Last year's incredibly successful film adaptation of the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has spurred a deluge of games based on J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal work of fantasy. While Electronic Arts is working on games based directly on director Peter Jackson's personal view of the series, Universal Interactive is developing a handful of games based on the literary license. Thus, players can look forward to encountering characters and situations that aren't presented in the films.
Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance is one of the first games based on the Tolkien license, and it features character sprites and artwork inspired by WXP's Xbox version of the game, although the similarities end there. Developer Pocket Studios has been working on a party-based RPG with an isometric perspective--a sharp contrast to the single-character adventure games that are being developed for the consoles. Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance will allow players to form up with a number of prominent characters from the series, including Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Boromir, and set out into the expansive world of Middle-earth.
The preview version of the game we played began as the tales have, with Bilbo's birthday party in the Shire. Here we were able to examine what form the quests in the game will have, and they seem to be predominantly of the item-retrieval variety. Other quests touched on Tolkien's linguist background and were of the riddle variety. When posed a riddle by an NPC or monster, the characters are forced to search the world for an item that answers it. While a single character is controlled in the world view at once, you can swap between the different characters fairly easily. The preview version we played had the extra characters following the lead, but in the final version. there may be only one character visible at once, since screen area is at a premium on the Game Boy Advance.
While the characters who embarked on the grand adventure in The Lord of the Rings books didn't have levels per se, this simplification of their character growth is employed in Fellowship of the Ring. Each character is rated according to hit points, and skill, and these attributes will be developed as quests are completed and the game progresses. These skills are unique to each character, in that Aragorn is rated according to his attack strength, while Gandalf's skill is his magic.
These skills and attack abilities are put to the test in the game's turn-based combat. All the characters currently in the party appear onscreen, as does a cursor. This cursor is moved to select attacks and targets. The monsters we saw in the game included giant spiders and the barrow wight, who, in the story, was defeated by Tom Bombadil. Once an attack command is selected, a brief animation commences in which a character performs an attack and the amount of damage dealt is shown onscreen. The combat was quite deliberately paced, which may be changed in the final version of the game.
Pocket Studios' envisioning of the lands of Middle-earth is surprisingly detailed, considering the handheld technology. While the game is quite surely two dimensional, each item and location in the game has been drawn with a distinct three-dimensional look. Vibrant colors and high levels of detail are perceivable in every corner of Middle-earth, and attractively drawn shadows and lighting make the darker reaches all the more gloomy. The sprites representing the fellowship characters are also easily recognizable. The various menu screens used for accessing equipment, character status, and combat commands are easy to use as well.
Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance should be an interesting take on Tolkien's Middle-earth, in that so much story and dialogue is packed into a tiny cartridge. Those who plan on checking out the action adventure games on the PlayStation 2 or Xbox may be interested in looking at this title as well, as it will offer a completely different experience. We'll have more on Fellowship of the Ring as it approaches release.