Can the epic fantasy that is Lord of the Rings work as an action adventure game on Wii?
Despite the original books by J.R.R Tolkien already being popular among many fans of the fantasy genre, the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by New Zealand director Peter Jackson cemented the franchise's place in pop culture, with many other films paying tribute to it while its characters and stories are still analyzed by its fans to this day. The video game industry is aware of the appeal of its universe, and thus has adapted the movies and books into several titles over the years. The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest is the latest attempt at re-creating the books and the films in video game form; is it as charming as the films that inspired it, or does if fumble in its own interpretation of the epic? Just as the Balrog fell with Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm,, Aragorn's Quest battles valiantly but ultimately falls to defeat.
Aragorn's Quest takes places fifteen years after the end of The Return of the King, with Sam Gamgee, Frodo's best friend and companion throughout the trilogy, now mayor of The Shire and father to a young boy whom he named Frodo Gamgee. He is busy preparing a grand event for the King's visit. In between preparations Sam reads the kids the story of his adventures in trying to destroy the One Ring of Power, and how Aragorn rose from ranger to king. The idea of having Sam as narrator is an interesting one, and I applaud Headstrong Games for creating a neat way of tying a new narrative into the classic story. The problem is that if you have read the books or seen the movies, very little of it will be new. In fact, the game will even break the fourth wall and say that a defeat in the game didn't happen at all in the story, so there's no room to interpret the events differently.
What's important here, however, is how Headstrong Games turned the massive storyline into a video game. The gameplay can be best described as a melting pot of game mechanics seen in other games. The core battle mechanics are ripped straight from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; The Wii Remote is Aragorn's Sword, while the Nunchuk is his shield. Shaking the Wii Remote unleashes a melee attack, while shaking the Nunchuk performs a shield parry attack. Holding the Z button will automatically lock onto the nearest enemy, and pressing the A button makes Aragorn slide and dodge attacks. In addition to his sword and shield, Aragorn has a bow and arrow. As in Twilight Princess, you use the Wii Remote's pointer to aim and fire.
The world and side-quest structure is very similar to Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Each level you enter contains non-player characters (NPCs) that have missions. Upon accepting one you must then go to the place that hosts the mission. Once the mission is complete you return to the NPC and he or she will give you coins, rare items, and experience points. It is also similar to World of Warcraft in character interaction; if one of your comrades falls in battle, you must get near him and "rez" him by pressing and holding the A button until their health bar is filled up.
Another element copped from another game is co-op play. While Aragorn's Quest is strictly a single-player affair, a second player can connect a Wii Remote and play as Gandalf to offer the main player help and guidance. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's virtually a carbon copy of Co-Star mode in Super Mario Galaxy.
Finally, the strong emphasis on combating hundreds of monsters and enemies is reminiscent of Samurai Warriors. Some missions cannot be completed until every enemy on screen has been defeated, even if the attack is un-related to the current mission. Character interaction is often locked until enemies are defeated as well.
With such an eclectic group of great ideas, Aragorn's Quest should be more than decent. Unfortunately, the game falters in its execution of these ideas. The motion controls in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess were a novel idea in 2006, but even back then many players felt they were tiring. Constantly swinging the Wii Remote in Aragorn's Quest is a bother here as well.
The level and dungeon design is also a problem. Unlike in Zelda where the battles were balanced with exploration and puzzle gameplay, Aragorn's Quest is a linear experience. Dungeons feature very few puzzles and little exploration opportunities. This combined with constant battles against many enemies makes the game feel like a chore.
There are also many small flaws that eventually pile up and put a damper on the game overall. Having to hold down a button in order to perform a basic action such as reviving an ally can get really annoying, especially during battles where enemies are attacking you. Every time you are attacked you are forced to perform the action again until it is completed. The fact that you can't engage in the story until all enemies are killed is a questionable design choice that can get annoying pretty quickly.
The controls for aiming are weird as well. Unlike Twilight Princess. in which the camera automatically switches the camera to an over-the-shoulder view, in Aragorn's Quest you have to press an additional button to get the preferred view, then move the camera with the joystick. This is a cumbersome control scheme, and forcing players to grapple with the controls in a title which demands fast-paced combat is not an ideal situation.
The enemy and character AI are problematic as well. You cannot alter the AI of your characters, so often you will have characters that wander around the screen or allow themselves to get defeated by their enemies. Often the enemies will pile up on Aragorn, often ignoring the other characters on screen. A way to alter the character AI to your liking would have been ideal.
The visual look of the Lord of the Rings movies has been hailed as one of the best ever presented on film, bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy vision to the big screen in stunning detail with larger-than-life design. Aragorn's Quest tries to capture that in the look of the game, and while at times it does show some great scenes (and its framerate remains steady even during the busiest scenes), the overall presentation is muddy. The color scheme is dark. The characters resemble their film counterparts well enough, but they are stiffly animated and featured stilted facial expressions.
The audio package also tries to recreate the grand scope of the film's musical score, but very little of it winds up being memorable. The voice acting fares far worse. The voice actors try to emulate the accents and delivery of the film's actors, but a great deal of it is dry, lacking the emotional impact that made the movie's characters so memorable.
Aragorn's Quest is, at its core, a decent interpretation of the franchise. But it is dragged down by too many small flaws and gameplay that can only be described as derivative. If you are a Lord of the Rings fan then a rental is recommended; otherwise, stick to the books and the movies.