The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria tells you a great deal about what lies ahead in the title. The dwarves have returned to Moria, finding it infested and in complete disrepair. Up to eight players can grab their pickaxes together and delve deeper and deeper into the monster-filled depths. Could this be your next survival crafting adventure? After about 15 hours or so of gameplay out of roughly 60-80, I’m still pretty far from figuring that out. As such, we’ll be digging as deep as our picks can go and updating this as we Return to Moria.
1000 years after the events of The Lord of the Rings and the fall of Sauron (that’s Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age for my fellow nerds), Gimli (thankfully voiced by John Rhys-Davies) has summoned his brethren back to Moria. He realizes that the proud race of dwarves have been idling by, earning their way through various forges around the world for meager treasures, but the true prize lies in their ancestral home – the mines of Moria. It’s time to reclaim glory.
The game begins with your created dwarf lying face down on the ground. Your grand plan to plumb the depths and restore Moria is off to a great start. You’ve lost all of your equipment as well, so you’ll be crafting everything from scratch. Picking up some chunks of wood allows you to craft a torch, pushing back the darkness, if only for a little while.
The core gameplay loop begins shortly after you find an abandoned base seemingly once used by the Fellowship of the Ring. Everything has been destroyed, of course, so you’ll need to rebuild it. Using your cobbled together pickaxe, you mine stone from the debris around you, as well as from mineable walls. This allows you to create functional structural pieces like doors, windows, and even walls of your own. With your space somewhat secured, you’ll need to delve out a little further to find some iron ore and coal. Hauling your loot back to your base, you can now craft a number of items, including iron ingots. Just in time, too, the orcs are coming.
The denizens of Moria are as dangerous as they are numerous. Early on you’ll face rats that offer little in the way of resistance. Goblins and orcs will give you a bit more trouble, as will wolves, bears, and worse. As such, you’ll want to upgrade from your improvised axe to a sword and shield using the iron ingots we crafted earlier. And so it goes – move, loot, establish a new base, and slowly but surely, discover the depths of Moria.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria’s gameplay loop is one of incremental improvements. Early in the game you’ll find destroyed statues of your dwarven ancestors. Restoring them to glory rewards you with a recipe or a portion of one to help you with your upgrade research. These often cost materials you have yet to discover, so deeper you must go. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve played this loop in games like Valheim, Rust, No Man’s Sky, and Subnautica. And like those games, once the loop gets its hooks into you, you’ll chase that next shiny thing relentlessly.
Before we dig into the content, let’s talk about the mechanics of Return to Moria. Joining up with friends is accomplished with a friend code. Unfortunately that’s where the mechanics stop. There is no way to prevent others from joining your session, nor is there a way to kick them once they do. There isn’t a path to just having your friends join, nor is there an overall game browser. Perhaps the latter solves the problem of the former as your pals will need that friend code to join, but it feels very bare bones. I suspect this will expand over time, but it’s thin on the ground to start.
It’s very easy to get to that first base and try to build some sort of megastructure that will hold all of your loot until the end of the game, but I assure you this is the completely wrong way to play. In fact, you should think of your bases as disposable. Moving, building, fighting, moving, building, fighting. The trick is that, not unlike the game Icarus, you’ll get better at base building each time.
Each upgrade to your base building skills gives you new tools to play with. These bases are very temporary, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive. As you delve deeper, you’ll find bases that already have, for example, a repair forge – something you’ll need to fix your tools, weapons, and armor when they fall to disrepair. More and more often you’ll uncover bases that are partially complete, making discarding them less painful.
