Both survival games and games based on licensed properties can be pretty hit or miss, and a survival game based on a licensed property is, in my estimation, an even bigger gamble. In our The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria review, we'll explore how what could have been an amazing game fell terribly short of its potential.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is set after the defeat of Sauron in the War of the Ring. There are still dark things in the world and ruined kingdoms that need to be rebuilt. One of these places is Khazad-dum, also known as Moria -- a place that was once home to many Dwarves until a Balrog of Morgoth destroyed it. Now, it's time to rebuild it.
A Love Letter to The Lord of the Rings Lore
I truly believe that The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a fantastic concept. We know from J.R.R. Tolkien's notes that the Dwarves eventually reclaimed Moria after the defeat of Sauron, but there's little in the way of details. The concept of reclaiming and rebuilding the Dwarven capital fits perfectly with a survival game.
The design of Moria is akin to the recreation of Boston or Washington D.C. in Bethesda's Fallout games; they're not perfectly accurate, but they feel like those places.
Even if you stripped away The Lord of the Rings license, it's still a fairly unique idea within the realm of survival games -- how often do you enter a destroyed city filled with enemies and work to reclaim it for your people? More often than not, a survival game tasks you with building a home from scratch.
Concept aside, it's clear that the developers did their homework and had a deep appreciation for the world built by Tolkien. There are smatterings of Dwarven history and culture alongside references to The Fellowship of the Ring's travels through Moria such as Gandalf's Hat. (Do you remember that he took it off before he fought the Balrog?)
This love of the lore is even shown in the architecture of Moria itself. Balin's Tomb and the Bridge of Khazad-dum aren't exact 1:1 recreations of what we saw in the films, but they do look similar. It's akin to the recreation of Boston or Washington D.C. in Bethesda's Fallout games; they're not perfectly accurate, but they feel like those places.
Risking a Little More Light
The setting is undeniably solid, but the actual gameplay mechanics leave much to be desired. This is most evident with the Morale system.
If your Morale gets too low, your Dwarf will gain the "Despair" debuff and begin to lose health over time. The only way to remove this debuff is to restore your Morale. Sounds simple enough, right? In concept, this is a great way to make the fear of exploring a dark, corrupted city into a gameplay mechanic.
The implication of the Morale system, however, is poorly designed in some ways. This is most evident with the "Light" system. If you're in an area that's too dark, you'll begin to lose Morale. Similarly, you'll suffer a debuff if you're too cold at night.
There are a lot of pre-placed light sources throughout Moria, but most of them do not count as "light" or "heat" for dispelling these debuffs. Even your own handheld torch (or any other equipment that radiates light) does not count -- you could see everything clearly in a bright room and still be considered in "darkness" and lose Morale.
I'm still not entirely sure whether this is a bug or intentional design. Either way, it's bad -- your own torches not counting as a source of light or heat is damned counterintuitive and an annoyance.
A Problem with Progression
The strange issues with torches could be a bug, but the game's progression could only be a deliberate design choice. Frankly, working your way through The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria's map can be an exercise in frustration unless you have foreknowledge of where to find the items you need.
There are six tiers of weapons and armor in the game. If your weapon is the right tier, you'll deal normal damage. If your weapon is a higher tier, you'll deal critical damage. And if your weapon's tier is too low, you'll deal scratch damage.
It's likely that you'll have to trudge through 25% to 50% of an entire zone before you find everything you need to actually survive in that zone.
In concept, this is a sensible progression system that many games use: Don't go into new areas until you have equipment that's strong enough to take down the enemies there. Many popular survival games (such as Valheim) use a similar progression system of moving up to new tiers of equipment before you enter a new area.
For some strange reason, however, Return to Moria has you searching for the next tier of equipment in the area where you need it. There is always one critical item secreted away in a dangerous area or locked inside an Orkish Chest, and the only way to get to it is by fighting or evading enemies that you are ill-equipped to handle.
This does not get better as you progress deeper into Moria -- if you go in blind, you'll have to explore highly dangerous areas to be able to survive them. It's likely that you'll have to trudge through 25% to 50% of an entire zone before you find everything you need to actually survive in that zone.
Bugs, Bugs in the Deep
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is not only plagued by questionable design choices -- it's also full of a boatload of bugs. It's clear to me that Return to Moria needed a little more time for polish; the delay of the PlayStation 5 version also seems like a signal that this survival game wasn't quite ready for the spotlight.
For example, I set up my main base in a little side room in a place called The Eastern Bastion. For some reason, several resources -- specifically meat, cloth scraps, and wood scraps -- will appear on the ground for no reason every time I fast travel into the area. More of them will spawn with each subsequent trip.
The game's sound is pretty buggy, too. There is no music or ambient sound half of the time. This leads to a weird scenario where Orks will yell out battlecries or let loose a death rattle with little in the way of other sound effects, music, or ambient noise. It feels half-finished.
Another issue that plagued me was in the fourth and final zone of the game, Barazinbar. Rocks are constantly falling from the ceiling and will pass straight through any of your buildings. It's frustrating and nonsensical for a boulder to pass through several levels of sturdy granite floors and cause damage to me when I'm standing on the first floor.
The most severe issue I encountered, however, has to do with the base-building and siege systems. I placed a small camp in The Great Forge of Narvi and it was sieged by Orks. Unfortunately, the Orks never spawned and so I couldn't fight them to conclude the siege.
As a result, I spent the latter half of my playtime in a permanent state of siege. You can't go to sleep when you're under siege, so I lost the ability to use any beds. Sieges not ending due to the inability of enemies to spawn (or pathfind to the target) is a failure of design; where is the failsafe system to automatically end unresolved sieges?
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria Review | Final Thoughts
My journey through The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria felt like Frodo's journey to destroy The One Ring. It was initially exciting, but the grim state of the world gradually dragged me down until I was a husk of my former self.
The state of Return to Moria pains me terribly. It clearly needed at least another month or two to fix bugs and polish things up a bit. It would be such a better game if the questionable progression balance and the boatload of small bugs didn't exist.
My only comfort is the fact that most of these issues can probably be fixed in time -- indeed, the first major patch promises to fix "over 100 bugs." For now, I'd advise that you avoid The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria until the developers polish the rough edges.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the publisher over the course of 97 hours of gameplay. All screenshots were taken during the process of review.
- Robust crafting and building systems
- Heartfelt interpretation of Tolkien lore
- Entertaining and engaging combat
- Poorly implemented progression system
- Dozens of annoying bugs
- Nonsensical light and heat systems
- Broken sounds and music