I love The Lord of the Rings. I know that’s like saying that you enjoy breathable air, but I feel it necessary to preface the review as such. It seems every time I get to talk about Tolkien’s work, it’s because I played a game that left me feeling disappointed. The Lord of the Rings – The Third Age gave me hope that it might break this unfortunate trend. Only to end up being the worst Tolkien game that I have played so far.
The Third Age feels like a movie tie-in game in denial. You play as a Gondorian soldier called Berethor, who is on an important quest bestowed upon him by the steward of Gondor. Along the road you find yourself joining forces with other adventurers, whose personal stories end up becoming side-plots to your own. That may sound exciting, but there is a catch. While these are “original” stories in the Tolkien universe, they just so happen to always align with whatever the protagonists from the movie trilogy are up to.
Berethor and his allies consistently find themselves ten steps behind the actual Fellowship. For all the effort put into the characterization of these new characters, the events you partake in are just rehashes of iconic moments from the movies. You end rushing to Gandalf’s side to battle the Balrog, barely make your way into Helm’s Deep, and then join Faramir in the defense of Osgiliath. It’s what you’d expect from a movie tie-in, but the wasted potential on display here is truly tragic.
What was a novel surprise is that this game is an RPG. Not like The Return of the King where characters technically “level up” as you play, but a real RPG. It’s inspired by Final Fantasy X of all things.
Combat is a turn-based affair where you select your action from a menu. You can perform regular attacks, use all kinds of items, or perform special abilities unique to each character. You level up as you gain experience points, whereupon you get to assign stat points to get stronger. There is also equipment to manage, as well as a neat system where you unlock new abilities by using similar skills in combat a lot.
As interesting as a turn-based Tolkien RPG sounds, The Third Age is incredibly barebones. Not so much a game of rough edges as it is a game that is just rough down to its very core.
First and foremost, the game is exceptionally linear for an RPG. Areas are generally small and form straight paths from objective to objective, with only minimal opportunities to explore side-paths. They even fence you in with invisible walls to make absolutely sure you stay on the intended path. Not that there’s anything to do in these areas except moving forward. No characters to meet, no shopping to do; you can’t interact with the world in any way that you’d expect from an RPG. You are just a tourist who gets to admire recreations of the famous movie sets.
Some levels will pretend to be open-ended. You’ll get multiple paths from time to time and each chapter has side-quests, but this is a facade. If there are multiple paths, then all of them will invariably be mandatory. It’s just a means to make you backtrack through the level several times. And those side-quests that fill up your journal will all be either slightly off to the side of the mandatory path or even just a part of it. For example, the chapter set in Rohan pretends to have several side-quests for you to do. Except those are the only objectives in the level and the game won’t let you move on until you’ve done all of them.
It’s not just linear environments either; your very progression is entirely predetermined. All equipment is tied to just 1 specific character, so there is no opportunity for you to decide which fighter gets what. There is also no randomness to this process at all. Each chest you find, every battle reward, it’s all set in stone. The game has planned out exactly when and where you get anything. And since there’s no point in giving you equipment that is worse than what it gave you before, this makes managing equipment entirely braindead. You just equip whatever new thing you get to the 1 character allowed to wear it.
Combat is fun at first, but will quickly wear out its welcome as the game drags on for hours and hours. Battles quickly begin to feel repetitive, as the pool of potential enemies is much too small for the frequency with which encounters happen. The same strategies will work over and over again, making it rarely worthwhile to use items or some of the more complicated skills. Using items is further discouraged because you can only do so during combat and their duration is limited to only a single fight. Outside of bosses, it’s basically never worth the hassle
Adding to the annoyance in combat is how each turn drags on. You and the enemy will always be using special skills, which come with lengthy animations every single time. If these were a spectacle like in Disgaea, that’d be understandable. Instead it’s usually a long, unskippable animation of a character shouting with an aura around them, before they run up and just do a standard hit. You’ll be seeing each of these animations hundreds of times before the end of the game. This is then followed by an unskippable victory animation, after-battle stats, and brief loading screen to get back to the main game. Then you take 10 steps and already trigger the next fight.
The Third Age is a game of constant interruptions, which makes it difficult to ever be absorbed in the adventure. Not just with the frequent combat encounters, but also with the incessant need to manage your party. Experience points are a good example of this. You need so little experience to level up that you’ll rarely leave any combat encounter without needing to assign stat points to at least 1 of your characters. This means pausing the game and clicking around the unwieldy menu for a while. It doesn’t take terribly long to do, but you will be doing it constantly.
You can never just play the game uninterrupted for more than a few minutes. You’ll constantly need to head into the menus to do stat points or equip new gear; killing any sense of immersion. It made me wish that the game “rewarded” me less. The 2 stat points you get per level up and the minuscule upgrades over old equipment always feel a letdown. Why not increase the requirements for level ups, but give players more stat points each time. Or cut out a bunch of the redundant equipment so each piece you get feels like a big step. Make it so that the player actually feels more powerful the next time they get into a fight. Make it feel like the detour through the menus was worth the interruption.
