The first time I really sat up and took an interest in a conversation happening in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was when the Candle Man mentioned Eärnur and his struggle against The Witch-king of Angmar. Hearing the fate of Gondor's last King before Aragorn would ascend to the throne nearly a thousand years later was such a welcome treat. It also put into stark contrast how I have started to feel about The Lord of the Rings Gollum the game, and Gollum as a love letter to Tolkien.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: in my 20 hours with The Lord of the Rings: Gollum heading into this review, it's not been a great ride. From slow, plodding tasks that feel like they were added to just pad the run time to the myriad bugs and crashes that have all but prevented progress on some days, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum really struggles to find its footing.
Set in the years between when the events of The Hobbit and the start of the War of the Ring, LotR Gollum follows its titular character through his trials as he seeks to get back to his Precious. From spending time in both the Dark Lord Sauron's Black Pits to living in a cell amongst the Elves, the story unfolds as a partial flashback with Gollum recounting his experiences to Gandalf the Grey.
It starts off with Smeagol escaping Cirith Ungol, only to be caught and interrogated by the Dark Lord himself for the whereabouts of the One Ring. Having given up the Shire and Baggins, Gollum is turned into a slave, serving Sauron in the Black Pits below Barad-dûr.
One look at The Lord of the Rings: Gollum tells you that this isn't the same Middle-earth we saw in Jackson's movies. There are hints of the same design language - and it makes sense: Tolkien was insanely descriptive of his world. And I do love that the team took more inspiration from the book itself rather than just copying the look and feel of the Jackson movies full stop.
Mordor looks dark and foreboding, and the pastel reds and greys swirling in the air around Gollum at Cirith Ungol look great at times. The Black Pits themselves are full of detail, though I do think the development team went a little overboard with armor that doesn't look like it'll actually serve someone well in combat. Seriously, the armor on the Orcs looks laughably huge, almost as if the armor model asset was never actually meant to fit on the bodies of the NPCs. It's really bad.
The team clearly did research when trying to approach how Tolkien's world would look if we took a literal meaning of his books. However, as I mentioned in my preview previously, the art direction's illusion breaks with Gollum himself.
Gollum's character model, to put it mildly, is probably one of the worst I've seen in years. And I'm not happy saying that, but I really can't think of another major protagonist character I've played in a game recently that was as lifeless as Gollum himself.
Part of this is that I have such a vivid impression of Andy Serkis' Gollum in my mind. I've seen Gollum when he can look absolutely stunning, with clear emotion etched onto his face.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum's Gollum looks just lifeless, his familiar face feeling plasticky that doesn't really show any emotion. In cutscenes where he cries out, the character model seems to reset to default, devoid of any inkling there is something going on around him whatsoever.
It's really, really hard to sell the illusion when the character I interact with the most is probably one of the worst offenders in the game. Other character models feel stiff, odd and also devoid of any emotion, such as the Frail Man or the various Orcs who prowl the Black Pits of Mordor.
It's just a shame, and it's unfortunately not helped by the voice acting that is clearly trying to go for an Andy Serkis impression and just misses more than it hits. Gollum is such a well-known character in our zeitgeist that it was always going to be a challenge to create him in a new and compelling way here in this game. However, I'm not sure that Dadelic succeeded at all here in creating a compelling Gollum version of Gollum to spend my time with.
It isn't helped either that the parkour mechanics - the coney and potatoes of the game mechanics - feel ripped from a 2007 game. There's nothing really new going on here, and in practice, they just aren't good enough to warrant them being the main way the game plays out.
Instead of feeling as if Gollum has any weight to him as he swings from a bar or jumps to a ledge, Gollum instead feels as though he can just snap right to the parkour point, ready to go. Gollum doesn't feel responsive at times when trying to complete a specific pass, such as one sequence which saw me feeding Orcs in the Breeder. This had me dangling above pits of ichor that could kill me if I dropped into the vat, which I did on multiple occasions because the parkour feel so unresponsive at times that I would miss a jump point, or jump way too far and land in the pool.
Then, the controls and camera would feel like they are working against me, keeping me from climbing out of the pool in time before Gollum died and I was forced to try it all over again.
The real shame here is that as someone who loves the pure lore of Tolkien, it's clear that the developers do too. Underneath all of the poor parkour mechanics and the lifeless Gollum is a love letter to Tolkien somewhere to be found. Tiny hints, like that painting with the Last King of Gondor or realizing the Doriath-inspired caves of Thranduil's Woodland Realm in wonderful detail just feels a bit wasted here. The experience, from the lackluster Gollum himself to the dated parkour and stealth mechanics just doesn't equal the love the team poured into showcasing Tolkien's wonderful worldbuilding.
It also doesn't help that the missions Gollum has to go on are tremendously boring and repetitive. Gollum spends much of the first half of the game in the dungeons of Mordor, collecting tags, rocks, corraling monsters and more. It's routine, boring and really doesn't do anything to serve both the character and the plot. The characters created for Gollum, namely the Candle Man and his Daughter really don't add much to the fabric of Middle-earth, and the interactions with cell mates and even the Elves of Mirkwood fall flat overall.
None of this is helped by the poor performance on both PC and PlayStation 5, where I've spent my time reviewing the title. The PlayStation 5 is a particularly bad offender, with issues from crashing every five or ten minutes to framerate drops that make playing a chore. The PC version doesn't fare much better.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum allows for ray tracing (though the in-game menu doesn't tell you what kind), but the port doesn't feel that well optimized. Visually, Gollum doesn't look bad - I rather like the environmental art style myself - but it doesn't look like a modern 2023 game if we're talking about pushing visuals.
It does, however, come with Nvidia's latest DLSS 3 frame generation, which helped as I played it on both an RTX 4060 Ti as part of our recent review, getting much higher framerates than I would have at 1440p otherwise. However, this might be the first time DLSS 3 didn't feel like a complete value add, but rather a way to cover up some poor optimization as it never really quite felt stable. Day 1 patches and drivers could smooth that out, but we'll have to wait and see.
One of the more interesting aspects - at least on paper - is the dual personality of Gollum and Smeagol. While Gollum attempts to portray is an internal struggle where you have to effectively choose one side over the other at pivotal moments in the story.
However, these feel both hamfisted and pointless, especially as I'm not sure throughout the course of the game I ever lost an argument with my other half. Additionally, the way these are presented is so bland that they feel completely useless, with a poorly designed Gollum model reacting stiffly to whatever choice I ended up making.
At the end of the day, there isn't anything really redeeming about The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. It's a bad video game that really isn't one I can ever recommend, even if it were part of a Game Pass subscription. Fixing bugs and helping alleviate crashing isn't going to fix poorly implemented gameplay and a lackluster overall story. It's a game that feels dated, one that seems to have taken no gameplay lessons of how to create a compelling story-driven adventure game from the last fifteen years.
At its core as well, Gollum as a protagonist was never going to be all that enticing, despite his intriguing personality in the books. The surrounding game and narrative had to be absolutely stellar to sell Gollum as a compelling protagonist, and Daedalic fails full stop here. And it's a shame because the team are very obviously Tolkien fans aiming to tell a good story set in Middle-earth. However, at the end of the day, the game on release would have been better off never leaving its cave.
Full Disclosure: A copy of the game was provided by PR for the purposes of this review. Reviewed on PlayStation 5.