Game 319: Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers (1992)

From The CRPG Addict


Vol. II lazily re-uses a lot of the artwork from Vol. I, including the title screen.
         
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
I remember approaching Lord of the Rings, Vol. I with some trepidation, not much of a fan of the source material, not looking forward to a game that recapped a plot that everyone already knows. Role-playing a defined character with a predestined fate, I reasoned, removes any sense of player investment in the character. Meanwhile, if the game simply follows the plot of its source, there’s no fun in exploration and no surprises; but if it allows all kinds of diversions, the player is jarred by the dissonance with the source.
          
The game starts with a recap of the story from the beginning.
        
I was thus surprised to find most of my worries unfounded. Vol. I plays like an alternate-universe execution of Fellowship of the Ring–one that begins at the same location as the books but is then free to go off in its own directions. The player can make any character in the Fellowship the ring-bearer. All kinds of non-canonical NPCs can join the Fellowship, including some created just for the game. Even Gollum can join. The open world is full of side quests that Tolkien never envisioned. And it’s completely non-linear: a player can exit Moria, turn around, and walk all the way back to the Shire. He’ll even encounter new situations and quests if he does so. And it turned out that none of these departures from the book bothered me at all–although we must remember that I wasn’t much invested in the book in the first place.
The opening to Vol. II makes me wonder if the developers retained this admirable freedom. The backstory makes this game more of a sequel to the original material than to Vol. I. The first game ends with a non-canonical episode in which the Witch King kidnaps Frodo and Sam (or, I guess, whoever has the Ring) and the rest of the Fellowship has to rescue them from the fortress of Dol Guldur (and keep in mind, depending on the player, the “rest of the Fellowship” might include none of the canonical members). The game thus ends on a triumphant note, before the betrayal and death of Boromir, who might not even be with the party.
         
The intro screens elide some unpleasant events.
         
The backstory told in the opening screens of Vol. II omits the business with Dol Guldur and jumps ahead in time to a point past Boromir’s death, the kidnapping of Merry and Pippin, and the division of the Fellowship. It begins with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas (who wasn’t even in my Vol. I party) on the plains of Rohan, following the trail of the orcs who kidnapped the hobbits.
            
The game begins.
          
I didn’t expect the developers to emulate Crusaders of the Dark Savant and offer a different opening for every potential end state of Vol. I, but I was surprised that the game doesn’t even import the save file or offer any concessions to the variances in the plot. As I began, I hoped that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t feature the same spirit of open exploration and side quests that we found in its predecessor.
The manual does suggest that Vol. II is more interested in adhering to canon. Among other things, it makes a distinction between canonical members of the Fellowship (Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli)–who can die but will otherwise never leave the party–and “temporary NPCs” who might join for a little while, but only until their personal missions are fulfilled. There were some of those temporary NPCs in the first game, too, but generally you trust that anyone who joined your party would stick around to the bitter end.
There is thus no character creation process. Characters come with preset levels in certain attributes: dexterity, endurance, life points, strength, luck, and will power. They also come with a variety of active skills, combat skills, and lore. “Active” skills can be directly employed by the player and include such options as “Climb,” “Detect Traps,” “Hide,” and “Boats.” Combat skills are used automatically in combat, and lore–including orc, dwarf, wizard, and elven lore–are similarly passive. Skills and lore are binary; you either have them or you don’t.
          
The main interface and its various commands are activated with the SPACE bar.
        
You may recall that Vol. I was reissued in 1993 on CD-ROM, with artwork created specifically for the game replaced with scenes from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. It also improved several aspects of the interface. (I started with the earlier version and finished with the later version.) Vol. II, developed in between the two releases of Vol. I, benefits from some of the interface improvements but not all of them. The party cannot move diagonally, for instance, but the main actions on the bottom of the screen–attack, view, get, inventory, skills, magic, talk, set leader, and game options–are easily called by keyboard commands. There’s also an automap, which reveals itself in large squares. When you turn the interface off, the exploration window is completely uncluttered, which I like a lot.
           
The automap fills in by large squares.
        
The game begins with the three companions locked in battle with half a dozen orcs. Combat hasn’t changed from the first game. You select “Attack” then specify the target from the list, with wounded and near-dead enemies annotated with special symbols. Enemies get their turns after the Fellowship members, and sometimes the Fellowship gets a free turn. I’ll have more on combat later once it comes back to me.
        
In the midst of a melee.
        
My party destroyed the orcs handily, after which Aragorn did some tracking and noted that the trail of the kidnappers leads north and that the hobbits needed to be rescued at once. So naturally I decided to make my way north via east-west sweeps of the area. (Hey, I was trying to spare Aragorn a broken metatarsal as long as possible.) The eastern border of the opening area is water–I guess the river Isen–and the western border is the uncrossable Misty Mountains. The southern border is open, and you have to be careful not to cross it because the game forces you to switch parties, with I-don’t-know-what consequences for the initial trio.
           
Walking alongside the Misty Mountains.
           
As you walk, events and combats are triggered as you enter their appropriate areas. You often don’t see anything in advance, which is one of the oddities (and, I think, weaknesses) of this interface. Some of the things I ran into on the first map include:
         
  • Remains of an orc encampment with some rations and ale.
  • A party of random orcs. Once I killed them, I found a sigil with the white hand of Saruman on their bodies.
          
Note that there are no actual orcs on the screen until after I get the message.
        