Worst of all are the cutscenes, however. The Third Age doesn’t have a lot of traditional cutscenes during gameplay; instead it has “epic scenes”. These are recut footage from the movies with narration from Gandalf, which explain what is happening on your quest and how it fits into the rest of the lore. These are framed as optional, but without them you lack a lot of context for what you are doing, why you are doing it, and who the characters you play as even are. There over a hundred of these scenes and you’ll be notified constantly that you should head into the menus to watch them. This can happen multiple times in the span of less than a minute in some chapters. Some epic scenes are unlocked literally within seconds of the previous one. It’s incredibly tedious.
All of these little time-wasters contribute to making an already-bloated game feel even longer. The chapter set in the Mines of Moria, for example, ended up taking me 5 hours to complete. There is so much-tracking, so many encounters, so many epic scenes. Not to mention the slow movement speed and constant need to go into the menu. Other chapters tend to be shorter, though each one has its own tricks to pad out the runtime. Stuff like endurance battles that go on for an eternity or enemies with way too much health.
Osgiliath has a horrible example of this. The Nazgul are a pain in the ass to fight, owing to their high health and tendency to spam status effects. It’s a long, arduous fight every single time. So of course there is a tiny area where you NEED to do that fight 3 times in a row. No surprises or twist; just do the same exact challenge 3 times.
This isn’t even getting into the game’s more broken features. For a humorous example, consider the way how battles are initiated. The game has a random encounter system, but you can go for hours with triggering any of them. The timer for when an encounter happens resets per screen and, due to the linear design, you rarely spend enough time anywhere for a fight to break out. Instead of fixing this, the game just peppers each area with way too many preset encounters. Or they put in long, featureless stretches of terrain that are boring to walk through, but guarantee at least 1 random encounter will eventually happen.
More frustrating are the issues with the combat system. Most notably in how it uses initiative. The game shows you in what order anyone gets to attack, which can be affected with skills and items. Stunning an enemy knocks them down the initiative ladder or you could use an item to have a slower, more powerful fighter attack more frequently. It’s comprehensible, but not very satisfying. Orcs and their kin get so much initiative that they can often attack multiple times in a row. Attacks that could further alter initiative, allowing them to attack even more.
In late-game fights, Enemies can just stunlock you to death and there’s nothing you can do about that. In 1 battle, an enemy legitimately got to make 12 individual attacks against me before I was allowed to act even once. And I only got that opportunity because Berethor dodged by sheer luck. That wasn’t a boss either, in case you are wondering. That’s an enemy that you’ll encounter several times. Meanwhile, some foes that you might want to stun may be entirely immune to it. I don’t even think you can delay anything in the final few chapters, nor can you do so against any of the game’s bosses.
Sometimes the initiative system doesn’t even work. An effect that you can see happen in real-time. You target an enemy whose turn is coming up with a stun and the game will just move another foe all the way up the ladder to take their place. Sometimes from so far down that they weren’t even visible yet. Or in endurance battles, enemies that run into combat often just get to skip ahead. So what’s the point in picking off enemies tactically if the game will just spawn in another copy that attacks you the same regardless. It goes beyond a system that is merely biased against the player; making it feel like enemies get to arbitrarily decide whether they follow the rules or not.
Stuns are not the only attacks that reek of bullshit. It takes a tremendous amount of time to unlock some skills, only for them to turn out incredibly weak. Counter-attack, for example, triggers so rarely on some characters that I forgot I even unlocked it for them. Attacks that are supposed to hit multiple times will fail completely if the first hit happens to miss. And some attacks that are marked as being extra powerful (and which cost an amount of AP to match) actually do less damage than starter level skills. Hell, some of them do less damage than just your normal attacks.
There is also just a lack of fun skills to use. If you want to use Idrial as a sorceress, for example, then I wish you good luck with that. She has 1 attack spell throughout the entire game. Unless you somehow grind to the far end of her skill tree. There are also few skills that will hit or affect multiple enemies at once. This is a pain, given how almost every encounter will pit you against a large group of foes.
This has turned into a bit of a rant, but I really am disappointed. The Third Age had an opportunity to change the negative perception that surrounds movie tie-in games. The RPG genre was a daring choice and the developers clearly loved not only the movies, but also the original source material. There is so much lore that isn’t addressed in the movies present here and I thought it was cool that we got to explore that from a new perspective. It is also a very pretty game. The visuals are amazing for home console titles and do a great job at both matching the movies’ environments, as well as expanding upon them.
A shame that this potential went squandered on a game like this. A game that revels in wasting your time and whose mechanics often make no sense. The Third Age had an opportunity to be both an entryway into the RPG genre and Tolkien’s fantasy world. Instead, it may well have scared many off from delving deeper into either.
I was challenged to play this game by my good friend Stian from Corruptsavefile.com, who also gifted me a copy of the game. In return, I challenge him to play (and review) Catherine.