September 24, 2021

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Revisiting the Weird Legacy of Lord of the Rings: The Third Age

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That Time Lord of the Rings Got a Final Fantasy Game Ripoff

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But for all the completely uncommented-upon absurdity of having a LotR game play so close to the characters and events of the films (but with original protagonists), it’s the moments the story of The Third Age steps distinctly away from the premise of the films that it’s perhaps the strangest. Early on in Gandalf’s film-reel communique with Berethor, you learn that the wizard has tapped you for some kind of greatness that Berethor cannot remember in the slightest (presumably it’s “we’ll let you go poke Sauron’s eye with a stick in 40 hours while Frodo does the actual work”). In fact, Berethor can’t really remember much of anything at the start of the game, other than that a) he deserted the prior battle for Osgiliath between the Gondorian forces under Boromir and Faramir’s command and Sauron’s orcs, and b) he’s meant to catch up with Boromir’s party at the Council of Elrond. And yet, throughout early parts of The Third Age, Berethor is plagued with these visions—both the warnings of his import from Gandalf and eventually darker threats from Saruman (a returning Christopher Lee).

It’s eventually revealed that Berethor is apparently the most put upon human in Middle-Earth. Prior to the events of the game, he was sinisterly ensorcelled by Saruman who believed Boromir would succumb to the Ring’s power and claim it for Gondor at the Council of Elrond (or wrest it from Frodo). With Berethor as Saruman’s unknowing accomplice at the meeting, he would awaken as The Gondorian Candidate and take the ring for Saruman. But he didn’t! And Berethor was fine, because…reasons. Because he stood next to Aragorn for a bit at Helm’s Deep? It’s left unclear. But that’s not all! He pulls what can only be described as a “Reverse Aragor.” First, there’s a completely lifeless romance subplot where first Berethor falls for Idrial after she rescues him at the start of the game, only for her to go “wait, we’re introducing a Rohan woman for you to actually end up with instead. In addition, during the second battle for Osgiliath it’s revealed the reason Berethor fled the first time around was due to the fact that, like Frodo, he was stabbed with the Witch King’s Morgul blade. Unlike Frodo however, this did not slowly poison Berethor and turn him into a Wraith, it just…did nothing until he had to pry the Morgul blade’s tip out of his chest mid-fight so that he could do harm to the Ringwraith.

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Screenshot: EA Games

It’s… bananas. Made all the more bananas that this absurdist Middle-Earth fanfic is wrapped around a perfunctory knockoff of the combat mechanics of Final Fantasy X which, at the time, was one of the most beloved console RPGs around. It makes revisiting The Third Age like playing a weird mix of pretty fine turn-based Fantasy RPG in between moments of Ian McKellen lore-dumping Lord of the Rings to you. And yet there’s a charm in its unintended zaniness that few other LotR games have captured since. There have been better playing games—the Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War duology, for example—but none have quite so captured the themes at the heart of the movies and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. It’s all there, in its own weird way: the idea of perseverance in the face of darkness, that the most unlikely among us can rise to the occasion and become heroes, that destiny can be challenged and taken into your own hands. It just happens to throw one hell of a Middle-Earth-shaped kitchen sink at you in the process.

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