And so it was that Aragorn, son of Arathorn, High King of the Reunited Kingdom, stared into the flame-shrouded eyes of the Balrog as it stood before the Black Gate of Mordor.
Hold on, you say – a Balrog at the Black Gate of Mordor? That’s not canon. But before you start composing your furious letters of complaint to the Middle-earth Continuity and Corrections Board, Aragorn’s Quest explains its story-mangling mischief in a rather neat way: this is the tale of Aragorn retold in the fanciful imaginations of young children. Hobbit children, to be specific, who are larking about in The Shire while the rest of Hobbiton prepares for a feast in honor of the visiting king.
The game bounces back and forth between play-acting in The Shire, which serves as a tutorial, and story time with Samwise Gamgee, where you take on the role of Aragorn in a hack ’n’ slash-heavy highlights reel of the three films.
Sam’s tale frames the Tolkien tidbits in relatively ambitious ways – plowing through Moria may be a linear slog, but other areas, like Rohan, are sprawling settings with simple quests that ask you to crisscross the land, while the siege of Minas Tirith escalates to a dramatic running battle across vast plains. But our hairy-footed friend isn’t much of a story-teller: unless you’ve seen the films or read the books, then most of the goings-on will make as much sense as an Ent with a carpentry degree. Which sort of begs the question: who’s this game aimed at? If you’re old enough to have enjoyed the film, then presumably you wouldn’t see much appeal in this bloodless, kid-friendly cartoon version.
It’s a confusion that extends down to the action of the game itself, which offers you a deep combat system but then never gives you much reason to use it. Swordplay, with its side-swipes, jabs, uppercuts and heavy, overhead blows, demands gesture complexity on the very limits of what the remote can interpret, and on top of that are charged attacks, super-powered combos, and rallying cries to strengthen all your allies.
And that’s just what you do with the right hand. With your left you can block with your shield and slam it into opponents with a waggle of the Nunchuk, breaking their defensive stances. Many monsters reveal a vulnerability to a specific attack after they’ve lunged at you – wolves turn out to be particularly unhappy about being slapped in the face with a flaming torch, while trolls are susceptible to the business end of a spear.
The problem is that none of it’s necessary. Batting aside mobs of goblins like ten-pins has a certain appeal, but it’s so easy that it struggles to keep your attention. We find ourselves looking out the window, absent-mindedly swishing the remote left and right as enemies plow into our blade. Dying is almost impossible outside of boss battles, and even with the difficulty cranked up to hard, you have little to fear from the average orc.
Sadly, the game needs to be easy – were it any tougher, its other flaws, like the crummy collision detection and visual incoherence, would become Balrog-sized irritations. As it is, the battlefields are so crowded with allies, enemies and special effects that it’s often hard to even see where Aragorn is, let alone what he’s attacking. Deciding who to hit isn’t in your hands anyway – targeting is automated, and though it prioritizes enemies well, it occasionally annoys. Your shield-block button is also your lock-on button, which means you sometimes find yourself swiveling 180 degrees to face some nearby enemy, when all you wanted to do was deflect an arrow.
The disappointing challenge aside, Aragorn’s Quest does offer a reasonably handsome romp through the film’s locales. And despite its spotty, breathless retelling, it manages to re-create some of the story’s sense of wonder in the scale of its set-pieces. Nonetheless, the mindless mashing that fills most of the game’s hours means this is far from fit for a king.
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Oct 8, 2010