The Lord of the Rings: Gollum
Released: May 25, 2023
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Systems: PC, PS5 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Xbox X/S
Of all the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings story, is there anyone fans have wanted to step into the filth-encrusted diaper of more than Gollum? I know when I heard a Gollum game was in the works, I became immediately seized by the possibilities, enticed by the dream of crawling around in my own shit, shoveling worms into my toothless maw, and begging less pathetic creatures (which is all of them) for mercy. Who wouldn't want to be a spiteful, disgusting, tiny little monster that survives almost exclusively as a result of pity?
“God, if you’re up there,” I prayed, “Please let me be able to snivel in the new Gollum game. Please let me be a snivelling little cunny!”
Who could have foreseen that this tantalizing game, in which we can finally be the most wretched thing on Middle-earth, would turn out to be a load of fucking shit? If only there had been some clue that alluring software siren, which looked like garbage and sounded like trash, might be rubbish? Curse Eru Ilúvatar himself for allowing such a tragedy. It truly is a sad time for the game industry when not even a title based around Gollum - one released eleven years after his last movie appearance, no less - can be good.
In all seriousness, it's not like a game starring such an unwashed poltroon couldn't be interesting, but you'll find no evidence in its favor with this utter wank.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, to its credit, immediately lets players know it’s going to be terrible with one cursory glance at the title character, resembling as he does a Muppet that Jim Henson really phoned in. He looks like a cross between Mowgli from the Jungle Book and a scarecrow. Like if Slenderman was drawn by a frog fetishist. Like a child's drawing of DJ Qualls. Like the embryonic result of Gizmo shagging a fully grown Gremlin.
I once took a fuckload of shrooms and interrogated myself with some of my Boglin puppets. This game's version of Gollum looks slightly weirder than the shit I saw that night.
Gollum's design is very bad, is what I’m saying. His gaunt physique, noodle limbs, and buggy eyes allow him to vaguely resemble the character portrayed by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s iconic film adaptation, but the comical cartoon face and scribbled on hair ensures he's naught but a crude mockery. It reeks of what happens when artists want their creative stamp on an existing character, but daren’t stray too far from a version already enshrined in popular culture. It makes me think of the “stunt double” superheroes seen in Crystal Dynamics’ Avengers game, only this is considerably worse.
Merely plonking a static mat of straw on Gollum’s head is bloody weak, to say nothing of the fact it doesn’t look like it should be there. The way it's embedded into the scalp seems accidental, as if a fuller mop of hair is clipping through Gollum’s skull and we’re only seeing bits of it.
This farcical mess of a protagonist admittedly fits right in with the overall visual shambles on display. Character models in general, especially the humble variety of Orc ones, look half finished, devoid of much detail and animated with all the natural grace of a marionette puppeteered by a drunk. The whole game is deeply ugly, low on textures, high on remarkably offputting shades of brown, and boasting an overall graphical quality that bravely keeps its head just above the standards of an Xbox 360 game. Everything looks kind of smeared, possibly due to the limited color scheme, as characters and their surroundings all blur into each other.
It runs so poorly it has the distinction of being the first PS5 game I've ever played with ray-tracing activated. Not because it made the game look any better, but because it didn't tank the crummy performance very much and I found that funny. Like all games with ray-tracing, it did lower the framerate because the PS5's ray-tracing is an almighty scam, but the fact I wasn't so disgusted by its downgrade I immediately binned it is truly a twisted achievement. I love how such a hideous looking game has the sheer temerity to include a performance mode and two quality modes - if I didn't know any better, I'd be applauding Daedalic's majestic prank.
As for the gameplay itself, imagine if A Plague Tale was made by people who wanted to discredit A Plague Tale. You've just imagined The Lord of the Rings: Gollum.
Gollum was quite obviously inspired by Plague Tale's linear stealth approach, though its execution of the concept is dismal. A fair portion of the game involves Gollum crawling under tables and through long grass, disappearing into shadowy areas to avoid orcs. These linear sneaking sections sometimes require you to throw stones at metal things to distract guards, and occasionally you can sneak behind and throttle one for a very long time. I'm an avid defender of what I call "directed stealth," but I fucking wouldn't be if Gollum was my only experience with it. Rudimentary stealth-by-numbers taking place across small arenas with orcs who don't even try to hide the fact they're Videogame Enemies™ doing Videogame Enemy™ things. That's what we're dealing with here.
