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.Headstrong has also brought one of the more stylistically beautiful games to the Wii, forgoing the bland brown and gray of the films and drenching Aragorn’s Quest in vibrant colors. The environments make good use of bloom lighting, the most dramatic example being when the sun rises or sets and filters golden strands through the trees. The art design is somewhat exaggerated, particularly in the characters, giving the game a fairytale appearance reminiscent of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The shire has a soft, serene quality while the environments that Aragorn explores range from dreary to mysterious to grand and uplifting, reflecting the spirit of various film locations rather than their literal gritty appearance. Again, it all looks a lot like Twilight Princess but creates the same earthy, natural beauty of realistic locations without resorting to the drab, boring colors that you see in so many games these days.
The game’s audio component is surprisingly top-grade as well, doing the epic scale of the movies justice in a game that admittedly concentrates them down into their basic essence. Headstrong brought in Sean Astin and John Rhys-Davies to reprise their roles of Samwise and Gimli respectively, with convincing sound-alikes filling out the rest of the cast. The amount of dialogue from Astin is impressive—he narrates most of the game as it’s always a story that Sam is telling. The accompanying music is particularly good, mimicking recognizable themes from the films but also adding pieces to the shire and incidental scenes. All of the music is orchestral and expertly scored—there isn’t a single throw-away piece in the game and while it’s a little too similar at times to the music from the Fable series it at least has the same sweeping, enchanting quality.
The only real complaint I can make about Aragorn’s Quest is that it’s too similar to the popular game series it borrows from. If you’ve played Zelda or Fable you’ll get a lot of Tolkien-flavored déjà vu playing through Aragorn’s Quest. The game is also incredibly easy, even on the harder difficulties—Headstrong was obviously trying to make this a game that any fan of LOTR could get into.
In that respect, they’ve succeeded. While it may be easy to the point of tedium to an experienced gamer like me, it still offers a rich, well-measured primer to Tolkien’s universe. I wouldn’t call myself a fan now but at least I have a better appreciation for the fiction. Aragorn’s quest is an excellent introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and serves as a greatest hits collection for people who are already steeped in the mythos. It won’t give you much of a challenge but it’s a well intentioned, decently lengthy and entertaining journey while it lasts.