'The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria'
- Platform: Windows (Epic exclusive), PS5, Xbox Series X/S
- Cost: $49.99
- Rating: Teen for blood and gore, violence, smoking
- Score: 7 out of 10
At the end of the events of "Lord of the Rings," all seems well. Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. The hobbits return home. The elves depart Middle-Earth and sail west to the Undying Lands, and with the destruction of the One Ring, the Third Age ends and the Fourth Age begins.
But for the dwarves, unfinished business remains and that is Moria, known in their language as Khazad-dum, the great fallen dwarf kingdom where they delved too greedily and too deep and awoke something foul in the dark.
In "Return to Moria," the dwarves — led by Gimli, voiced by none other than John Rhys-Davies, the same actor who portrayed the stout dwarf in the "Lord of the Rings" movies — are determined to retake their ancestral homeland from the goblins and orcs that now infest it.
In the game's dwarf-building, I whipped up Korzan — a blue-eyed, blonde-bearded dwarf with a booming voice — and became part of Gimli's crew, seeking entrance alongside a company of male and female dwarves. (And just as Gimli mentioned, the dwarven women are virtually identical to the men, beards and all.) Unfortunately, an accident occurs, and I am trapped alone inside Moria, with some dark magic preventing me from leaving, with the only way out being through.
Exploring the fabled halls, I come across many traces of earlier events (such as wizard marks left by Gandalf, referred to here as Tharkun, his name among dwarves) and signs of passage from the Fellowship of the Ring, like hobbit-sized cutlery sets. There are also signs of the ancient friendship of elves and dwarves from the Second Age, such as caverns containing elven forests.
In the "LOTR" books and movies, set at the end of the Third Age, the relationship between elves and dwarves was almost outright hostile, neither side trusting the other at all. But the entrance to Moria, where one had to speak the word "friend" in Sindarin (one of the elven languages Tolkien created), was clearly of elf origin. It's nice that the game lets players get a glimpse of Middle-Earth history, and eventually one can even find the forge of Narvi, the legendary dwarven smith who, along with the elf Celebrimbor, created that entrance and had a great friendship in the Second Age (several thousand years before the events in "Lord of the Rings" and in "Return to Moria"). Celebrimbor, of course (of course! — as if everyone nerds-out about Tolkien like I do) is famous as the forger of the three elven Rings of Power (worn by Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel).
So what I'm saying is, if you like little knowledge tidbits to pop up as you play or you like to geek out at every dawn when your dwarf wakes up and the game teaches you a new phrase in Khuzdul, "Return to Moria" will have extra appeal.
It's with this love of lore and all things Tolkien in mind that I say that other parts of "Return to Moria" are lacking compared to other games in the survival-crafting genre.
Every "world" has a map seed and is procedurally generated, but it's not like "Minecraft" or "Valheim," where you can literally go anywhere or dig anywhere. It's actually a rather linear game (especially considering travel is vertical and horizontal in "Return to Moria"). Mining takes place in nodes found along dwarf-made corridors. In games like "Minecraft," sometimes while digging you might find buried buildings scattered here and there among the massive map, but here civilization is everywhere, and you occasionally find places to mine.
Crafting is also pretty linear with story-based unlocks happening in specific locations and in a specific order, and the rarer resources needed for crafting advanced items only found in different parts of the play-through. Interestingly, a lot of resource gathering is in the form of breaking down the items littering the passageways: barrels, junked carts, wood and stone rubble, old buildings, rusted armor pieces, orc encampments and so on. And in pretty much all cases, the best way to harvest materials — including from trees — is to use a pickax. You have a war ax, but it's for enemies, not wood, unlike pretty much every other survival-crafting game.
And then there's the combat, which is honestly pretty tedious outside of boss battles. Dwarves can wield either one- or two-handed weapons, with a shield for the off-hand in the case of the former. With a shield activated, virtually all enemy attacks are nullified completely — even ones from behind. So it really takes mainly patience and timing to take enemies out, which will spawn in massive numbers and regularly assault your bases.
But hey, base building! That's always a favorite, except that games like "Valheim" and "Minecraft" do that better, too.
There are some genre staples, like being able to create farm plots, grow vegetables and do lots of cooking, for health and stamina buffs. (Eating various cooked snacks is how most in-combat healing is done.)
"Return to Moria" also is a game with a definite end — a final boss to defeat, and about 45 hours of play to reach the end.
My first exploration was done solo. There is also, wonderfully, an up-to-8-player co-op mode available, and my next goal is to see how playing with friends changes up the experience.
I love the lore, and the game is fun but not really ground-breaking in a way that I hoped. I'm going to keep playing though, and my rating may be a score that evolves over time.
After more than a decade as a reviewer, Jason Bennett has an unhealthy love for rogue-like survival games and terrible puns. Questions or suggestions? Reach out to him at