How do you create a large-scale video game solely centered around Gollum? It’s a question the developers at Daedalic likely asked themselves countless times. Unlike other key characters from the works of Tolkien, he isn’t a master of magic, a skilled swordsman, or an adept archer. He’s…Gollum. A diminutive, twisted, callous creature that spends his days crawling through cave networks while skulking in the shadows. He isn’t a character to admire, but rather feel mildly sympathetic for.
Further compounding a concept arguably flawed from the outset, Daedalic’s Gollum isn’t too pleasing to look at either. Obviously, they couldn’t mimic the works of Andy Serkis too closely – with this adventure disconnected to the Warner Bros. trilogy outside of its source material – but the Gollum we’re presented with here is, frankly, hideous. The problem being that we’re potentially going to be spending a good fifteen hours in this character model’s presence.
Unsurprisingly, then, the developers have had to draw inspiration from Gollum’s rather small set of unique “skills” – running from trouble, hiding, and climbing. The game’s duration is formed mostly of lengthy traversal sequences – with our paranoid protagonist showcasing extraordinary upper body strength as they shimmy along ledges, swing from bars, and climb craggy cliffs – along with rudimentary stealth of the hide-in-bushes and throw stones to distract dim-witted guards variety.
There’s an occasional action sequence too, in which Gollum must run from danger, Crash Bandicoot style, into the screen. A handful of somewhat illogical puzzles are later introduced, mostly within the final chapters, adding some much-needed respite – at least upon eventually figuring out how to progress.
As far as combat goes, there is seldom an opportunity to throttle guards by catching them unawares. Mostly though, this is an experience based on either avoiding or squirming out of trouble. Gollum does have to wrestle with this conscience, however, and this is one of the better-implemented features. At key points, a decision must be made – with a clear distinction between good and evil – where Gollum, or Sméagol, must convince themselves of the selected action. While some of these decisions are impactful, they’re also few and far between – usually a good couple of hours apart. Now also seems a good time to mention the voice acting. Gollum, generally, sounds appropriately menacing. Sméagol, however, sounds embarrassingly twee. A few of Sméagol’s lines are also a tad too articulate. “Yes, I understand.” The role of Gandalf is more convincing, with the voice actor being a pretty good Ian McKellen stand-in.
So, why does a Gollum game exist? Our guess is that somebody believed there was a story worth telling here. It leans heavily into the fact that our anti-hero is a tortured soul with a troubled past, and sheds light on the lengths taken to survive their torment. The story begins in retrospect with Gandalf questioning an imprisoned Gollum about their time as a slave to the Dark Lord. The Dark Lord has spared Gollum’s life, and this has aroused interest from a lot of parties. The first few chapters – with each chapter lasting around two hours – take place in the Dark Lord’s predominantly grey slave pit. The sense of progression here is laughable as Gollum is simply forced to work in the pits, with different objectives for each day.
Even at this early stage, the game’s biggest problem springs instantly to light – this is an experience mostly formed of menial tasks, with very little to inspire the encouragement needed to keep playing. In the absence of skill trees, there’s virtually nothing to invest your time into; you’re merely being ushered from one slog to the next, all the while dying countless times at the hands of the finicky mechanics. Gollum leaps so absurdly high that they often take fall damage when they land – and the ability to heal seems only to exist because of this, as there are very few instances where incremental damage occurs. Gollum is either caught by guards or falls to his death – hitting the ground in a manner close to resembling slapstick comedy.
Once free of the Dark Lord’s shackles, the experience does improve slightly. To put this into a better perspective, the final three chapters closer resemble a conventional video game, but to reach this point, a good ten hours is required from the player beforehand. These chapters have a far more appealing setting – including some surprisingly picturesque views – and now free of the company of grunting Orcs, the supporting cast is consequently far more interesting and down to (middle)earth. There are actual objectives to focus on and objects to interact with, while the key characters in this location are far easier to bond with. But to experience Gollum at its best – which even then, is still compounded by sloppy stealth sequences – you’ll have to slog through the game’s terrible first half. By this point, the damage has been done. There’s no redemption arc.
As the conclusion drew near, my death count was well into the hundreds – falling from great heights is a common occurrence, and while activating ‘Gollum vision’ will highlight the path ahead, it still isn’t always entirely clear which background elements are either in reach or are traversable. I also encountered a couple of glitches, including one that required a chapter restart due to a vital puzzle piece vanishing – resulting in around 30 minutes of head-scratching before realising said piece had vanished. On Xbox Series X, parts of the tenth chapter also refused to load, requiring a reset to try again. This only added further time to an experience that had already long overstayed its welcome.
How do you make a game centered around Gollum? Not like this, would be the unambiguous answer. It’s misguided at best, and downright miserable at worst. If the key moments were part of a bigger, more action-oriented, experience with a more suitable lead I would probably be okay with that. A vertical slice of Gollum fleeing Shelob, or the slave pit escape sequence – a few choice cuts. Instead, the route taken is a frankly exhausting fifteen-plus hour adventure with more hardship and toil than even Frodo had to endure. That’s six hours longer than the movie trilogy that inspired it, and about ten hours more than necessary.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is out now on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, and Xbox One. Co-published by Daedalic and Nacon.