The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria might lovingly depict one of the most recognizable fantasy worlds ever created, but to my surprise, that’s not actually the most recognizable thing about it. This is a survival game first and a Lord of the Rings game second, content to replicate all the familiar mechanics of the genre while leaning heavily on its Tolkien backdrop to compensate for a lack of original ideas. If you’ve played any survival game in the last 15 years, you’ll immediately know what you’re in for as you build bases, cook food, upgrade your pickaxes to mine better ores, craft armor and weapons to fight hordes of enemies, and run back home when it gets dark. The trouble is there’s no part of the tried-and-true survival blueprint that Return to Moria does better than games that came before it, and there are some parts, like the terrible combat and constraining building, that are significantly worse than most.
Return to Moria’s story takes place during Middle-earth’s Fourth Age, after the fall of Sauron and the conclusion of the War of the Ring – an interesting choice, since this era has not been explored much at all in the canon. Everyone’s favorite dwarf and occasional projectile, Gimli (who is once again voiced by movie trilogy actor John Rhys-Davies), has called all the dwarf factions back to Moria in order to reclaim it from the goblins and orcs who have taken over. As one of those summoned dwarves, you and up to seven friends are sent into the menacing bowels of the lost kingdom to cook rat meat, decorate hastily assembled hovels, and juggle dozens of materials between haphazardly placed chests like the unrepentant hoarders you are.
After an opening cutscene that throws you into a dark hole, the story slowly builds to a confrontation with a powerful entity that’s corrupted Moria with dark magic. That said, most of that story is little more than a series of excuses to reference the events of Fellowship of the Ring, like when you find the stone Pippin threw down the well or walk through the room where Frodo’s Mithril saved him from an otherwise-fatal blow; just about every other room finds a way to remind you that the Fellowship traveled through here. It’s not that the story is bad overall, and I can forgive a certain amount of fan service in a Lord of the Rings game, but the larger issue with it is that you spend about 95% of the journey, which took me nearly 45 hours to complete, jogging through dark corridors and beating up irritating goblins, so it’s easy to forget there’s any kind of plot to follow to begin with.
Occasionally, though, it reminds you you’re in Middle-earth in endearing ways – namely through song. If you’ve ever read a Tolkien book then you know the man could only go a few pages before he felt the insurmountable urge to lay down a beat, and I love how much Return to Moria pays tribute to that legacy. While mining all manner of ore, your dwarf will start singing from a wide library of light-hearted songs. If you get drunk with your comrades, you’ll all start dancing and singing some epic ballad about your people’s history. And during key story moments, you’ll break out some especially stirring songs filled with lore and a whole lot of heart. That is, if you aren’t interrupted by a sudden emergence of goblins and orcs trying to kill you in the middle of your musical number, as I was a number of times.
The main thing Return to Moria gets right is the almost rhythmic pattern of gathering more and better resources to feed your growing base-building needs. That loop of exploring deeper and deeper into a dangerous mine filled with monsters as you collect resources and improve your character can be entertaining. While at first you can get by with a dusty pickaxe and sword, you’ll quickly find yourself outmatched by enemies further down in the darkness, and therein lies the fun. You’ll need to acquire rarer raw materials, upgrade your gear, and improve the accommodations at your base to make the going easier, like a very necessary keg filled with beer to maintain morale. It’s easy to get lost in the continuous grind as you aim for the latest shiny thing that’s going to enable you to brave the next leg of the journey. This loop will be very familiar to anyone who’s stayed up too late running around in Minecraft or slaying giant spiders in Grounded, so we’re not exploring new territory here, but it’s extremely important that Return to Moria at least retreads that ground well.
Unfortunately, the actual building, combat, and especially exploration that come along with that generally enjoyable grind all miss the mark, and all for the same reason: a shocking absence of freedom. While you can set up a base from scratch almost anywhere, each new zone has at least one or two preset campsites that are extremely beneficial to use as starting points, making it very difficult to justify dumping a bunch of resources into making camp anywhere else. And even when I did decide to go rogue and settle down in a place of my choosing, most of the time the building options were so frustratingly finicky it made me regret the undertaking. In one case I spent half an hour trying to build a second story for my base that kept collapsing due to some unspecific rules regarding load-bearing structures, and in another I immediately realized the area I’d chosen was diagonally oriented on Return to Moria’s grid-based map, meaning every single structure I placed was chaotically incompatible with the layout of the room. It really feels like the designers did everything they could think of to prevent you from creating your own settlements, which is certainly a strange set of priorities for an adventure that’s literally all about rebuilding Moria.
