I spent a long time dodging orcs and spiders before finally discovering Shelob’s den. In The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, I am a slave who works for the possibility of a crumb of stale bread by collecting tags and herding animals. Getting out of there was something I desperately needed to do. As far as I could tell, talking to Shelob was the first serious attempt to barter for freedom.
I decided to try and soften the spider queen’s arachnid heart by feeding her a recently caught slave. I was completely incorrect. A cutscene began, and before I could begin the spider’s pursuit animation, I was grabbed up by Shelob, making me a victim of both Tolkien’s dreaded spider and a glitch in the game. In the stealth action game, I died, and in real life, I died laughing at how absurd it all was.
Gollum, a narrative adventure game set before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, is characterized by this dissonance between cutscenes and gameplay. You can’t just declare the game is broken and move on. Gollum is a sad wretch, much like the author J.R.R. Tolkien.
It’s constantly at odds with itself to the point of futility, with themes that are captivating but mechanics that fall short. Daedalic Entertainment’s The Lord of the Rings: Gollum will offer you a taste of what it’s like to be Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. But it’s clear from this game that nobody, not even Gollum, aspires to be Gollum.
The events of Gollum take place between the events of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (Volume 1), and vice versa. The protagonist mumbles his way across Middle-earth in search of The Ring of Power as the story unfolds in 10 vignettes that the white wizard Gandalf coaxes out of him in a weird therapy session within a Mirkwood cell.
Some well-known figures from the Tolkien universe make appearances, such as Legolas’ father Thranduil, and the Mouth of Sauron, although the vast majority of the individuals you meet are original creations.
Daedalic Entertainment’s Gollum adaptation is a fresh, intriguing story that explores the extremes to which people would go in order to gain their freedom. The end result is a stealth action game with some decision-making elements, similar to Cyanide Studio’s Styx series.
You’ll have to traverse Middle-earth by means of climbing, jumping, running, and slithering through places like the dark castle Barad-dûr and the mountain pass Cirith Ungol on your way to mundane errands and the planning of many escapes.
Despite my description of Gollum as an “action-stealth” game, it is actually far more of a “stealth” game than an “action” game. Even in mandatory stealth sections (like trailing a slow-walking noble without being observed) and non-stealth sections (like some late-game platforming levels where foes are aggressive the moment it starts), getting detected results in an immediate game over.
Gollum can occasionally kill an orc in stealth by choking them to death, but only if they aren’t wearing a helmet. This is contradicted by a late-game sequence in which Gollum successfully strangles a helmeted orc.
When you aren’t engaged in mind-numbingly repetitious stealth encounters with elves, spiders, and orcs, you’ll likely be fulfilling dull fetch missions or solving simple environmental puzzles like matching lines on a wall to unlock a door. In addition to a boring user interface and characters that appear like they were made out of wax, the game also has terrible controls.
It’s like trying to drive on ice to keep Gollum under control. He’s cumbersome and slick, and he can’t control his forward motion. That’s really terrible. The platforming in this game must be precise, or else the player will die.
Gollum’s extraordinary climbing skills are essential to this plot point. Living in a cave for so long has given the emo hobbit incredible finger strength, but it can make his playing seem erratic.
Sometimes, he’ll grab onto a ledge, making it much simpler to climb over obstructions and reach the next lookout. However, he usually misses the mark and you die in a horrible (and strangely silent) fall if he overshoots or undershoots the jump.
It’s not your fault if the latter occurs; sometimes button presses are ignored by the game. Whenever things were going smoothly, I’d find myself in a state of flow, like when I was climbing up the side of a viney wall in Barad-dûr and Gollum abruptly let go instead of leaping to the ledge behind him.
Or I would have accomplished an environmental puzzle and maybe ten minutes of platforming, only to fall off a ledge because Gollum couldn’t stop and have to start over. When you need the button prompts to work the most, like when you’re trying to choke an enemy or desperately ingest a healing item, they won’t.
