‘The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’ Review: Ambitious Storytelling Let Down by Plain Parkour

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Despite J.R.R. Tolkien’s meticulous planning of The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth, he leaves one crucial part of the saga to chance: the hope that you’ll feel pity for Gollum. Daedalic Entertainment steps in to fill that gap with The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, telling not the tale of grand and noble heroes, but the story of a vile monster and how he became entangled with Frodo’s adventure. The task is an ambitious one, and from a narrative perspective, Gollum meets and even exceeds the challenge. However, a limited approach to navigating challenges and bland mission objectives drag the experience down.

Gollum follows the eponymous creature through his captivity in Mordor and continues as he sets out to recover the Ring of Power for himself. It unfolds unevenly as a retelling of events, which Gandalf forces out of Gollum in a kind of twisted therapy session when the two meet in Mirkwood. The approach is an interesting conceit, though Gollum tends to forget about it for long periods of time while it focuses on action with sparse storytelling.

The sparseness is disappointing, since the story is easily Gollum’s biggest strength, particularly when you have to make a choice. 

Gollum finds himself at a crossroad during some key moments, where he can either cave into his own horrible demands or let Smeagle’s better nature shine through. It’s tough to say what effect, if any, these have on the broader narrative. I only had time for one playthrough, and you get just one save file. The clever thing about Gollum’s choices, however, is that they don’t have to matter. Gollum’s story is a known entity, so instead of trying to do something new and daring with it, Daedalic takes the introspective route. These choices let you piece together a portrait of his fragile personality and get a better understanding of the struggles he faces, explaining why Smeagle eventually gives in to Gollum.

Some decisions popped up at completely unexpected moments and had equally unexpected — sometimes even beautiful — outcomes. In one early scene, for example, you have to decide whether Gollum will let a beetle live or crush it. You need to make a compelling argument against Smeagle or Gollum to get the desired outcome, which adds a surprising sense of weight to seemingly inconsequential decisions. I convinced Gollum that the beetle was not, in fact, a spy, and was treated to a scene where Smeagle watches with an almost pathetic sense of childlike wonder as the insect flies around his head — before Ringwraith butts in and ruins the moment.

Choices have impact even if Smeagle’s fate is sealed.

Daedalic Entertainment

That one scene did more to make me sympathize with Gollum than anything in Tolkien’s work, with its glimpse inside Gollum’s tortured mind and the sad remnants of who he used to be — and sometimes still wanted to be. It was far from the only such moment.

Sure, it might be inconsistent. You might have Smeagle save one ally’s life, while Gollum betrays another later on — but that’s the point. There is no consistency for Gollum. His story is a gradual, unavoidable descent into ruin, and what matters is understanding why it happens.

He’s not always the star of the show, though. Gollum treats its supporting cast and Middle Earth in general with an impressive level of detail, whether it’s a look at Sauron’s cults (only briefly teased in Lord of the Rings itself), a witch who refuses to swear fealty to the dark lord, or even just an alternative perspective on the elves. It’s an underdog story, casting a new light on Middle Earth’s established history from the perspective of the lowly, the outcasts, and the rebels, and the world feels more fully realized and lived in as a result.

Gollum dreams of a better game.

Daedalic Entertainment

It’s also better suited for a visual novel or interactive adventure. Stealth, action, and parkour — Gollum’s other half — just aren’t strong enough to carry the gameplay.

Gollum can climb and jump like any platforming hero of the early 3D days, and he often handles like one as well: clunkily. He’s nowhere near as nimble and quick as you’d expect the sly sneaker to be. He throws rocks to shutter lanterns — which Orcs conveniently never re-open — hides in even the tiniest of shadows to escape notice, and that’s about it. 

He can throttle some enemies, though it’s implemented so randomly that it feels like a gimmick instead of an actual feature. One Orc lagging maybe 10 feet behind his comrade is fair game, but the sole enemy in a closed room with no one else around is apparently too much for Gollum to deal with.

The feeling that something is a bit off with Gollum’s abilities is part of a wider problem in the game: Outside the story, it doesn’t lean into who Gollum is. This resourceful, devious little monster who gets what he wants even if (or when) it kills him can only grab onto certain ledges. He follows a prescribed, restricted path, can’t outfox a dimwitted Orc, and has no tricks up his imaginary sleeve to get out of tight situations.

Solid Snake he ain’t.

Image captured on PC

Stealth segments are cumbersome and distressingly common, with limited ways to clear them, and the game often saddles you with tedious filler objectives, such as gathering slave name tags or herding deadly beasts into a pen.

It’s a bit basic, in other words, and the same is true for Gollum’s take on platforming.

There are no breathless feats of daring as you scramble through the pits of Mordor, no feeling of accomplishment after you pull off a move that probably shouldn’t work — because you know it will work. There’s simply no other way. It doesn’t help that Gollum limits most of its parkour to the kinds of basic objects and movements that were overused even two decades ago. Climb a ledge, swing on a pole, scramble up a ladder, do it all again a few dozen times, and then you finally reach your reward of a new cutscene. 

That’s not to say Gollum has no sense of challenge or the parkour segments are badly designed. They aren’t. Some of them are ingenious little puzzles, and a handful of scenes — including the prologue sequence where Ringwraiths capture Gollum — toy with your expectations in brilliant fashion. It’s just a shame that so much of the time between these flashes of genius just feels like you’re a little Gollum-rat running along a carefully designed course. A bit more freedom in deciding where to go and how to get there would’ve made a significant difference.

Not the most precious of visuals.

Image captured on PC

A bit more time to smooth out the experience would have helped as well. Gollum needed more polish time before release, that’s beyond a doubt. Even playing on an RTX 3070, 12th-gen i7 CPU, and 144Hz monitor, the game struggled to maintain consistent frame rates, crashed often, and was plagued with screen tearing and a bundle of other bugs. The camera was the worst, though, and actually makes the game a nuisance to play.

It has a nasty habit of suddenly turning 180 degrees, angling upward, and zooming in — not exactly what you want to happen when you’re trying to avoid an Orc’s patrol path or time a jump correctly. I thought it was random, but after testing a few times, I realized it’s actually tied to specific locations — and quite a few of them.

A day-one patch is meant to address some issues, including a bug with Gollum’s hair that breaks the game, though it’s uncertain which other problems it’s meant to fix.

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A good story marred by poor design choices.

Image captured on PC

Gollum struggles with its two halves as much as its protagonist does. Like with Smeagle, it’s evident which side should win — the thoughtful, narrative-driven side — but the messy other half so often rears its head and sullies what makes Gollum special. 

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is now available on PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 & 5.

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