Like many 21st century nerds, I have a deep love for Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Tolkien's seminal fantasy trilogy. Until I sat down to dig into the portable version of LEGO Lord of the Rings, I believed that I could be made to love anything so long as the film's main theme was running in the background. I was wrong; oh so terribly wrong. I can forgive a lot of mistakes when I see a good game hidden behind them, but there comes a point where even Adagio in D Minor fails to garner my sympathy. LEGO Lord of the Rings hits that point almost immediately and never redeems itself.
For those late to the party, the LEGO series of games takes popular entertainment franchises like Star Wars or Batmanand attempts to distill them down into charming, LEGO themed puzzle/platformers with a side of action. The series has often been quite successful in this endeavor due to both the parity between the colorful source material and the LEGO universe as well as the sturdily designed game mechanics, which while simple enough for young folk to reason out, usually manage to be fun for the parents and older sibling who inevitably get roped into playing. But LEGO LOTR makes so many cardinal errors in terms of gameplay that even at its best, it bores. And at its worst, it frustrates, regardless of how young or old you are.It's kind of sad when all you have to do is mash the attack button over and over, and yet the game still can't read your inputs right. Even when it does, the clunky looking combo animations carry you right past your target often, forcing you to miss them entirely and sometimes sending you down one of the games many pits of insta-death.
Not only do enemies fail to react to landed blows, they attack through them, interrupting your offensive and making you take unavoidable damage. It's like a bad ‘80s beat 'em up, except you couldn't accidentally kill your braindead AI partner in those. You can in LEGO Lord of the Rings, thanks to the presence of friendly fire. If you've always secretly wanted to kill Samwise, you can now do it over and over to your black, shriveled heart's content. Me, I'd rather have had an AI partner that I don't need to fight around for fear of slaying them.
This same shoddy craftsmanship is present in nearly every aspect of the experience. Platforming feels vague thanks to a lack of player shadows and a positively unruly camera, with which you'll fight just as often as any Uruk-hai. Swinging from one tree branch to the next as an elven prince should feel airy and swift, but here it feels heavy and sluggish.
Despite having such rich, awe inspiring locations to draw from, exploration is a big letdown, too. The majority of the levels are linear in nature, which is totally fine, but there are times when the game gives you the freedom to roam about. This would be wonderful if the levels were well designed and visually interesting, which they somehow aren't. These LEGO recreations fail to capture the scale and majesty of their iconic Middle Earth counterparts in any way. On the 3DS, I can understand being a bit limited in terms of power, though I think it's capable of much more than what's on display here, but for the Vita, this is inexcusable. Dreary, washed out colors make the LEGO elements indistinguishable from the non-LEGO ones, which robs the former of its trademark charm, and the latter of its magical ambiance.
From the big stuff like level design, all the way down to the little things like how collectible LEGO studs are placed, nothing in LEGO LotR feels quite right, even the audio package, which was ripped straight from the films. It's all heavily compressed, giving it a crushed, distant quality that makes it sound cheap and tinny. As memorable as everyone's performances were in the films, having the dialogue chopped up so badly to fit on cartridge defeats the whole purpose, and comes off as a lazy attempt to curry favor with fans. Yet, any true fan of the films will be baffled by some of the stuff that got left on the cutting room floor considering what ended up getting used. And hearing Howard Shore's excellent musical score while taking in such sub-standard visuals ends up being a constantly jarring reminder of how much promise the game held, and how far short of that promise the final product falls.