Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a game that I would really love to freely recommend without any hesitation. However, some aspects of the game stop me from doing so, especially with the early game. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is the latest Lord of the Rings game, and it has you playing as a Dwarf exploring the depths of Moria, looking for a way out.
Return to Moria is a survival exploration game where you explore the iconic setting of Moria alongside Gimli during the Fourth Age of Middle-earth. While this sounds well and good, the game is by no means a walk in the park, and you can expect several hours of struggle, especially as a solo player.
As a disclaimer, I received a review copy and have spent around 20 hours playing through the game solo in the few days I've had it, making it past the first four regions. There's certainly an aspect of Return to Moria that keeps you hooked and coming back, for better or worse.
The setting and story are fairly straightforward. You're part of a company of dwarves sent out to try and reclaim Moria. However, you get separated and find that the exits are blocked due to curses. It's now up to you, your wits, and your crafting abilities to make your way through these dangerous and dimly lit caverns.
Return to Moria has most Lord of the Rings fans, myself included, charmed with how it has brought life to a very neglected part of Tolkien's universe. Of course, we're talking about the Mines of Moria under the Mystic Mountains. You are underground, so you'll mostly be going from cave to cave to cave, but changes in the environment, such as crystals and the occasional Elven forest, really breathe life into the environment.
What I did love was the fact that the game really does make you feel like what a fantasy dwarf should be. It wouldn't be wrong to call the game a bit of a dwarf simulator. Customise your dwarf and get to building and crafting. I won't get into the specifics, but all the aesthetics are nailed down pretty well. Singing while mining, the dialogue, the feel of the combat, and the ability to gain a buff from admiring your treasure stash are all great little inclusions that really give you that immersive feeling.
One thing that I'd complain about is the lack of good sound design, as usually, you'll just be hearing Orcs screaming or what sounds like the inside of... well, a cave.
Base building is, unfortunately, very lacklustre. Or perhaps this is only true for the early game that I've managed to explore so far. The options you have to fashion and create a functional base are very limited. The game's approach towards bases involves letting you know that all your bases are temporary, and you'll have to shift to a new one whenever you go to the next area.
The game does not encourage building and sticking to one major base. You'll find ruined prebuilt bases as you explore, and the game clearly wants you to make these your new home. The issue is that this means you won't really get attached to any of these and will constantly spend the first several hours of the game running between bases with your underpowered gear and poor understanding of resource management (more on this later).
The building options include basic things like your forges and workbenches, but the actual structural building options just have items like doorways, windows, and walls. You can't really build anything to defend against hordes and sieges, of which there are plenty, and you'll find yourself cowering in fear behind a stone wall fairly often during the first dozen hours or so.
This issue doesn't get resolved until you finally get your hands on Black Diamonds and unlock fast travel. At this point, setting up bases seems a lot nicer, and you even get a bit of a feeling that you're slowly reclaiming Moria. Regardless, it's disappointing that there's no central base to focus on, and the focus has gone more on the combat aspect of the game.
The combat is passable. And then it gets better. See a trend? Early on, you only have access to a measly iron sword and your pickaxe. As you unlock more weapons and recipes, this issue gets alleviated a bit. However, enemy complexity and variety are never improved upon, and you'll just be going through the same combat loop over and over.
Where I did start enjoying the combat was the introduction of the Rune system for weapons that lets you personalise them as you like. However, at this point, my Gem Cutter bugged out and refused to work, despite the interaction symbol on it, and halted my progression there completely. It was like the game decided to be its own worst enemy here.
Despite these issues, Return to Moria can definitely be a very fun combat experience if the style they go for is the large mob battles with squishier enemies, rather than going into new areas and generally feeling a sense of powerlessness against even the most basic enemies despite your many upgrades. I feel like this aspect of the game has been tuned for multiplayer, and doesn't transfer over well to a single-player campaign.
I feel like I've said this several times already, but this seems to be a recurring trend for the game. Survival and exploration gets better after several hours with the game. While still linear and not as open as I'd like, Return to Moria does open up and provide more branching paths for exploration. During the early hours, it's very obvious that there are only a few very specific patches you can dig through to progress, and you don't really have that open-world freedom.
