[Wandrell] Twenty years ago was the year for publishing the game that, for a long time, would be one of few adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and, what is even more, one of the few graphical adaptations of the book.
It wasn't just twenty years ago, you say? Well, there is no reason we should use only English speaking magazines for our thematic reviews, and it was this month twenty years ago when the game was first published in Spain, and reviewed in such magazines as MicroManía.
[Mr Creosote] It should be noted that back then, Lord of the Rings was already a huge franchise within the fantasy genre, but the genre as a whole did not have quite the massive mainstream mindshare it regained through these live action movies made at the beginning of this century. So a Lord of the Rings game was a much geekier thing than it would be ten years later.
[Wandrell] Still, it received at least another adventure videogame, and two strategy ones. Also, of course, the little known remake of this one, reusing Bakshi's rotoscoped film scenes.
[Mr Creosote] To make sure there is no confusion: We will be discussing the original, non-enhanced version of the first game, covering the first book: Fellowship of the Rings.
[Wandrell] Originally, it was going to be the first of a trilogy of games. Ended being just two. Several things were the cause of this, no doubt, but I'm sure the fidelity of the adaptation itself had an effect both on the fans and on those who, just as it was my case, barely knew the books when they first played it.
[Mr Creosote] So, to quickly recap for those like young Wandrell who don't know the plot: The young hobbit Frodo inherits a magical ring from his uncle Bilbo. The wise wizard Gandalf identifies this ring as the one ring forged a long time ago by the evil overlord Sauron. It must be destroyed to prevent the whole world from being enslaved.
[Wandrell] But when Gandalf fails to arrive on time, and time starts to run short, Frodo decides it's time to move and start plan B, which consists on leaving the town in search of help.
[Mr Creosote] At least that is what Gandalf told him to do. Since this is a game, it's up to the player to decide whether to actually leave his hometown or not.
[Wandrell] I'm not so sure you can stay. What you can choose is leaving through the fast road (which obviously is being watched) or trying, like in the book, to leave through an older, but apparently safer, path.
[Mr Creosote] The game grants you a lot of freedom in all these respects. And yes, you can also just go into your house again and leave it at that. And from there go to the pub from time to time. There seems to be no particular rush to get going apart from what the intro told you.
[Wandrell] Actually, there is a general lack of connection between things. But I think the idea is that you will actively explore and stumble into things, most of which will never be explained, like the magical statue you can find on Hobbiton. And this, mixed with characters you are expected to know from the book, again feels like not only they expect you to explore, but to have a general idea of what's going on.
[Mr Creosote] I'm actually undecided about this adaption. My first impression was in fact that the intro did a pretty good job of setting the tone, explaining the situation and communicating the player's task. The further I played, though, I did get exactly the impression you mentioned: If I hadn't known before what a "Nazgul" is, I would have had to wonder why the guy is blocking my way and slaughtering my party at sight. Then again, this makes sense from the point of view of the characters controlled by the player: They would not know this, either.
[Wandrell] Well, the manual explains many of the terms. But I don't think anybody would get into reading a full glossary. Still, albeit it's limitations, it's a nice adaptation for one thing: it prefers offering a game world before just becoming a literal and completely linear adaptation.
[Mr Creosote] As I said earlier, I appreciate the freedom very much. On the other hand, this seemingly unlimited freedom leads to severe pacing problems, in my opinion. Unless you happen to stumble upon something by accident, nothing will ever happen. There is too much wandering around aimlessly. Putting this in the context of pacing, all sense of urgency is lost almost immediately and it is only rarely recovered temporarily throughout the game.
[Wandrell] To put it another way. Each region is huge, and you don't have any map, or anything that will give you a clue of what you can find or where, apart from a few general directions.
[Mr Creosote] You mentioned the much-criticised Ralph Bakshi movie earlier. There is a lot to say against this movie, especially with regards to unclear storytelling. But in my opinion, it does get one thing right: the pacing. Tense scenes are drawn out, routine stuff like travelling is cut down. This, of course, is hard to achieve in an interactive game, but this one seems to have no concept of guiding the player at least towards such a goal.
[Wandrell] We have already seen the storytelling fails. But there is a very important thing on Tolkien which people and, even more, imitators forget: the themes. Lord of the Rings isn't just orcs and elves, mixes things from the nordic sagas and german myths to things like industrialization and the first world war. Truly, any decent adaptation would keep these themes, but apart from things like the totally random machine on Hobbiton, or things copied from the book, like adding cursed mounds around, they seem to be a bit lost.
