For those not in the know, I am an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. This admiration goes skin deep and covers everything from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to his staggering level of detail on and around linguistics, both legit and fake, as well as his time with children’s books and the Middle-earth Bible called The Silmarillion. He created a number of powerful places, people, and performances from a wealth of sources: his imagination, his experiences in World War I and World War II, his knowledge as an Oxford professor, his love for his wife Edith Mary Tolkien, and so on. His work is never going to go away, and I love that. With Peter Jackson’s movies a huge success, all things LOTR-related have taken over pop culture in the last ten years or so and been embraced by nearly everyone, even those that probably wouldn’t be seen reading a book about Elves and Dwarves and the One Ring. It’s momentous stuff, capable of transforming the consumer and taking them away into another realm that is just as realized as our own.
That said, the character of Aragorn deserved better.
Aragorn’s Quest, published by WB Games and developed by Headstrong Games, is an action hack-and-slasher with some light RPG elements that came out in late 2010 for a number of different videogame systems: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PSP, Nintendo Wii, and the Nintendo DS. From what I can tell, I ended up buying the worst version of them all. Which is a bummer considering this was a game I actually wanted to play. Hmm. Well, let’s begin…
Things don’t start off terribly. In fact, one of the first things you hear in the game is the voice of Samwise Gamgee, with Sean Astin there to keep the character alive and full of heart. Though his narration of the journey that Aragorn took during the time of The Lord of the Rings is marred by a severe lack of background music–save for the cackling of a fire in the fireplace–and the bizarre reactions his hobbity kids evoke. Anyways, you play as Aragorn, and Aragorn only; other versions of the game, from what I can tell, feature Gandalf available as a co-op controlled partner. Not here on the PS2. This is Aragorn‘s Quest, dang it, and they mean it. And if you’ve seen the films or read the books, everything unfolds as it should. You are part of the Fellowship that plans to see Frodo to Mount Doom as the Hobbit plans to destroy the One Ring there. Along the way, you will kill a lot of Orcs/Goblins, complete quests, level up, and get really good at countering attacks.
Stupidly, everything is a quest. For example, as you go across a level, there will be, say, 10 bandit leaders. It’s not random or anything, that’s how many bad dudes are in the level to begin with. Naturally, before you start out, you will then get a quest called “Kill 10 bandit leaders”, and you can’t miss any of them as they are right on your path, so the quest is both unmissable and un-uncompletable. Just seems kind of unnecessary, but it’s all about leveling Aragorn up so that come the end-game fight you feel like a true and proper badass king-to-be. As you gain levels, you earn upgrade points to unlock a new skill for either the sword, bow, or general health aspects of Aragorn. By the end, I had more upgrade points to know what to do with, as not all skills are worth it. The jump-in-the-air-and-shatter-the-ground sword attack is great for when surrounded, as is the poison arrows for larger, tougher enemies, but otherwise you can make it out alive just hacking and slashing and blocking when you need to block. Oh, and every new weapon or piece of equipment you find is stronger/better than the one you’re currently using, leaving no strategy to play.
Two things Aragorn’s Quest does have going for it are its soaring orchestral score, taken right from the films, and its cel-shaded art. I know not everyone digs that kind of graphics style, but most of my favorite games feature it–Dark Cloud 2, Borderlands, Sly Cooper, Dragon Quest IX, Rogue Galaxy, and on for infinity–and, as an artist, I appreciate the look immensely. Other versions of the game feature more traditional graphics, and so I was surprised to see the cel shading at first. Surprised, but not disappointed. It’s a look that doesn’t easily offend.
One interesting idea that turned out to be a letdown are the arenas. After clearing a section of levels based on a main area, you unlock an arena in that area where you will fight eight waves of enemies. There are different challenges to accomplish during the eight waves–like take no damage or kill 15 Goblins with arrows–and if you earn them all, you get a reward, which the game claims will help you on your journey. Two problems there. First, I only discovered the arenas after I beat the game. Two, it is basically just grinding, and the arena I did in Moria took about 30 minutes to complete, and even then I missed several challenges. Basically, it’s not worth the time and dullness, when I’m guessing the rewards are just a new weapon or piece of stat-boosting jewelry. Oh wells.
If anything, when done right, this style of action RPG gameplay does fit Tolkien’s universe well–probably much more than RTS ever did–and so I was inspired by the failings of Aragorn’s Quest to pick up Lord of the Rings: War in the North recently for the Xbox 360. It plays similar, but is much better in achieving its goals. I’m playing as a Dwarf that likes two-handed warhammers and slicing the legs off of Orcs. Not sure how I feel about this same Dwarf using a crossbow, but more on that game later.