As you may have already noticed from this column’s previous coverage of the Amazon MMO, LOTRO Legendarium’s umbrella is big enough to provide shade for any and all online Lord of the Rings online titles. I’m certainly not one to gatekeep the franchise by saying that there can only be one title to rule them all, although at this point I doubt that we’ll see another proper MMORPG in the near future.The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria, a crafting survivalbox that was announced this month that’s on the way for early 2023. While it’s probably not a title for me — I’m not super into the survival crafting genre as a whole — I’m willing to bet that it stirred up excitement in some quarters.
So today I want to look at what we know about Return to Moria and what I think about its prospects.
Return to Moria is solely focused on Khazad-dûm
Lord of the Rings Online players who hold a strong fondness for the deep dark of Moria might delight in the fact that this upcoming game is solely set in this underground realm. It’s a good choice for a survival setting, too, because of how dangerous and mysterious this place continues to be long after the Fellowship passed through its monster-infested halls.
Then again, the setting may be a dealbreaker, especially if you have virtual claustrophobia (is that a thing?) and need to see sky and sun. Return to Moria asks you to inhabit the role of a Dwarf, and Dwarves are far more comfortable underground than above it.
It takes place during the Fourth Age of Middle-earth
Rather than retread the events of the books (the Third Age) and the upcoming Rings of Power series (the Second Age), Return to Moria takes place in the Fourth Age. It’s an era when the race of Men rises in prominence and the other races begin to decline — including the Dwarves, who retreat to old kingdoms like Khazad-dûm but also make alliances with Men.
Even though this is a time of peace, there are still conflicts and adventures aplenty, and this game’s time period does allow for cameos from certain well-known Dwarves who are still alive, such as Glóin, Gimli, and Thorin III Stonehelm.
Most notably for the events of this game, Durin VII — also called Durin the Last — is the Dwarven king who re-conquered Moria, bringing with him the Longbeards who restored the kingdom to its former glory.
This will be an Epic Game Store exclusive
Exclusive releases may benefit certain platforms, but they are not very popular with gamers as a whole — especially ones who dislike certain companies or digital storefronts. There was some wrinkling of noses at the news that this will (at least initially) be an Epic Store exclusive, and I can understand the consternation there.
The gameplay loop is standard crafting survivalbox fare
Titles like Minecraft, Conan Exiles, and the like have well established the addictive gameplay loop of this genre: explore new regions, fight critters, hoover up materials, and head back to your home base to craft to your heart’s content.
Developer Free Range Games said that it’s using procedurally generated tech to create Dwarrowdelf’s landscape, although the general principle of increasing danger the deeper you go will remain constant. Players will also need to watch their noise levels, as louder clatter will draw unwanted attention from some of Moria’s nastier denizens.
I like the sound of a “dynamic light system” to create areas of safety as players forge deeper into the dark.
It’s not an MMO, but there is co-op multiplayer
Other than the subject matter, there’s very little overlap here with LOTRO; one is a giant persistent game world filled with thousands of players, and the other is a smaller, resettable world that can be explored either solo or with groups of up to eight players.
The Tolkien Professor is part of the consulting team
Corey Olsen, best known as the Tolkien Professor, said that he’s been tapped to help with the project: “Yes, I can indeed officially confirm that I am consulting on this game. Building a Fourth Age story is a fascinating project, and I am really impressed with the team’s work so far! I think this game will be great fun.”
He also said that there is “lots of background, lots of story” in Return to Moria.
Dwarf females are unofficially confirmed
While Free Range did promise a “comprehensive” Dwarf character creator to make a “unique Dwarven identity,” the company didn’t officially touch on the often controversial subject of Dwarf women. Tolkien himself said that Dwarven women, who were in the minority of the population, rarely ventured into the outside world, and if they did, they were often mistaken for men on account of their looks.
However, in the video, you can identify a clearly female Dwarf — sans beard — hammering away at a forge. It’s probably a good idea to give players as much agency to create the characters they want without getting to legalistic about the lore (which I would say would allow for such playable characters).
It isn’t a sure bet
Despite the strong IP (which has seen a resurgence in the past year or so), I am hesitant to say that Return to Moria will be a smash hit out of the gate. Reception to the initial announcement was tepid, with some dealbreakers (Moria-only environs, Epic Game Store exclusivity) present. This is also a genre that’s been well-mined, pardon the pun, requiring newcomers to work a lot harder to gain an audience and make the case that they offer something that hasn’t been seen dozens of times before.
But the graphics do look cool, and I can understand the appeal of wanting to roleplay a Dwarf carving out a homestead in formerly haunted mines. A lot remains to be seen, including how solid the gameplay is and how intuitive the interface. It’s clear, however, that Free Range is undertaking this project very seriously, and that gets some respect from me.