[Mr Creosote] These were definitely aspects which only seem to be there as fan service: Chuck something in there which readers of the book will know, recognise and smile about. However, these things indeed serve no purpose in the game. It's nice that you can sabotage the factory being built at the edge of your home town, for example, but doing so just results in danger without payoff.
[Wandrell] Well, supposedly you get experience. And this, I think, carries us to the next topic. How the game engine handles its own rules, because that's a good question. If it could talk, I'm sure not even the game would be sure of how some things work.
The game's engine and rules
[Wandrell] Starting with experience, you are supposed to receive experience with each quest, which then will raise your stats. But you never know when you receive it. After killing monsters, surely, but as we lack any kind of signal, apart from the music, we end not having a clue about this. Hell, I didn't know about experience until I read the manual.
[Mr Creosote] Also, each character has got a couple of special skills like "sneaking" or "climbing". These might be fairly obvious, but some are not – and the game does not explain their nature or purpose. Similarly, some characters can only handle certain items. For example, hobbits cannot use a dwarf's axe. There might be a reason for this, but the game does not tell us. In fact, if you tell a hobbit to use the axe, nothing will happen instead of giving us at least negative feedback.
[Wandrell] Looking at the manual, it seems that some weapons require a minimum strength. That's why, for example, hobbits can't use swords. Of course, when you find out that a magical sword apparently doesn't have the same strength requirements you'll notice how clear all is.
On the other hand, I didn't find the skills themselves unclear, only the way of using them, as nothing indicates the lores are all passive skills, and so they are automatically activated when needed, or that "hide" won't hide, just trigger something when used on the right place.
[Mr Creosote] In all these cases, there is a severe lack of communication towards the player, in my opinion. The game should make stats, skills, actions and results explicitly clearer. All too often, I found myself trying things which produced simply no feedback at all. This happens both in positive and negative cases.
[Wandrell] And to make it better there are lots of items with no apparent use. Even for the ones which do seem useful, such as the shovel, the game won't give you a hint. I didn't know you could use it on circles of stones until I read a guide.
[Mr Creosote] Then, there is party and inventory management. I found that quite restrictive and fussy as well: Each character in your party has got his or her own inventory, so you constantly have to "trade" items between them. NPCs can be asked to join your party, but only up to a fixed size. This turned into a problem when I wanted to recruit Gimli, the dwarf: To recruit him, I had to dismiss someone else. So I had to part with my horse which, in spite of basically just being a huge container for items, counts for party size, too.
[Wandrell] I must say there are too many people to add to the party, but I suspect they expected the player to lose several characters as the game progressed. Not that combats are too hard, but healing is mostly done with objects which, again, don't work in a clear way. Rations heal your life, ok, but why exactly I can't use two rations to heal more? Is it just one ration after each time you are wounded? And to make things worse, magic also damages your character. Not that magic is better than a sword or, in general, useful.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the rations made no sense. The D&D style of separating life and hunger stats is much more understandable. I'd guess in this game, the point is if you've just eaten something, you're not hungry anymore, so it will not help further. But, yes, I agree, this is also something which would need to be documented and communicated.
[Wandrell] One last point about magic, I found it weird that they added what could be called true magic and words of power. The first damages the character, even if it does nothing, the second are just triggers. Use them on the correct place, and something happens, then you lose the word. Sounds at least original, but in the end it mostly serves to have more options to try when you don't know what to do.
Well, there is still another last point, this time about the system in general. All this invisible experience thing, and stats which change automatically without notice reminds me of console RPGs.
So much they do that I was wondering if they were thinking on porting the game to consoles, where players were used to things like Final Fantasy and clones, games in which character handling was reduced to choosing weapons and using objects. Actually this may explain several of the design decisions.
[Mr Creosote] As little the manual is used to explain the game mechanics, it does play a vital role in another way: It contains many of the in-game texts which the game itself ironically enough does not display. Instead, it will just tell you to "read paragraph number X".
[Wandrell] This is truly a nuisance. While some older games like Pool of Radiance could justify this with memory limitations, this is clearly a case of piracy countermeasures. But, as expected, it didn't stop piracy, and later the CD version would include these texts as part of the game.
