Reviewed: October 22, 2002
Released: September 24, 2002
Even before I received my copy of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance, I had a picture in my mind about the shape this review would take. Of course, I would never entertain preconceived notions about a game, but I knew the questions I wanted to answer: How is Game Boy Advance shaping up as a platform for RPG’s? What are the pitfalls associated with writing an RPG based on a well-known story? Is it better to follow the characters and storyline closely, or to deviate into new territory?
I’m a serious fan of RPG’s, and in fact, one of my earliest forays into the genre was, coincidentally, also Lord of the Rings, a computer game developed and published by Interplay in 1990. I got hold of that title as part of Interplay’s “10 Year Anthology”, released in 1993. The ten-game collection is almost impossible to find these days, but if you can get a copy, and your computer can run DOS based programs, snatch it up. The box also contains Wasteland (the spiritual ancestor of Fallout), and The Bard’s Tale, both superb games of the “old school”, good examples for those who’d like to see what modern RPG’s have evolved, and to some extent, declined from.
Now that I’ve played LOTR, I see that many of the things I’d hoped to discuss must take a back seat to a more important concern, that of bugs and design flaws.
The truth is, LOTR could have been a great GBA game. I’m a very forgiving person, and would not “deduct points” from a game like this for either following the books too closely, or for wandering too far away. I also wouldn’t deduct too much if this were an “RPG lite”, after all, this is for the GBA, not a PS2 or a PC. But I cannot condone design flaws and outright bugs in any type of cartridge game. And that is a major issue in LOTR.
Developers of computer games, in their defense, have to contend with multiple system configurations in gamers’ machines; the idiosyncrasies of different video and sound cards and their combinations, driver problems, and the like. While it’s true that many bugs in PC games are the result of sloppy code, we must also admit that it is impossible for a developer to debug a game in advance for every hardware configuration.
But a Playstation, Xbox, or Game Boy, is a consistent piece of equipment, holding no surprises for game developers. So, as I’ve already said, a buggy game is inexcusable. And other design considerations, such as the number of save game slots, are going to have to be more seriously addressed by developers in the future.
From a pure game-playing standpoint, LOTR is quite enjoyable. While some might say that the game follows the book too closely, and others might complain that it strays too far (damned if you do, damned if you don’t), I enjoyed playing the game, and seeing the familiar characters and places of the novels I love so well.
The catch, though, falls in character development. One of the beauties of playing an RPG is the chance to experience an epic story that unfolds with twists and surprises as you play. Computer style RPG’s such as Daggerfall, are often non linear, with large worlds to explore and experience. Console style RPG’s like Final Fantasy, while more linear, allow for tight, well-developed story lines with lots of surprises. Gamers win either way.
But in a case where the story is mapped out for you, as it is here, there is little opportunity for melodrama. Wouldn’t it be cool if halfway through the game, Samwise turned out to be a traitor, working in the employ of Sauron? Never gonna happen, my friend. LOTR is a victim of the rules of its own universe. This is obviously not the fault of the designers, but it does detract from gameplay nonetheless.
LOTR is party based, and plays out in traditional RPG fashion. There are items to pick up and use, monsters to battle, puzzles to solve, and quests to complete. I found the game neither too difficult, nor absurdly easy, but there was not one puzzle or other aspect of gameplay which stood out as special. The game is competent, but devoid of a strong personality.
Gameplay bugs include characters getting stuck or disappearing off screen, and many of these bugs render the game unplayable, forcing the player to go back to the last (and only) saved game.
The scenery, presented in three quarter isometric view, was my favorite part of the game. I prefer it to the top down view used in many RPG’s because it seemed more real and three-dimensional. People and objects such as trees were clear, but looked soft and blended, realistic despite, or perhaps because of, the small screen size. Overall, the artwork was quite charming. Yes, “charming” is the word I’m looking for.
The graphics actually made me a bit more forgiving of the game overall. While we’re certainly not talking Final Fantasy quality, I don’t believe that’s required to bring a good RPG to its full potential.
I had two complaints about the graphics: First, some of the pick-up items, the dried leaves for instance, are not easily recognized as such. You might not realize you’re near an inventory item unless you get close enough to be warned by the flashing icon.
Second, some of the areas were a bit dark and difficult to see, which proved more than a slight annoyance.
The music was of decent quality and fit well with the feel of the game. It evoked the proper moods, but unlike the graphics, the music did not have the same “charm”. I’ve played old RPG’s where the music was nothing more than single note progressions with a cheap music box sound, and yet, it could make you feel what the characters are feeling; the heartache of unrequited love, courage in the face of extreme danger, you name it. That was not the case here.
Unfortunately, bugs affected the game’s sound as well. Music stopped and started up again without warning. This was more than a minor annoyance, the effect on gameplay is worse than you might expect. Think of watching your favorite television comedy with the laugh track turned off- suddenly, it’s not quite so funny any more. Playing the game without background music robs it of much of the mood.
Depending on your experience and play style, the game will probably take around twenty hours to complete, assuming the bugs don’t cause you to give up before then.
LOTR is not very replayable, since it would hold few surprises the second time around. By then, much of the charm will have worn off as well.
If you’re not into Lord of the Rings, pass on this title. The bugs and their associated frustrations outweigh the pleasurable elements of gameplay, and the faces and places won’t have any special meaning for you. In fact, you’ll be disappointed by the lack of character development and growth.
On the other hand, those of you who are really into the books and the movies, and need a new “fix”, might enjoy the game. Despite the numerous bugs, LOTR was fun to play. A word of caution, the enjoyment of romping through familiar places with old friends comes at a price. You’ll have to be wary of the bugs which can bring you to a standstill. Save often, but never when you’re in an iffy position as there’s only one save slot. And search the internet for information on the various bugs and the ways to work around them.
A game recommendation shouldn’t be subject to these kinds of warnings, least of all a cartridge game. I hope lessons will be learned from this title and applied to the development of future games, in this series and in general.
To end on a positive note, Lord of the Rings does show that Game Boy Advance has the potential to be a great vehicle for RPG’s. I look forward to the next title in the series.
All right, gamers, developers, and anyone with an opinion, what do you think? Does the GBA stack up as an RPG platform? Is a well-known storyline like Lord of the Rings good material for an RPG, or doomed to failure from the start? I’d like your opinions on these or any other aspects of RPG’s that you’d care to discuss. I look forward to hearing from you at email@example.com