There is one aspect of Return to Moria that doesn’t quite fit with the survival aesthetic for our dwarven friends – limited areas of interaction. You are dwarf with a pick – nothing should be off limits. In Return to Moria, however, you are limited to mining only in very specific areas. I spent more time “mining” the corpses I found on the ground than actually digging in the dirt. I’m not suggesting making an entirely voxel based world waiting for you to dig it to pieces is easy, or simple to balance, but if Moria is 1000 years into disrepair, the substructure should be waiting for me to destroy it. The team also needs to fix the fact that you most often destroy the floor underneath whatever you are trying to mine, so be prepared to fall on your dwarven ass more often than you’d like. The same can be said for the hitbox for mining – sometimes your pick is coming down on a piece of precious ore only to bounce off harmlessly or hit the rock behind it instead.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is procedurally generated. The initial room layout of the world, let’s call it the tutorial area, is laid out exactly the same, but after you reach the mines proper, all bets are off. It’s here that the game truly begins.
When you get into the mines of Moria, you’ll really begin to feel the effects of being underground. Night and day doesn’t matter when you can’t see sunlight, so you’ll have to rely on torches, braziers, and any other light source such as your hearth or forge to give your world light. Spending too much time in the dark causes a sickness to overcome you with despair, eventually causing actual damage. The same goes with hunger. There are several other maladies, though the game does little to explain what they are or how to mitigate them. It’s yours to discover, but not in the fun way.
The combat in Moria is on par with the likes of Valheim. You can charge your weapon for a heavy attack that costs more stamina, you can block with a weapon, but a shield will always be more effective. Eventually you’ll unlock a better axe, a bow, and more. Regular arrows give way to elven arrows, and so forth. Combat in survival crafting games have never been the focus, but what’s on offer here is actually pretty decent. You get into a rhythm of blocking, countering, and working as a team if you’ve brought friends – and you should. The game is significantly more fun if you do.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the singing. The dwarves are nothing if not a jolly lot when they are doing what they do best – digging. Occasionally you’ll get prompted to start singing. If your fellow dwarves join in the chorus it’s likely you’ll become “Ore Obsessed”. There’s no clear roadmap on what these icons do that I can find, but it seems like you dig a little faster and recover a bit more materials. I personally want to hear what eight dwarves sounds like when in chorus, but four sounds pretty great. That said, I do wish there was a bit more music when you are out and about – the Mines of Moria are eerily silent.
Graphically, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria has some cool moments. The first time you pick up a torch and begin to move, the torch will gutter a bit, sending the flame backwards as you move. When you do so, the lighting engine shows the blue flame of the torch more than the orange, illuminating the space with an eerie and foreboding light. Similarly, the light cascading off of your forge dances across the stones of your base. The dwarf creation system offers up a number of options, including a completely hairless dwarf. Drink that in for a moment. Yep, it’s even creepier than that. When you have picked your dwarf, the environments around you have a solid bit of variance. Foreboding and confined spaces give way to massive, bright, and wide open areas. The Elven area is filled with weirdly bent trees, dotted with oddly colored fruits. I don’t know what all lies ahead, but so far the environments have a great deal of detail and some very purposeful theming.
My biggest complaint thus far, and I doubt that’ll change once I complete the 60-80 hours the game has on offer, is that the story is told with the lightest touch. A mysterious door locks your character in place to talk about the odd power that emanates from it. When you find a Wizard’s Mark you are given a brief translation and some flavor text. A more deliberate hand at worldcrafting is likely sabotaged by the fact that it’s procedural.
The team at Free Range Games knows that they are hitting a wildly underserved segment of the gaming market – the midrange game. At launch the game is $39.99, and it’s not meant to tax an RTX 4090. In fact, it runs well on my laptop’s 2080 Super. The gameplay isn’t pushing the envelope, and the story is little more than is required to get friends together to dig greedily and too deep to find out just what haunts Moria 1000 years after the end of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
There’s a lot to like in The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria, and there’s an equal list of things that aren’t as polished. It’s the very definition of midtier, with all that implies. There are better survival crafting games out there, but none that offer a chance to see what nameless primordial things lie below the Mines of Moria. Always hungry, always waiting.
Look for our continued coverage of The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria as we plumb the depths to their core.
Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.
Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.
Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 27 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).