Gollum’s low resistance to falling objects makes for some of the most frustrating kills I’ve ever encountered in a video game. And that’s before we even mention the swarms of bugs.
As a matter of course, Gollum is full of bugs, both in the physical and figurative sense. The poor hobbit can eat insects to restore his health, but the game is so broken that you’re more likely to die from a glitch than from the controls.
Here is a tweet that shows many changes in the game:
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s dev is undergoing many changes following the poor reception to the game earlier this year. pic.twitter.com/10SpTbyTX0
— GameSpot (@GameSpot) June 30, 2023
In the introduction, I mentioned dying instantly at the hands of the frail Shelob; but, this unfortunate situation—dying immediately after a cutscene ends—occurred numerous times during my 24-hour game.
I’ve landed on platforms, just to sink right through them and perish. I’ve died after becoming stuck in a game’s jumping or swimming motions. I was killed while trying to distract a patrolling opponent with a rock. I’ve been grabbed by an orc as if he were punching through a door, and I’ve accidentally slipped through solid walls. I’ve died by every conceivable bug-related means.
The game’s mechanics are so irritating that it’s hard to find the motivation to keep going, even though the checkpoint system is generous, usually resetting you to within five minutes. My buddies and I have been making a running joke at recent get-togethers that Gollum is responsible for more of my deaths than Elden Ring. It’s a real shame, too, because Gollum’s cracked mask hides some intriguing secrets.
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Alluring Ideas Wasted Potential
Gollum has a split personality because he is torn between the good and evil sides of his own nature. Whether he’s shown as the cruel Gollum or the kind Sméagol, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ambivalent character is a metaphor for the deterioration of a once-pure soul brought on by blind obsession.
In the context of Daedalic Entertainment’s game, this means that players can pick whether their character would react cruelly like Gollum or kindly like Sméagol to various events. Perhaps, when faced with the game’s initial decision, you decide to put an innocent insect to death. In a later scenario, you could even turn on an elf who was instrumental in your escape from the orcs.
The game will give you a number of options, but ultimately your choices won’t affect the outcome. Consider the beetle: while fleeing from orcs in the caves of Mordor, you encounter the flying insect on a spiky cliffside. You can either do what Gollum does and kill the insect, then run away, or do what Sméagol does and watch it.
I focused on the beetle during my game. This triggered a conversational minigame in which I had to persuade Gollum that watching the insect was perfectly safe. If we fail here, Gollum will have won the argument, and we will be forced to implement his preferred course of action (eating the beetle).
But I prevailed in the debate. Sméagol let the beetle rest on his finger before it flew away, and the moment was peaceful and lovely until a dragon appeared out of nowhere and frightened me off the cliff. Eating it leads you to the same place, proving that the options you think you have within Gollum are really an illusion.
This is the most promising feature of the game but eventually falls short. Like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, Gollum may feature substantial decisions with far-reaching consequences for the game’s characters and setting. And to be fair, there may be a couple of situations when options actually do matter.
However, regardless of who wins the argument, Gollum or Sméagol, the outcome stays the same, rendering the game’s appearance of choice meaningless. That really stinks. Although his story is obvious, Gollum manages to give the poor hobbit some humanity.
Underneath Gollum’s filth and sorrow, Sméagol’s compassion shines through, providing a vivid, almost psychoanalytical glimpse into the character’s tormented psyche. However, the game’s concepts are cloaked in the same filth and sadness as the clumsy gameplay and meaningless choices.
Therein is the crux of the matter with Gollum: Contradictions abound in this game. The platforming is sloppy and random, despite the game’s aspirations to be a precision platformer. It attempts to be stealthy, but the mechanics are dull and the AI of the enemies is too simplistic to make it interesting.
It aspires to the action genre, but Gollum’s weakness prevents him from actually taking any meaningful action. Furthermore, game-breaking bugs pile on top of these inconsistencies. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, developed by Daedalic Entertainment, has some untapped potential buried deep inside its framework, but it plays like a poor early-aughts 3D platformer in the worst way possible.
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