players for the game's "underwhelming experience" and promising future bug fixes.)
It brings me no joy to say that The Lord of the Rings: Gollum ranks as one of the most disappointing releases of 2023, and it sees the LOTR franchise sink to a new low. In fact, Gollum makes The Rings of Power look like The Return of the King. Let me explain why even the biggest Tolkien fans should skip this game.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review: Gameplay
As you can probably surmise from its name, Lord of the Rings: Gollum casts you as the eponymous villain on a quest through the fictional land of Middle Earth. A former hobbit corrupted by the influence of the One Ring, Gollum is not exactly a fighter so the game’s moment-to-moment beats primarily revolve around being stealthy.
In order to avoid enemies, Gollum must stick to the shadows, only being able to distract foes by throwing a rock in the opposite direction to lure a guard away from the desired path or a doorway. The problem is that this, and moving from one dark corner to another, is all there is to the core loop of Gollum. It never evolves beyond these basic stealth fundamentals, and within the first hour, I’d seen everything the game has to offer.
There’s no traditional combat — Gollum can’t wield a sword or any other weapons — but in forced situations, Gollum can use a very simple stealth takedown on a small and specific group of enemies; those that aren’t lucky enough to have a helmet. There is little scope for creativity, if the game wants you to sneak past a guard you must do so, if it wants you to commit murder then murder you must.
Gollum doesn’t unlock any new moves or abilities as you progress through the 12-hour main story. Making matters worse are the highly restrictive linear levels. Forget the dynamic gameplay found in the likes of Dishonored, in Lord of the Rings: Gollum there is only one way to progress and you will be punished with a game over screen if you don’t follow the clearly guided route to the letter.
When you’re not sneaking past enemies, you’ll be making use of Gollum’s climbing skills in platforming sections that are similarly tedious. Gollum has all the basic moves you’d expect, you can jump, climb, swing and even wall-run. But traversal lacks any challenge, apart from when you’re forced to grapple with the atrocious camera. You constantly railroaded down a predetermined route, robbing you of the freedom to explore.
Gollum’s journey is mixed up further with puzzles that are functional but mostly unexciting. For example, one has Gollum raising water levels to get to a switch in order to progress. Forget the creativity provided by the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of The Kingdom, as there’s none of that here. At best, there’s one late-game head-scratcher that’s a little more engaging, but the rest fall flat. There are also a couple of setpiece moments, such as an instance where Gollum has to run away from a giant spider, or perch on top of a moving carriage as it barrels down a treacherous road. These add a splash of variety but are basic in their construction and over too soon to make any real impression.
Lord of the Rings: Gollum is heavily frontloaded with its worst levels. The game is split into 10 chapters, each roughly 60-90 minutes in length. The first few are set within a Mordor prison camp and are easily the worst. Chapter 2 is a lowlight that asks you to walk around a bland and uninteresting environment performing mundane tasks, such as collecting trinkets from multiple corpses. I suspect some players may wisely opt for an early exit at this stage.
The latter half of the game is mercifully more engaging. This is in large part because the setting switches to the more visually-interesting Mirkwood — a bit of greenery and a twinkling sky offer a reprieve from the blandness of Mordor (Sauron’s land could have been more interesting if all of Gollum’s action didn’t take place in indistinguishable caves.) And also because the opening acts are so painfully uninspired that they’re not particularly hard to improve upon. However, I imagine many players will have moved on long before making it to the Elvish forest, and more unsatisfying action is all that will greet players who do manage to stick with it.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review: Story
An original tale set in the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels, Gollum aims to fill in what Smeagol got up to during the period between those well-told stories.
Unfortunately, the game’s yarn feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. A lack of compelling supporting characters only compounds this issue. Gandalf does show up, and the way early chapters are framed as Gollum telling the wizard a tale is rather cute. But otherwise, expect to meet a lot of new characters who make little impact. At one point Gandalf remarks that Gollum is saying “too much about too little” and that feels like an unintentional barb at the game’s own story.
Adding to the game’s narrative woes is the fact that Gollum himself is a character best enjoyed in small doses. His split-personality shtick quickly starts to grate as he alternates between the sinister Gollum and the more naive Smeagol mid-conversation. The decision to essentially mimic the take on the character seen in the LOTR movies is also a curious one, as the performance here comes across like a poor impersonation of Andy Serkis.
Lord of the Rings: Gollum does attempt to inject some player agency into the narrative with a very basic morality system. At key points in the story, you’re given the choice to act as Gollum or Smeagol. After making your selection you must convince the other persona to agree with your decision by making a compelling argument; one early example sees the ‘two’ argue about killing a beetle. These moments don’t appear to have much influence on the overall story, but they at least add some individual flavor to each playthrough.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review: Graphics and technical issues
Visuals are another area where The Lord of the Rings: Gollum comes up frustratingly short. On PS5, it’s anything but a showcase for the powerful current-gen console, and most of the time looks more like an early PS4 game. In a few spots, it sinks even lower resembling something that would feel at home on the PS3.
Textures consistently fail to load making everything from rocky surfaces to the enemy armor resemble a blurry mess. When combined with the overall drab visual design — especially in the Mordor portion — the whole game has a dull look that mirrors the monotonous mechanics. Again, things improve in the Mirkwood section but not enough to elevate the graphics beyond being an eyesore.
Gollum himself should be the star of the show, but his model is extremely goofy looking. His overly bulbous eyeballs made me audibly laugh on multiple occasions. There has been extensive work done on his hair, but during the review period, I was advised to switch the hair tech off as it was prone to making the game hard crash; this smacks of Gollum not being ready for release. Animations are also extremely janky, particularly during platforming sections.
However, the lackluster visuals pale in comparison to the numerous technical issues I encountered during my time with Lord of the Rings: Gollum. These bugs and glitches ran the gamut from humourous to irritating to downright infuriating.
Gollum will frequently clip through environments or get stuck on invisible terrain, and his limbs are prone to contorting and gyrating in unintentionally horrifying ways. Expect frequent framerate drops and a smattering of screen tearing as well. Worse of all was a persistent issue I encountered where the game would set a checkpoint just as I triggered a fail state.
For example, during one chapter, the game set a checkpoint at the exact moment a guard was alerted to my presence. Every time I reloaded, Gollum was immediately apprehended resulting in a game over. The only fix was restarting the entire chapter and replaying an hour to return to that spot. I experienced this issue on four separate occasions, and if I hadn’t been playing for review purposes the second would have been my limit and I’d have stopped playing right there.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum: Verdict
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is an unwelcome throwback to the era of truly awful licensed games. It looks and plays like a movie tie-in game rushed out to meet a tight deadline. This is baffling as it was one of the first ‘next-gen’ games announced in 2019, and seemingly had a long production period. But even so, it’s a game that conceptually, visually, and technically screams out for additional development time. Patches and updates may squash the bugs. But with core gameplay so dull and lacking, I can't see a saving grace for Gollum.
I commend the team at Daedalic Entertainment for trying something slightly different with the franchise. Yet The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a joyless experience that packages together restrictive stealth, an inconsequential story, ugly visuals and a plethora of technical issues. Much like the One Ring that corrupted Smeagol, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum deserves to be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom.