As the title above implies, this game borrows several elements established by Square’s seminal Final Fantasy series, but since all RPGs owe something to the original Lord of the Rings books, does this mean Third Age is essentially ripping itself off? My head hurts.
From the three-character, turn-based, character hot-swapping battles to the overworld wandering and lavish spell effects, this game has a distinct flavor akin to Final Fantasy X. Which one is better, however, depends entirely on why you picked it up in the first place. Whereas the Final Fantasy games are oozing with sweeping original scores and marvelous new CG cut scenes, Third Age borrows everything in its bag of tricks directly from the movies Peter Jackson crafted over the last few years. This works as a solid movie tie-in, but at the same time, this game wouldn’t have legs without the multitude of assets it borrowed from the films’ production. The music, the visual styles, the character design, even the story mimics the movies identically. The difference here is that you don’t play the highlighted fellowship from the original story. Instead you guide a different fellowship composed of essentially the same character types with different names, traversing the terrain of Middle Earth in the shadow of the famed heroes we all know and love. You’ll occasionally catch up to them and even fight battles side-by-side with them, but then they leave you behind. Kudos to the developers for making worthwhile wannabes that are actually likeable. The voice acting and character animation are top-notch. The environments are a little ugly in places, but for every unsightly tree built from toothpicks is a wide-open plain or sunset-hued sky that makes you stop and stare. Graphically, the good certainly outweighs the bad.
Battles are somewhat random, despite there being a few different indicators on the screen for when you’re about to get attacked. The best HUD indication I’ve ever seen in an RPG for upcoming encounters was in Guardian’s Crusade on the PSone, where I could see figures representing enemies who would either chase me or run away in terror based on the party’s relative strength compared to theirs. I could see enemies and avoid or attack them as I wished. I preferred that. The HUD system in Third Age is odd and not even reliable, as some encounters will simply vanish as you approach them, while at other times you’ll get attacked out of nowhere.
Some encounters in Third Age trigger necessary character meetings or events to move the story along. Some open up one of over 100 scenes lifted right from the movies, narrated by Gandalf himself. That’s great and all, but if I wanted to watch the movies, I’d just go do that instead. Again, there’s minor head-butting going on between calling the game a ?movie tie-in’ or simply a lack of innovation. I had the impression there were concurrent stories that could be told in Middle Earth, or even ones from different ages, but this game offers neither. It tells the same story we already know, and from almost the same perspective, too. Heck, Elegost even looks exactly like Aragorn, for pity’s sake. Fans of the movie series will eat Third Age up, but the rest of us will most likely take it or leave it.
Battle effects, both aural and visual, are well implemented. Third Age sports possibly the best fire effect I’ve ever seen in a game. The grunts and growls of the enemies get a little annoying after a while, but it’s not from a lack of polish – it just gets old. Weapon impacts pack a punch, and enemies sometimes display accruing damage (arrows sticking in them until the battle’s end was a nice touch). Each character can develop individual abilities that will benefit the party as a whole, and once you clear an area, going to a save point allows you to revisit old areas and continue leveling up. The only downfall here is also a problem evident in recent Final Fantasy games: in-battle animations. Though very nicely done, they grow a little old after seeing the same arrow shot, summon, or spell performed 100 or more times. Being able to turn these repetitive animations off and speed up the combat would have been advantageous.
New equipment that is acquired by the party goes into a separate categories on the Equip menu, making it easy to know what goodies were just found. Each weapon, accessory, and piece of armor looks different, and will change how the characters appear onscreen. However, whereas in games like Fable and Forever Kingdom where your fashion sense directly affects NPCs on a social level, the changes in Third Age reside solely on a cosmetic level. Also a worthy addition, but nothing new, is the ability to customize your characters with earned attribute points. It bugged me that I couldn’t add points directly to some attributes, like defense against blunt and specific elemental resistance for Idrial or pierce for Elegost. I could only add points to the defense category as a whole and hope things got better over time.
Third Age also has a feature I wish more RPGs had: selectable difficulty. Playing on ?easy’ makes it much?well, easier to just enjoy the story and not fret over dying in battle too often. Still, though, the difficulty seems to increase in clearly divided steps rather than gradients. The same Orcs you fought in Moria will do twice as much damage to you once you reach the lands beyond the mountain. They don’t look any different, but since you’ll do a lot of leveling up in Moria, the game evidently sends the surviving Orcs and other do-badders to the gym so they might stand a better chance of slaying our wayward party. It would be more believable if the increase in difficulty were more subtle. Instead, for each new chapter, I knew I’d go from being comfortably on top of things in battle to getting my ass kicked again by peons.
There is a cooperative play mode where another player controls a separate character in battle, but they always use the same character instead of simply alternating every other turn, and everything remains turn based. Having two characters attack simultaneously and adding chain/combo damage bonuses and emphasizing timing and actual cooperation would have made this co-op option compelling. Even alternating turns so the second player could control different characters (and thus get more than one turn to the other player’s every two) would have spiced things up. As it is, this co-op mode is an opportunity missed and is a largely forgettable feature.
After completing the standard portion of the game, you can play as the other side, championing the forces of Sauron and Saruman, and this at least offers a different point of view from the standard fare. If this were the crux of the game, or even its primary mode, Third Age would have gotten some more points for originality, but once you spend 20 hours or so playing through the all-too-familiar tale, you might be too worn out on the premise to want to play the whole thing through again.
All in all, Lord of the Rings: Third Age is steeped in high (if utterly borrowed) production values and serves as a perfectly solid RPG. LotR fans have probably already ran out and bought it at the mere mention of an RPG involving the ?one Ring’, but there’s enough here to keep non-fans entertained for the duration, too. How well it will hold your interest is directly tied to your familiarity with the source material and how much you care for it, whereas most other RPGs are tasked with introducing every element of the story and making it good. However, as a direct movie tie-in, Third Age is a pretty good game.