Despite all my complaints, the game actually kept me hooked for a long time. The gameplay loop is simply very satisfying, and perhaps due to the lack of a pause button, I could simply not take a break and kept going for the next upgrades. Before I knew it, it was 6 AM, and I had spent so many hours in a game that I am now complaining about it. This, to me, is the mark of a good game that can keep you hooked for hours.
For now, I'd say exploring new areas like the poison-covered Deep, teeming with new enemies and resources, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you get that satisfying sense of progression as you unlock new recipes, ores, and materials, and the game really does shine here. On the other, you'll run into so much nonsense, and so many back-to-back death runs to recover your gear that you'll wonder why you're participating in this masochism. Perhaps my experience would be drastically different with friends to play with.
Before I get into my list of issues, and yes, many of them do get better as the game goes on, I'd like to preface it by saying that it should not take over 10-15 hours of investment for a game to finally open up and become exciting. I wouldn't be surprised if a large number of potential players drop the game before they even get to enjoy the better parts, which is truly a shame because I do believe that the game genuinely becomes more fun as you progress. But on with my issues.
Single-player is both a slog and terribly unbalanced. The number of tasks you have to perform on your own can feel unmanageable, and the difficulty becomes something akin to what you'd expect from something like a Souls game, and not in a good way. I love a good challenge, but it's clear that the boss battles and horde battles are all designed for multiple players to tackle. The same can be said for exploration and the shifting of resources.
If you have a good group of friends to play with, Return to Moria might genuinely be a great gaming experience for everyone. If you're alone, though, I suggest you turn around immediately.
Return to Moria is completely committed in its dedication to not giving you any explanations on the various mechanics and puzzles in the game. This is not a one-off occurrence with a couple of systems or puzzles. The game simply refuses to elaborate on its many important systems and instead hides info behind walls of menu texts and throws you to the wolves, literally.
It took me several hours to realise that dodge rolls and crouching exist and that charged attacks are pretty good (admittedly, that last one is on me). The same goes for several base-building mechanics. The same goes for trying to figure out what gemstones and Idols are used for, as well as health systems such as despair, hunger, energy, and stamina, which are never properly explained.
Just to give an example, I had been extremely confused about the location of my Black Diamonds—one of the most important early game resources—until I had the idea to empty my Gold Coin pile several hours later. There is no reason for these interactions to happen with no explanation, and that really goes for a lot of mechanics in the game. This stuff really just compounds into my second gripe.
There's a lot wrong with the early game that will make the average person quit unless you're willing to power through it all: the game is also plagued by waypoints with a general direction but no omnidirectional digging, enemies quickly start outclassing you with no weapon upgrades in sight, and there's an energy system that's not explained but will hinder you during the day and night cycles.
There's also no such thing as an upgrade system, or at least I haven't discovered one in my 20 hours of play. This is a shame, as that's a system that would have tied in quite well with the approach of slowly becoming more powerful alongside your gear. Whenever you die and lose your gear, you are once again left completely helpless to the mercy of the enemies and environment surrounding your stuff.
Return to Moria has many of the fundamentals nailed down, but it fails to stick the landing. If you're a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan, then you'll probably be able to power through and appreciate the passion that went into creating this replica of Moria. However, if you're coming from a survival game background, I'm sure most people will complain that they wish that passion had gone into ensuring a good survival game experience instead. For those looking for a fun but challenging multiplayer experience, this game might scratch that itch for a couple dozen hours.
Ultimately, Return to Moria is not a AAA title, and it is clear that it was never intended to be one, either. Thankfully, it's leagues above the Gollum game. However, it doesn't improve or provide any mechanics that help it stand out in the multiplayer survival-crafting genre. With more polish, lots of balancing, and several quality-of-life changes, perhaps it could one day become a game I'd be happy to recommend. For now, I'd ask the average person to give it a pass or wait for a sale.
Reviewed on PC. A code was provided by the publisher.
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