The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a middling survival crafting experience set in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle Earth. The lore, voice acting, and the characters are probably the only interesting ideas this game brings to the table, as the rest of the gameplay loop of mining, building, crafting, and surviving isn’t anything that propels the genre forward.
Developer – Free Range Games
Publisher – North Beach Games
Platforms – PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series S/X, PC
Review copy given by publisher
After seeing what a flop The Lord of the Rings: Gollum turned out to be, I was hesitant to see another indie developed game for the same franchise. Well, I’m glad to say that The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria isn’t nearly half as bad as Gollum was, but it’s not very good either. Indie developer Free Range Games’ newest project is a grindy multiplayer survival crafting experience set in an interesting time period in The Lord of the Rings universe that doesn’t break the mold of the genre nor push it forward.
Instead of following the main story and lore of the franchise, Return to Moria sees you playing as a dwarf in the Fourth Age after the events of the The Lord of the Rings novels (after Sauron is defeated). It has your company of dwarves attempt to retake their homeland of Moria before you unfortunately get boxed underneath a collapsed mine shaft. As you work your way out, you’ll encounter secrets and dangers unbeknownst to you. But, in all honesty, the narrative starts off interesting, but quickly falls off after setting the premise.
The game begins with a robust character customizer where you can change your dwarf’s beard, scars, tattoos, and a bunch more features. It’s a shame that most of this can’t even be seen when you actually play the game, but the effort is nonetheless appreciated. You even get to procedurally generate a dwarven name and choose an aligned faction, despite it not making any gameplay difference whatsoever.
If you’ve played any survival game before, then you’ll understand all the basics of gameplay here. You’re dropped in a procedurally generated map with nothing but your desire to survive and it is up to you to scavenge for materials, build a base, craft tools, satiate your hunger, and explore. The game gives you a barebones tutorial, teaching you how to gather your bearings before letting you figure out what to do next on your own. Forage mushrooms and hunt for animals for food. Collect wood and stone to construct forges and hearths. Mine for ore to create better weapons, armor, and tools. Build platforms, beds, and doors for your home. You get the idea. Unfortunately the console version makes it hard to navigate between your backpack and the hot bar, whereas a keyboard would have the hotkeys mapped to the number icons (1-10). The building mode is also extremely finicky and inaccurate.
Don’t even get me started on the combat because it’s easily the worst part of gameplay. You have all the basics of swinging, dodging, and jumping, all hindered by a stingy stamina bar. Attacking animations are stiff and clunky, with little to no visual animation after an enemy is hit. The game also creates artificial difficulty by rendering your old weapons obsolete when new enemies are introduced, forcing you to craft a better one before you can even touch them. Your base will also be under siege randomly, even during the beginning moments of the game, when you literally have no tools and weapons. This makes the earlier hours unnecessarily brutal and difficult for no reason. What’s worse is that you usually get nothing for defeating enemies, making it far more convenient to just run past them given how spongey they are.
The single player experience here needs major rebalancing as it’s frustrating at best. There are no AI companions to assist you when you play offline, and the gameplay loop is way too grindy given how certain mechanics are implemented. For example, you need to constantly travel between old and new areas to gather better material to utilize in your main base because you are progression locked without upgraded tools. I can see this being alleviated and more efficient in multiplayer, but doing this solo is simply unfun. There is fast travel available, but you need the blueprint and required materials before unlocking it. Regardless, this gripe drags out the gameplay time artificially as most of your time is spent running back and forth over and over again.
Despite being delayed for nearly two months, the PS5 version of the game still suffers from performance issues and bugs. For starters, load times aren’t very fast, and can take upwards of 10 seconds from a clean launch in offline mode. Online load times are generally worse depending on if you’re the host of the world or not. There are also frequent frame drops and stutters as the game cannot consistently stabilize at 60 frames per second. Perhaps the worst offender are the immersion breaking walls that spawn because the game is unable to load the entire world at one time.
Accessibility options are practically non-existent other than the generic subtitle, volume, and brightness toggle. You cannot rebind controls, but there are 2 schemes to choose from. Navigating the menus and heads up display proves to be extremely difficult and frustrating given how small the text size on the screen is, and there’s no way to increase it. Tutorials don’t do a great job of letting you know the ins and outs of gameplay either. You also cannot pause the game in offline mode for whatever reason, so when you need to open a menu to craft or eat, you can easily get overwhelmed and die by enemies swarming you.
Usually survival crafting games have a cheat or debug menu to cater to a wider audience of gamers, to create a less challenging experience should the players wish. There are no world customization settings to tailor for a more casual experience here and no difficulty options to choose from, so what you see is what you get.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria takes up a total of 11.85GB on the PlayStation 5 console, which isn’t a whole lot considering it’s a next-gen only survival crafting game. The graphics are mediocre at best, with blurry visuals and a cluttered user interface. The lighting is way too dark to be able to see anything clearly and even when you can see different environments and character models, they aren’t that detailed! What truly shines though is the audio design, music, and voice acting. Did you know that John Rhys-Davies reprises his role as Gimli from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy?! I also absolutely adored the singing mechanic of the dwarves when they start to mine. It’s true to the original lore and it’s outright endearing.
There’s not a lot Return to Moria offers that existing survival games don’t already excel at. This is not to mention the already heavy price tag of $40 and a slew of performance issues on top of its mediocre gameplay loop. I’d say this is potentially worth checking out if you’re a diehard fan of The Lord of the Rings franchise or just a sucker for the world that Tolkien built. But if you don’t identify with the aforementioned categories, this game is an easy skip.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a middling survival crafting experience set in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle Earth. The lore, voice acting, and the characters are probably the only interesting ideas this game brings to the table, as the rest of the gameplay loop of mining, building, crafting, and surviving isn’t anything that propels the genre forward. The lack of accessibility options and hard-to-navigate UI are also notions that this game is much better on PC than console.