After the defeat of Sauron in the Fourth Age of Tolkien’s world, the elves have departed via ships headed for the west, leaving humans at the top of the hierarchy in Middle-earth. The dwarves are now seizing the opportunity to reclaim their greatest city, Khazad-dûm. This survival game takes place after these events, with the player taking on the role of a dwarf tasked with exploring the mines of Moria. This is the first expedition since the Fellowship journeyed through its treacherous tunnels and Gandalf faced his demise at the hands of the fiery Balrog. The loss of the mines still weighs heavily on the gold-loving dwarves who are determined to reclaim what was once theirs.
Unfortunately, the beginning of your personal journey is met with a similar outcome. A barrel of explosive material triggers a collapse in the cave, leaving you stuck underground in the city with no means of getting help from the outside. To escape, you must follow the same path as the Fellowship and venture west through the mines. Despite Sauron’s defeat, the orcs of Moria remain a threat. In order to navigate through the infested mine, you must gather materials and craft weapons, armor, and pickaxes to ensure your survival.
Initially, they are merely small pieces of rock attached to bits of stick. However, as you delve further into Khazad-dûm, refurbishing ancient dwarf statues along the way, you uncover the formulas for superior equipment: longswords from the First Age, spears from the Elves, and a peculiar hat with a candle affixed to it. The majority of your crafting, cooking, smelting, and arrow-making occurs at your camp – a space you can construct anywhere within the mines by simply setting up a hearth and bedroll. These camps serve as both your residence and your workshop, providing a place for rest and construction.
The mines are randomly created, so each game will have a unique arrangement of rooms. However, the order in which you encounter environments will repeat. Your journey will begin near the surface, in dim passageways containing only iron ore, stone, and coal. As you progress, you will reach an underground glade where Elven wood and a high-temperature forge can be found, enabling you to craft stronger pickaxes. With improved tools, you can delve into the depths of Moria and uncover precious gemstones, copper, and mithril deposits. As you gather new resources, you will unlock new blueprints and recipes, allowing you to construct more advanced structures and create superior equipment.
The gameplay in this game follows a specific pattern. You must make progress by navigating through new areas, but you may encounter obstacles that require upgraded equipment. While this is a common approach in many games, it becomes more noticeable when the basic actions are not as enjoyable. Combat is simple, with enemies approaching and you using whatever weapon you have to defeat them. Some enemies, such as the spiders in Moria, can attack from a distance, but can still be easily defeated. As you progress, enemies become stronger, resulting in either being underpowered in a new area or quickly defeating them with only a few hits. Despite facing different enemies, the battles remain the same.
Crafting, too, becomes repetitive. As the facilities you build aren’t shared across your camps, you either build costly advanced facilities, such as bellows and gem cutters, in each camp, or you have to walk all of your loot back to your most developed base whenever you wish to do any crafting. Until you eventually unlock fast travel – making it easier to hop between your camps – for many hours, your only way to travel through Khazad-dûm is by walking back and forth through its gloomy, samey tunnels.
At times, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria gives glimpses of its potential, like when you’re mining for valuable ore in a dim tunnel and your dwarf breaks into song. Their voice echoes tales of battles with trolls and orcs, adding life to the game and making the icy mines feel warmer. However, the song ends and you’re left with more mining and a lengthy journey back to the forge.
The PC version of The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is currently available, while the PS5 version will be released on December 4th and the Xbox version in early 2024. The cost is £31.69.