Aragorn's Quest is the first fruit from a decision by Warner Bros to acquire the rights from Electronic Arts and produce its own spin on games set in The Lord of the Rings universe. Originally developed by Headstrong Games with the Wii as its lead platform, but it was later converted to PS3 by TT Fusion. It's a third-person action-adventure title that includes two player co-op, with the option of using the standard DualShock controls or getting active with the Move and Navigation.
The most notable consideration to make when purchasing this game is that it was never built specifically for core gamers. Its gameplay is best described as "RPG lite", with its emphasis on the accessibility of the action rather than the depth of the adventure. This is evident from the story, which takes place 15 years after two unassuming Hobbits took a short saunter to the peak of Mount Doom, and it revolves around Samwise Gamgee (Mayor of Hobbiton) spinning a yarn to his son, the surprisingly named Frodo Gamgee.
The core game succinctly breaks the trilogy's main events into eight chapters, as the player controls both Aragorn through Sam's interpretation of the legendary quest and Sam's son during training sections in a Shire-based hub area. If you do not remember the parts of the story where goblins bombarded Rivendell, Aragorn protected Gimli by unleashing arrows at the Balrog or when Gríma Wormtongue organised a gang of henchmen to besiege Edoras, it is best if you accept that when Sam re-tells a story he likes to spice it up with lots of hack-'n-slash.
Therefore, considering that Samwise was split from Aragorn before Fangorn Forest in Chapter 4, he provides an exaggerated recollection in which fights against huge spiders, Orcs and Warg Riders are prevalent, all in the name of packing action into the gameplay. Conversely, for any core gamers aged over 15, it is worth noting that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow presents a more impressive battle against trolls, goblins and spiders, plus its boss battles are vastly superior to those in Aragorn's Quest.
It is also important to highlight that this game does not pack a challenge: for experienced gamers it is recommended that you play it on the highest 'King' difficulty level, and it opts to present the combat through a simple control system. The main set-up is based upon swings of the wand for your sword and using the Navigation to control analogue movement, as well as your four core back-up weapons, which are assigned to the D-Pad. Your selections begin with a shield and a flaming torch, but later you are able to acquire a bow ready for Rivendell and a Rohirrim spear. Similarly, Aragorn is empowered by receiving the Andúril sword in Rivendell, which bestows special abilities to a strength gauge. He is also able to charge at enemies with his horse, Brego, whilst in Rohan and on Chapter 7's Pelennor Fields.
Attacking an enemy can be approached with wild swipes of the wand, but it is most enjoyable when you apply a basic strategy, by learning which weapon will stun an enemy to open up a precise strike. For example, some enemies are susceptible to being lit with the torch, whilst others can be barged with the shield, or are heavily damaged by the spear. If timed correctly this can open up a brief moment in which an on-screen arrow directs your swing, or prompts you to thrust forward with a powerful lunge attack. However, this system works best if you create space for a one-on-one fight – whenever you are surrounded by enemies during levels like the final battle at The Black Gate, it is not as effective.
In some respects controlling the game with Move diverts your attention from the system's simplicity, as it feels like more of a button masher with DualShock 3, however including the strength gauge manages to add a small element of variety. For example, later on other members of the Fellowship can be directed to fight more fiercely with a battle cry, you are able to charge up a heavy strike and holding T can add more power to your blows. Fallen enemies provide collectibles, including green orbs to re-fill health and blue orbs to power up the strength gauge, whilst littered throughout the environment are pots and barrels that contain similar goodies, as well as herbs which provide invulnerability or a boost to your strength. Cash can also be collected to purchase artefacts, which increase your level of defence and the amount of damage you are able to unleash.
The game does not bewilder the player with stats, as upgrades are accumulated by collecting fellowship tokens, which increase the power and defence of both Aragorn and his battle-buddies. You can speed your way through the adventure in less than ten hours, although this approach will miss out on hidden collectibles and the game's plethora of side quests. Should you ever get lost, you can push the Move button to see a path drawn to direct you towards objectives. Therefore, your hand feels held during most of the adventure, although you can become distracted by side quests, but the formula for these is repetitive as you save another watchtower, fetch trinkets or shoot Crebain birds down from the sky.
Visually the game is inconsistent in its style, although its origins as a Wii port are evident throughout. Initially its depiction of a golden sun beaming light through the Shire's trees and glistening on Rivendell's streams is endearing. Its early radiance draws superficial comparison to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, although Aragorn's Quest has a fraction of the detail. However, the dark nature of the source material could not be avoided by the art team and as the gloom envelops the story it also dominates the graphics in Moria, during a rain-lashed Helm's Deep, plus over the skies of The Black Gate, and consequently the presentation loses its charm. Fangorn Forest is particularly murky, and although it's understandable that the team did not want to attempt photo-realism, the PS2 presented these environments almost as effectively in 2003's The Return of the King. The graphics in Aragorn's Quest simply do not impress when starved of bright colours and are hampered at times by slowdown and screen tear.
On the other hand the audio is superb throughout, Warner Bros. has access to material from the films, so the score is brilliant. It alters its tempo based on the proximity of goblin danger and builds atmosphere as wolves howl in the distance. The dialogue is a mixture of direct movie samples and additional voice work by Sam (Sean Astin), and helps this depiction of the world to feel more authentic.
The choice of Gandalf as a drop in/drop out second player is a fun addition; the camera adapts well enough to his inclusion and it's simple to set-up a fireball launching co-op buddy with either PlayStation Move or DualShock 3. This also adds to the game's replayability, and although you cannot initially return to a completed chapter, once the entire game has been beaten you can opt to replay any of the eight levels. Therefore, you can embark on a second attempt to find extra upgrades and complete any missed side quests, as this is especially useful for the chapters set in Rivendell and Rohan, both of which are standout sections of the game. These two areas are larger, are visually brighter and involve a greater sense of exploration compared to the rest of the game.
Gamers in North America should note that this game was patched to include Move support and isn't compatible with the motion controller right out of the box, whereas it is in Europe. American gamers should download the free patch for their game in order to access the Move controls.
Gamers will extract the most fun from Aragorn's Quest if they purchase it with the understanding that it has been built to be accessible for a broad audience and that Samwise's imaginative interpretation of the story's events focus more on hack-'n-slash action than RPG adventuring. Its simple control system suits Move more than DualShock 3 and this is most effective when you chain prompted motion attacks to deliver more power to each strike. There is a limited strategy to be found through extra D-Pad selected weapons and in activating special abilities by building up a strength gauge, although you may be tempted to succumb to mindless wand waving on busier levels. You may choose to charge through Aragorn's Quest in ten hours, but you can still return to it for the fun co-op, to explore The Shire further and to complete any overlooked side quests.