The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a story heavy take on drunken dwarven exploration and crafting

By Laura Kate Dale, Contributor

While on paper it’s accurate to describe The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria as a survival crafting game, doing so really feels like it fails to capture the magic of what makes this Tolkien-themed dwarven adventure unique.

At Gamescom 2023, we got to see half an hour of Return to Moria gameplay as part of a hands-off demo behind closed doors, as well as speaking to members of the development team about the title, and it’s clear that what we saw was a lot more narrative heavy than a lot of the titles it shares a genre with.

Gameplay begins with character customization, and while the game doesn’t explicitly label your dwarven hero as male or female, you can customize their appearance across the gender spectrum, including full access to all beard options regardless of how feminine your character might otherwise look, for example.

The Lord Of The Rings Return To Moria Is A Story Heavy Take On Drunken Dwarven Exploration And Crafting Grottos
The core gameplay in Return to Moria centers on delving deep into the depths of Moria, fighting mobs of orcs, mining for materials, crafting tools and gear to aid your journey, and exploring a procedurally generated map. While the environment is made up of developer designed areas, these are stitched together randomly, with rock walls separating areas from each other. This means that not only will breaking through a rock wall often lead to something new and unique, but also ensures that if someone hops into your game in multiplayer, they’re not going to automatically know how to find their way around, keeping their sense of exploration alive.

The demo we saw took place 30 hours into Return to Moria, taking place deep in areas of Moria of great significance to the main Lord of the Rings narrative. The developers had built up an impressive primary base, which they stressed took a lot of work to assemble. Return to Moria features a stability system, which allows for elaborate crafting projects only if they are built with proper foundations, and decent materials. If you see a massive chasm you want to cross, you’re not going to be able to build a bridge straight across it in a straight line, ignoring physics, without it collapsing. But if you build proper supports for it, you could build a bridge over time that could act as a shortcut when backtracking through an area. The system adds a really neat level of complexity to crafting, which sets it apart from similar survival crafting titles.

The Lord Of The Rings Return To Moria Is A Story Heavy Take On Drunken Dwarven Exploration And Crafting
Combat takes place in third person, seeing players dodge out the way of enemy attacks, responding with melee hits and ranged fire. Combat encounters in the demo seemed to focus on overwhelming the player with sheer numbers of enemies attacking at once, particularly when the player triggers a horde by generating too much noise during their journey. While these combat encounters were mostly about proper melee spacing and keeping an eye on your surroundings, there was a more interesting fight showcased with a troll, fought in the daytime, which could be made significantly easier by leading the troll into a beam of light, turning it to stone, and mining it for resources. 

While players will need to defend their base from occasional random enemy sieges, there are some really fun little touches present that show a love for Lord of the Rings source material, such as the ability to get attack buffs by placing piles of gold in your base, resulting in an increased dwarven desire to protect their territory, or buffing stats using ale brewed in the base. These kinds of touches help set the game apart, and reward existing fans for their knowledge of the world.

The Lord Of The Rings Return To Moria Is A Story Heavy Take On Drunken Dwarven Exploration And Crafting Lower
The developers confirmed that plot is meant to be an ever present part of the experience right from moment one, and that shows already in what little has been seen of the game. Plot was in some cases delivered by having the player stumble on areas significant to the main Lord of the Rings story, using environmental storytelling to make the very act of turning a corner feel exciting and significant.

The game will support eight player multiplayer, and while I love the idea of stumbling on these kinds of story locations with other players by my side, the developers made it clear that when playing in those kinds of player counts, resources will be very scarce, as they don’t scale based on player count, creating the option for a very different kind of challenge for players

As someone who loves survival crafting games in theory, but often falls off playing them due to lack of direction, the way that Return to Moria makes following plot objectives easy, without sacrificing the unguided exploration aspects of the genre, is really exciting, and something we can’t wait to check out more of soon.

The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is available to preorder now on the Epic Games Store. The game releases on the Epic Games Store on Oct. 24.