I’m a bit of a nerd anomaly in that I’ve never really liked The Lord of the Rings. I’ve tried to get through the novels (and movies, zing!) a couple times but the drudgery of the massive aimless battles and nigh-impenetrable continuity minutia put me to sleep. I’m sure there’s plenty of good content there, but it’s probably like getting into Star Wars three decades after it began—there’s too much there, and bits and pieces have been dreadfully mishandled in the intervening time. I’ve always preferred The Legend of Zelda; its fundamentally Japanese take on fantasy tropes is just more interesting to me than the Catholic angle that Tolkien took, probably because I grew up with that stuff and it’s stale and predictable to me.
This is probably why The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest is the perfect game for someone like me or anyone who never really got Tolkien’s universe before. I was a bit hesitant to make yet another attempt at giving a damn about LOTR, but the game was developed by Headstrong Games, makers of grindhouse masterpiece House of the Dead Overkill, so I decided to give it a shot. In the end I’m glad I did. Instead of a dense MMO, RTS or rote movie licensed game, Aragorn’s Quest is a fairly transparent action-adventure title that takes you on an interactive walking tour of the biggest scenes in the movie trilogy. Instead of assuming that you’re already a LOTR junkie it eases you into the massive backstory, spoon-feeding you bits of trivia until you have a large working knowledge of Middle Earth and the events that transpired within.
The way Aragorn’s Quest is set up is actually pretty creative. Instead of starting the game in Strider’s worn leather boots, you begin in a flashback to the final storm on Sauron’s fortress. The flashback is actually a make-believe game played by Frodo Gamgee, son of Samwise Gamgee, the loyal Hobbit companion to bearer of the One Ring, Frodo Baggins. Samwise is a family man now, and as his kid and namesake of Frodo Baggins you start the game in the Hobbit shire. The Hobbits are getting a visit from King Aragorn Elessar himself and are throwing a big party in his honor, but Samwise takes time away from preparations to tell you and his other kids about all his adventures.
As Hobbit kid Frogo Gamgee you explore the shire and learn basic tutorials, and once you’re done with those you talk to Samwise to continue the story of Aragorn, where you play through the fellowship’s quest as the grizzled ranger. The game hops back and forth between these two worlds often and it varies the gameplay nicely. The shire is a small open world environment, a hub of sorts, with lots of items to collect and side quests to complete, while the story of Aragorn is a more straightforward action-oriented main quest.
Both forms of gameplay have been done well numerous times before and you’ll recognize many of the conventions of sandbox and adventure gaming. The archery, sword fighting and horseback combat, not to mention the general exploration gameplay, reminded me a lot of Zelda Twilight Princess. The shire felt like a miniature version of Fable’s Albion, with just as many fetch-quests and diversions to keep me distracted and putting off Sam’s tale for many hours. But the way Headstrong combines these tried and true gameplay styles into one seamless thread makes Aragorn’s Quest a refreshing experience. It also kept me from getting tired of either style; just as I’d finish a movie scene as Aragorn, Sam closed his storybook and I was back to the shire as Frodo Gamgee to explore the mushroom woods or play some party games.
If you want to liven up the questing a bit with some cooperative play, a second player can pick up another Wii remote and drop in at any time, taking control of Gandalf (and Frodo’s sister Elanor in the shire sequences, make-believing to be Gandalf). For co-op play the camera pans back to get a view of both players, avoiding confusing split-screen issues and keeping the gameplay seamless. Gandalf has a completely different play style, using projectiles and spells to defeat enemies, heal Aragorn and gain access to items sealed away by magic. It’s an impressive addition to the already deep game and adds further variety; if my brother and I got tired of playing as Aragorn or Gandalf we’d just swap controllers and keep going.
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