[Mr Creosote] I think we can safely rule the storage capacity limitation argument out when some paragraphs are as short as "Look for the one you seek in Archet." In other situations, much longer texts than this are actually displayed in-game.
[Wandrell] Actually, I recall one case where the text just gives you a keyword to tell another character, which not only will say more that the printed paragraph, but also his information will be much more useful.
To me this case shows the absurdity of the paragraphs scheme, they serve as a way to hide steps to take, but any walkthrough would easily solve this.
By the way, about this keyword system, I don't know if it's a left over from the Interactive Fictions days, or just a system which they actually planned to use, but ends being a gimmick. Characters say a short paragraph, then you can try random keywords to see if they react to one of them (tough luck, if you believe they'll do).
[Mr Creosote] Well, my feeling was that it's extremely pointless, because nobody ever knew anything about any topic. For example, after returning the child to the village, I couldn't even ask its relatives about it - the very child which I had just saved from being eaten by a spider!
It, along the paragraph scheme, fits with the annoying interface, though. That's quite fussy as well. You have got a couple of icons for actions like attacking, examining and using as well as managing your party. Usually, these only send you into further menus recursively.
[Wandrell] It lacks hotkeys, or a fast menu at least. Using a skill is calling the menu, waiting for the portrait to load, pressing the skills icon, searching the skill (alphabetical ordering? We never heard of it and it's probably immoral) and then pressing it to see what happens.
[Mr Creosote] Oh, there are hotkeys! And the submenus can be controlled with the number prefixes which are displayed. That worked much better than the mouse interface. Still far from comfortable, though.
[Wandrell] There are hotkeys? Shows how clear things are. Even the options menu is hidden. They could just have added it to the general menu.
[Mr Creosote] Because the menu is so awful and the mouse is so unresponsive, I started trying out keys at random. "T" is "talk" and so on.
[Wandrell] Actually I found the mouse worked better for moving around than the keyboard, the party changes direction faster. Then I got a weird bug where the pointer got out of screen, then reentered from the other side and the axis got all mixed up. Chaos ensured.
But apparently the last version of the game, v1.3, fixed several things, so maybe the mouse control changes from one to another.
[Mr Creosote] It's also quite annoying that there are so many roads which run diagonally, but no way to walk that way. Collision control is another issue, I kept getting stuck on trees and other obstacles. Let's just say the interface definitely does not make things better.
Graphics and sound
[Wandrell] On the other hand, graphics are nice, and they remind me of Ultima VI, maybe I should say it the other way, as I didn't play Ultima VI until much later. But the best are the cutscenes, sadly I don't think the game and the cutscenes mix well, things like showing a dark forest to end in a bright green one end looking weird.
[Mr Creosote] Well, the night and day cycle is quite rapid in the game, so it might be just that
[Wandrell] Also the music is nice. And when I say the music I mean the one music theme, which will repeat at any chance. But I must say now I'm not sure about it's originality, I didn't recall it was so similar the main theme of Flesh+Blood, a thing I had read somewhere but my bad memory didn't allow to check.
[Mr Creosote] Those low key bleeps which are used from everything ranging from hitting something to closing doors, on the other hand, are quite offensive.
[Wandrell] And the death yells are scary, but just because the sudden ear piercing sound they are.
[Mr Creosote] We have been saying mainly bad things about Lord of the Rings now. So how did you like the game overall?
[Wandrell] Actually I have mixed feelings. On one side, allowing such a freedom to explore is nice, on the other hand it lacks a lot of polishment. Still I like something on this game, I suppose the fact that I used to play it as a kid, even if I never finished it due to all of its problems.
[Mr Creosote] You compared it to Ultima VI before. I must say if anything, this is a poor man's Ultima VI. All the quibbles about the interface and engine are actually not so important.
The big problem I have with the game is that playing it consists almost exclusively of wandering around aimlessly. Nothing ever really seems to be happening. No matter how famous your plot is and how thrilling the themes might be, it all gets lost in yet another forest, yet another endless horizon of plains. Pacing – I think I mentioned the word.
[Wandrell] To me the worse part of the game is no doubt the interface. Could be worse, of course, it could give you electric shock at random, but right now it's enough to be painful.
Anyway, even if I find some charm on this game I can't deny that we are in front of a mediocre game, which wanted to be too much.