Even worse is combat, which is a very dull pattern of blocking, stabbing, or shooting arrows with only a few weapon types that feel far too similar, which is a major ball to drop since Return to Moria has you doing a whole heck of a lot of it. Goblins, orcs, and uruks spawn all over the map whenever you’re not looking, raise an army against you whenever your mining and exploration create too much noise, and assault your bases with intent to destroy them on a regular basis. Many of these encounters can last 15 to 20 minutes, as dozens and dozens of identical cretins surround you and continuously respawn for a painful amount of time. Fighting is largely not difficult, since the enemy AI is some of the most facepalmingly incompetent I’ve ever seen, but with large health bars and regular incoming attacks that had me dodging and blocking more than I had the opportunity to attack, it drags on for far too long.
And when I say enemy AI is bad, I really can’t understate it. Enemies constantly get stuck on top of and inside their surroundings, allow you to stand at a safe distance and pick them off with ranged attacks, and repeat the same attacks over and over again, letting you spam the same response a dozen times before they finally go down for the count. Every once in a while you get a new enemy type like a drake or a troll to contend with, but even these fall victim to terrible AI, quickly casting any excitement straight into the fires of Mount Doom.
Also, I also feel the need to mention just how annoying the enemies are. They never stop screaming like maniacs and, even if you’re not in their immediate vicinity, you can hear them hooting and hollering nonstop. After more than 40 hours of that, I felt like letting out a psychotic scream of my own.
Return to Moria also makes the perplexing choice of not actually letting you mine in any direction you want, instead putting up hard, impenetrable barriers wherever you go, and only allowing you to dig through laughably small hallways that connect one area to another. No Man’s Sky and Ark have longevity because there’s no end to the ways you can make the world your own, build creative and interesting bases, and express yourself. Return to Moria has bafflingly little of that. Even mining is limited to small deposits found on the sides of the mine’s halls, providing a shallow deposit to be carved out before hitting another impenetrable barrier. It’s just wild to play as a dwarf in a mine without being able to actually dig through… basically anything.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria Screenshots
On the bright side, all the areas you encounter along the way have a lot of personality to them, from the Elven Quarter filled with trees and beauty, to some gross depths covered in glowing mushrooms and clouds of poisonous corruption. Highlighting one of the only ways Return to Moria differentiates itself from its peers, traveling through this underground kingdom’s linear path feels like a proper Lord of the Rings adventure. Even if very little of it stands out as particularly impressive, I still enjoyed the gratifying process of building up my base in an area, improving my gear, then packing my things and journeying deeper underground to see if I can survive what’s next. That does make the journey a bit more linear than your typical survival game, but in the tradition of Tolkien adventures that lead the heroes on a harrowing adventure from one part of Middle-earth to another, it just feels right.
One of the areas Return to Moria falls shortest is in its consistently poor performance, from bugs like items disappearing, to issues like unstable framerates and abnormally long loading times. There are even extreme cases like how some areas fail to load before you get there, exposing developer objects like immersion-ruining walls separating two parts of the map that don’t disappear until you’ve gotten entirely too close to them. In fact, there are only a few cases where Return to Moria ever looks or performs well at all, and it seems to get worse when more players are added to a world, especially for the guests (since I usually played in my host world, my friends experienced even worse performance than I did).
Performance aside though, Return to Moria is most definitely best when enjoyed among friends, as no Lord of the Rings tale is complete without a party of friends to share the adventure with. It might make things significantly more chaotic to have four or five friends in your world all breaking stuff and smacking around wolves, plus the need to feed all those mouths and craft enough gear to go around can add to the grind, but it’s very nice to even the odds in large combat encounters that go by much quicker with a group. Plus, it’s always handy to have someone to revive you or help you carry all the loot you don’t have room for in your backpack. But again, this is a case of the more, the buggier.