Orcs patrol ridiculously short routes. They silently trudge a meter or two, stand still for a few seconds, and then trudge back, just going through the motions. Half the time, their patrols make no sense since no apparent thought went into how they do it - I know orcs aren't meant to be smart, but I believe they understand that being a lookout doesn't mean staring at brick walls. They behave like programmed robots to such an extent they destroy any potential for immersion, they're just too blatantly following the simplest, PSX-era scripts.
As piss-poor as stealth sections are, they’re marginally better than the fucking miserable platforming and climbing that makes up much of the rest of it. A big problem is in how unwieldy Gollum is, his jumps having a strangely high arc and a long angled descent. His sprinting jumps especially catapult him at such speed and distance it’s very easy to overshoot a ledge and send him to his death His jerky motions make him tough to maneuver on narrow walkways, and he frequently gets stuck while climbing, seeming to get caught on walls and ladders.
Even worse is how the game tailors Gollum’s jumping to the environment, not the other way around. Sometimes he’ll leap to grab something at an angle you can’t replicate elsewhere, or become capable of distances slightly greater than usual to account for the fact a grabbable surface is too far away. Often he’ll snap to whatever he’s meant to grab by several in-game feet without any transitory animation. Some degree of snap is expected with gameplay of this nature, but the extremity of it here is more than I've ever seen before. As a result of Gollum's athleticism being dictated by his surroundings, even after hours of play I never could get a comprehensive feel for how he actually navigates the world. Some distances that look too long to leap turn out to be fine because of his magnetic properties, other times they're lethal. Gollum might jump too far past a nearby platform, or he might alter his jumping animation to account for it. You just never know what the next hurdle will do.
Of course, this is made all the more unpredictable thanks to the fact platforming and climbing doesn’t always work. Gollum is highly likely to miss the ledge he's trying to grab for no reason, pass through a solid object, get stuck on a bit of wall, or become confused when doing his weird magnetic snap. It’s important as a player to be able to trust your protagonist will go where you want and jump where you need them to, and this is one of those games where the trust isn’t there - you simply can’t have faith that Gollum will perform as expected, an issue evidenced whenever he’s swinging from a monkey bar and is just as likely to hurl himself directly into a chasm as leap so far he's flung way beyond the intended destination.
Levels are terribly signposted, conspiring with the drab colors and blurry environments to make grabbable sills and scalable walls blend into the rest of the world. The same type of ledge can have multiple aesthetics - there is no uniform appearance and yet not one of them is obvious enough to stand out from the fecal-shaded scenery. At times, it's way harder than it should be to figure out an intended route because the spaces Gollum can traverse are borderline camouflaged. Paths are so unintuitive as to be misleading, especially since camera angles are awkward and even depth perception is difficult due to the aforementioned blending problem. Our protagonist can enact Gollum Vision to highlight orcs and see whispy orange string that indicates the correct way in theory, but in practice sometimes doesn't do it at all.
When the game isn't offering shitty stealth and shittier platforming, it treats you to vast sections of nothing - sorry, I mean “adventure elements.”
There are long tracts spent just hanging around waiting for the game to happen. Half the runtime takes place in a Mordor prison, and half of that time is spent going through a routine of heading from Gollum’s cell to a prison cart, slowly riding somewhere, engaging in a sliver of platforming, then riding back to the cell. Yet more time lurches by while listening to other characters run their mouths talking inane shit while you patiently wait for something to happen.
What really stands out though is the stuff with which Gollum tries and spectacularly fails to stand out.
The poor thing makes an attempt, it really does, to offer something unique, but any attempt is so half baked it quickly falls apart. This is perfectly typified by a “moral choice” system (because it's still the mid-2000s) that sees our protagonist caught between his Gollum and Sméagol personalities. At points in the game, you’ll be offered the choice between doing something horrible or something more benevolent - for instance, you can abandon a character to the monstrous spider Shelob, or have him escape her lair with you. Once you’ve made a choice, you need to argue against yourself to do it, switching to an unfortunate closeup of the protagonist as one personality resists your decision via dialog with multiple choice responses. You often need only give one correct answer - winning usually requires two out of three successes and you automatically get a success the moment an start up. Your horrible toad boy’s ultimate action relies on who wins the argument between Gollum and Sméagol.
This idea is, quite frankly… brilliant. The moment this mode fired up, I laughed at how hard it was trying to do something clever when everything else was so plainly busted, but it really is a great concept. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) it’s poorly implemented and dreary. Thanks to how successes are counted, the chance of losing is minimal in arguments that are remarkably brief, with answers often amounting to easy guesswork. It’s plainly obvious that what was envisioned was something more intricate, a verbal battle inspired perhaps by L.A. Noire. What we got was a bare bones non-quiz that taunts players with a shallow trace of what could have been.
