Gollum’s a funny little fellow, isn’t he? Great at hunting for rabbits, but no appreciation for a good stew or potatoes, and a magpie-like obsession with precious shiny things. Oh, and the whole split personalities thing as he grapples with his selfish desires and the tortured life he leads as a consequence. It’s high time, given his integral role in the Lord of the Rings saga, that he get his own video game, wouldn’t you say?
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is by far and away Daedalic Entertainment’s most ambitious game to date. Having really built up their name on the backs of a long string of point & click adventures – most notably the Deponia series – they started to explore different genres over the past five years or so, with Gollum taking into the realms of a full 3D stealth action game.
Of course, given the character of Gollum, the focus here is really on the stealth side of things, rather than the action. A truly ancient being, Gollum is thin and wiry, unable to go toe to toe with anyone in a fight really, but he is still rather athletic and nimble despite his many years on Middle-earth. The hands off demo showed us how Gollum can explore and navigate a handful of different environments in the game, from the Orc-infested wastelands of Mordor to the opulence of the Wood Elves’ realms in Mirkwood.
Getting through these settings, you will often have multiple paths to choose from, and can tap into Gollum’s athleticism to clamber around ledges and explore vertical spaces. The interesting wrinkle here is that you have to factor in Gollum’s stamina. Whenever he can use his feet for support, he’s perfectly happy to hold on and hang, but if you have to dangle without support from an exposed ledge, chandelier or something similar, his stamina will drain. This takes place over time, and isn’t linked to exertion, pushing you to get to the next section as quickly as possible or risk falling.
Stamina also plays a part in his other exertions. While he can’t stand up to Orcs in a direct fight – if discovered, you’ll have to run away and hide until they settle down again – he can take them out through opportunistic sneak attacks, coming up behind an enemy and throttling them. It takes a lot of stamina and makes a lot of noise, so is something you should only do when they’re isolated. Aside from that, he can take his opportunities to use the environment against them. One example was of putting out a lantern in a cave with a thrown stone, amusingly spooking an Orc so much that they pratfall and tumble down into a pit where Shelob awaits.
What makes this game particularly interesting is that, while Daedalic have the opportunity to explore a part of The Lord of the Rings saga that wasn’t really all that fleshed out in the books, it is also such a known quantity. Gollum is hundreds of years old, so it really doesn’t make sense for him to have an in depth skill tree for you to level up through. Instead he has all of his abilities available to him from the very start of the game, it’s just that they will be introduced to the player as they become relevant for the first time.
We also know the journey that Gollum will take, though Daedalic have found ways to colour this in and expand on his journey. The early part of the game will often be framed by the later dialogue and interrogation by Gandalf, as he pressed Gollum to discover how he journeyed into Mordor. At the same time, you have Gollum’s own dialogue and find how he comes to worship Shelob and feed Orcs to her – spotting spiders webs within the world can signal areas where she can be helpful to Gollum’s adventure.
Later, when escaping captivity in the Wood Elves’ realm of Mirkwood, Gollum has made an alliance with a fellow captive. An elf named Mell, outcast and imprisoned for her abuse of her ability to communicate through water and other magical powers. It’s a two-way deal, looking to slink through the spacious, empty halls of Mirkwood to reach the King’s chambers and find a way to free her. While he hates having to endure psychic communication, it’s one of the few positive relationships that Gollum has had in his life, and a potential friendship to explore.
Daedalic seek to show a lot of the duality of the character, the split personalities of Sméagol and Gollum coming through in various ways. Sméagol is a nicer personality, drawn naturally to moments of happiness and beauty in a narrative cutscene, whether it’s a flower or a beetle just going about its business. Gollum, however, is mean, vindictive and mistrustful of everything. Given the difficulty of hunting in this region, Gollum wants to eat the beetle, but Sméagol wants to leave it alone; Gollum says its a spy for Sauron, but Sméagol insists it’s just an innocent little bug. You have choices to make between the two arguments, leaning the character in one direction or the other and helping to shape the story.
Interestingly, considering how defined the narrative arc has to be to fit in with the overarching story of the world, this game will have two endings depending on your decisions through play. It’s just that the epilogue will ensure that Gollum gets to where he needs to be for the rest of the saga – Marvel’s What If? series, this is not.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum has an interesting juggling act to perform narratively, looking to slot into the established story of the fantasy epic, while also giving players freedom to imprint upon the compelling split personalities of the twisted and tortured character. With Daedalic building that around a solid looking stealth game, I’m certainly keen to see more as the game heads toward release on 1st September 2022.