  • Athelas, which Aragorn can use to heal wounds.
  • A Rohirrim warrior named Dorlas, hiding in the bushes, claiming to be hunting orcs who burned his town of Estemnet. He told me that a wizard has been seen on the edge of Fangorn Forest and suggested we look into it. In follow-up questioning (you talk by typing keywords, probably one of the last games in which this is true), he told me that the King of Rohan is “all but dead” and that a “craven council” rules in Edoras. He spoke of Saruman as an enemy, so his betrayal is clearly already known. Dorlas popped up several times. It got kind of annoying.
         
This doesn’t seem to be this Dorlas.
        
  • A man named “Walcnoth” who just stood there and wouldn’t say anything to me.
  • Three uruks trying to capture a black steed. They attacked as we approached. There were two such encounters.
  • The ruins of Estemnet. A warrior named Bregowine gave us a meal, which healed all our accumulated wounds. Most of the other citizens were angry and bitter about the failure of their king, Theoden, to protect them. The leader, a woman named Leofyn, said that the town wouldn’t be helping anyone until “a weregild is paid to compensate us for our losses.” Specifically, she wanted her husband’s sword, a bag of gold, and the return of her son, who had taken off, vowing to avenge his father. The sword and gold had both been stolen by orcs, with a camp to the north.
         
This was the same portrait they used for Galadriel in the last game.
        
  • A warrior named Heof. He offered to teach us the “Riding” skill (how is it possible that Aragorn doesn’t already know it?) if we solved a sub-quest to destroy a shrine that the orcs placed in a sacred pool used by the mearas (cool horses). The shrine couldn’t be harmed during the day, and at night it’s guarded by “spirits of evil.” I left this for later because I wasn’t yet sure if the slight darkening of the sky that happens every few minutes is “night.”
             
That seems pessimistic.
         
  • A group of horsemen led by Eomer. He said that they had slaughtered a group of orcs, didn’t know anything about hobbits, and not all was right in Edoras. Basically the same as the book.
        
Eomer says nothing about being banished.
        
  • In a burned area north of Estemnet, I found the orc encampment. The game warned me that there were too many to fight, but I bungled my way into it anyway. I defeated the first party of attackers but died at the hands of the second.
            
If we all die, Satan gets the ring.
          
After my defeat and reload, I changed my exploration pattern, going all the way north along the River Isen to Fangorn Forest. A path led into the forest–which is anything but dark and brooding–and it wasn’t long before we found Gandalf. Saying his name snapped him out of his reverie. He explained that Merry and Pippin were safe with Treebeard and that our priority should be to stop a trio of “messenger orcs” on their way to Saruman (perhaps the same party I already killed as above?), then see about helping Theoden.
            
Fangorn! What madness would make us hesitate to go in there?
         
At this point, the game decided it was time to switch the action, and it loaded up Frodo and Sam on the edge of the Dead Marshes. There doesn’t seem to be any way to manually switch between the parties, so I guess the game will do it automatically when certain plot points occur. I wonder if there’s any way to artificially unite (or even switch!) the parties. I guess I’d have to find a way across Isen first.
          
I don’t care what’s canon; I’m glad the films didn’t make the hobbits look like goofy old men.
          
The game had us distribute the gifts from the elves (two cloaks, magic rope, lembas bread), after which Frodo recommended that we approach Mordor via the marshes to the southeast. 
           
The Dead Marshes, Frodo. Yes, yes, that is their name.
           
I think I’ll wrap up here for the first entry, but a few miscellaneous notes before I go:
  • The exposition with Leofyn was delivered via a written paragraph in the manual. Vol. I had these, too, but the re-release put all the text in-game. This has to be just a copy protection exercise because the game certainly hasn’t been shy about long in-game paragraphs otherwise.
           
Flashbacks to Pool of Radiance!
         
  • I’m not really sure how experience and leveling work. The manual assures that your statistics will increase with experience. I forgot how it worked in the first game.
  • The screen trades between dark and light every minute or so. If that’s a day/night cycle, it happens very fast. I don’t think my DOSBox cycles are too high, though, because if I lower them it’s sluggish to respond to commands. Are those periods of momentary dimness “night,” or just cloudiness? (If the latter, I haven’t experienced night at all, yet.)
  • Sound effects are sparse except during combat, when there are about three: a thunk of connection, a whoosh of missing, and a scream of death.
  • The manual devotes a lot of space to the History of Middle Earth and a glossary of characters and places, enough that I learned quite a bit despite having been exposed to this material before. The manual also philosophically questions whether Tolkien himself would have approved of a computer game based on his work.
          
I’m not going to have a lot of patience for this.
       
The events of the opening area ultimately assuaged my concern that Vol. II would be too linear and plot-driven. I look forward to seeing how it develops. I suspect I’m due for an encounter with Gollum soon. Can I be smarter than Frodo and just kill him?
Time so far: 2 hours

****

Non-sequitur: I had this dream the other night that the nation of Denmark hired me to create an official Danish tabletop RPG (this despite my lack of experience with tabletop RPGs). The scenario was to be that the melting ice sheets in Greenland were slowly uncovering an ancient civilization. I invited several of you to be a part of the team, and we had a very contentious meeting in Amsterdam (yes, I know that’s a different country–I’m just telling you what my dream was) where some of you wanted to make it a pure exploration/archaeology RPG while others wanted to have, like, ice giants awakening in the melting glaciers.

Lately, I’ve been in the habit of writing down dreams that I think might lead to good song, story, or game ideas. I don’t always hit a home run. The other night, I wrote (I have no memory of this):  “Bacon-wrapped chocolate coin. The coin has an image of a woman on it, and you have to convince her to submit before you can eat the bacon.” That one doesn’t seem so promising now. But the idea of an RPG set in an ancient civilization slowly uncovered in Greenland actually seems like a good one. Anyone has my permission to use the idea.




Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2019/02/game-319-lord-of-rings-vol-ii-two.html