Hours into the game, you get your first “Companion Mode” puzzle, suddenly thrust onto you without a tutorial (the tutorial comes later, because this game isn’t put together properly). Here, you’re supposed to complete puzzles by telling an NPC where to go and what to interact with. It’s frigging stupid, said NPC only having the choice of a few predetermined locations as part of a poorly communicated puzzle in which you don't know what the game wants from you. It’s an utterly pointless addition that slows down an already tiresome game, and very much like the Gollum/Sméagol arguments, it feels every bit like something that was supposed to be way more involved than it is.
When you have a choice of actions, the button prompts clone themselves. What I mean by that is... and brace yourself for this shit... if you've got the option to steal something and there's a box saying "Steal the Thing" with an "X" button prompt, switching to the "Leave Thing" box will add the prompt to it while it remains on the other one! This leads to a ludicrous situation where you can have two, or even three, choices displaying the same button prompt. The only way you know which choice your making is to move the stick and press the button when the option you want briefly animates.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a temple of ineptitude.
There are elements of the game where you can feel how good it could have been. Despite his jumping and climbing mechanics being totally fucked, Gollum is oddly enjoyable to control when he’s just moving around on the ground. His gangly limbs and animalistic loping make for a unique protagonist to handle, and aside from the way he jerks into motion when you first nudge the controller, he’s clearly animated with a sense of care for the character, a far cry from the stiff animatronic motions exhibited by the rest of the cast. Despite being almost completely awful, there are a tiny handful of decently designed platforming sections that use Gollum’s climbing and wall running well enough to reveal glimpses of what we could have had with better physics, better environments, and better everything.
Any such potential is undone by just how unfinished the whole thing clearly is. NPCs, for example, don't react to Gollum at all beyond specifically scripted moments. In any other game, you’d expect a prison guard to at least push you if you go the wrong way, but here they just stand with their awkward idle animations no matter what you do. You can dance around someone in charge giving a zealous pro-Sauron speech and nobody will stop you. You might get a voice line or two in response to something, but other than that, you might as well be crawling around a world made of cardboard cut-outs. I'm okay with ditching extraneous details if they don't add anything to the game, but a complete no-sell of the player's actions is not what I expect from a game with the fucking nerve to cost the same as a big budget product.
Even worse is what happens - or rather doesn’t happen - when you die. If an orc catches Gollum, they pick him up by the neck and punch him with no sound effects whatsoever. Gollum makes no noise and the punch - which doesn’t even connect - is equally mute, the only sound being a stock voice line from the triumphant orc. Should Gollum die by falling, which he will a lot, his body is prone to freezing completely still and either hanging in mid air or plummeting like Wile E. Coyote at awkward angles that just look stupid. Still, at least there are sound effects for such deaths, even if such sounds seem randomly generated and still don’t occur very often. Combined with the lack of textures, glorified placeholder animations, and the sheer weakness in gameplay, this entire shitshow is seriously underdeveloped and outright embarrassing.
Oh, and it's not exactly endeared itself by offering Sindarin voiceovers as DLC, a clawing ploy matched in desperation by its other DLC offering... lore. Yes, this game sells its lore, a pretty standard feature in most baseline games, as premium downloadable content. To further monetize this crap, and do so in the most miserable way possible, is downright despicable. Why would you buy fucking lore anyway? Wikipedia is free, and you can just buy a copy of the goddamn book if you must pay for its story.
Voice acting is decent. Music is pretty nice sometimes.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is so bad it’s less insulting to say the developers didn’t try than to say they did. I’d rather someone think I’m lazy than believe I put effort into making something as incompetent and slapdash as this. Elements of Gollum are so unfinished as to be borderline unstarted, it’s ugly, it’s messy, and it's missing a bunch of sound effects. The worst part, however, is that it isn’t even an entertainingly bad game. Gollum commits the greatest crime any piece of media can commit - it’s boring. A slow narrative, banal stealth, and platforming best described as lethargic when it isn’t infuriatingly broken. A few promising elements swimming to the slurry’s surface only serve to highlight how awful the majority of it is.
Daedalic had an opportunity to prove the cynics wrong when so many people wondered what the hell the point of a Gollum game would even be. Instead, they handled this with such utter clumsiness they likely ensured a game like it will never happen again.