Return To Moria’s Old Man Gimli Is The Best Kind Of Fan Service

This isn’t our Return to Moria review. The embargo has lifted, but the game’s PR has requested we try out online multiplayer with fully populated servers before giving our verdict. Besides, it’s 20 hours long and aims to be played time and time again thanks to its procedurally-generated stone halls, so I’m taking my time and making sure I don’t miss anything.


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However, I couldn’t knowingly hold the title of TheGamer’s Number One Lord of the Rings Fan without writing something about a new Lord of the Rings game. So we’re going to talk about Old Man Gimli.

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There are no Balrogs in Return to Moria. Balrogs are like, the Moria thing, right? Game director Jon-Paul Dumont told me that flashbacks might arrive in the game’s future, but at launch, we have no Balrog. This makes me incredibly happy, as it means developer Free Range Games knows the lore and knows that the only Balrog in Moria, Durin’s Bane, died at Gandalf’s hand decades before the Fourth Age, when the dwarves head back to Khazad-dûm.

return to moria map

Instead of shoehorning a Balrog into the game like The Rings of Power seems to be doing, Return to Moria brings back a familiar face. I wasn’t sure what to make of this before I played the game, as it seemed like the kind of reference-based fan service that I hate. That sort of thing has forced me to abandon Star Wars, put me off the MCU before it even got started properly, and is a scourge of modern media. Remember that bit in the second Hobbit film where Legolas sees Gloín’s picture of his child he carries on his person and the latter says, “That’s my wee lad, Gimli”, and Legolas calls him fugly or something? That’s somehow second in the list of embarrassing references involving Legolas in The Hobbit trilogy, after the bit right at the end where Thranduil tells him to search for a ranger called Aragorn and the music swells and everyone throws up all over themselves.

You get the picture, I’m not a fan of references like this. I think it’s lazy writing and boring to watch. It’s why I was worried about John Rhys-Davies reprising his role as Gimli – Dumont told me that Free Range Games used a variety of inspirations for the game, but this seemed to be too direct a reference to the Jackson trilogy for my liking. I get it, that’s the visual and aural touchstone that most people will recognise, but do you need to fall back on it so hard?

As you can probably tell from the headline on this feature, Return to Moria pulled it off. Old Man Gimli, John Rhys-Davies and all, opens up the game as the dwarves try to retake their ancestral homeland. Wizened and greying, the veteran of the Fellowship introduces the game in a monologue reminiscent of Galadriel’s in The Fellowship of the Ring. But it doesn’t feel like a reference, nor an homage. This is just a part of The Lord of the Rings that works perfectly, and is one of Jackson’s greatest additions to the canon.

gimli and another dwarf wading through a flooded mine inlord of the rings return to moria

Tolkien’s world is so vast, so complex, that some kind of narration is necessary, and nearly everyone who has adapted it over the past quarter of a century has realised that an opening monologue spoken over brilliant montage is the perfect way to set the scene. Return to Moria is no different, especially because so little is known about the Fourth Age due to the fact that Tolkien only wrote a handful of words about it. He said Gimli led the dwarves back to Moria, but not a lot else. The perfect way to explain this to an audience, whether die-hard Tolkienists or casual fans, is with John Rhys-Davies and a Dwarven montage.

Even better than the opening, though, is that Gimli doesn’t overstay his welcome. No sooner than he admits he can’t get through the Doors of Durin, we fall into Moria all alone, and don’t hear from him for the next dozen hours or so. He’s not your mentor, a disembodied voice in your head that accompanies you on your journey because Free Range paid Rhys-Davies and needs to make the most of him. He’s not making constant references to his adventures with Legolas and Aragorn, he’s not mentioning Treebeard, waxing lyrical about his cousin Balin, or referencing memes like salted pork. He’s leading the expedition, exactly as he did in the book, and then he’s gone.

Gimli might reappear later in the game – I haven’t finished it yet – but I wouldn’t resent that. Free Range Games implemented him perfectly in the intro as a believable leader, an older, gentle soul more akin to his character in the books than the comic relief of Jackson’s films, despite the voice acting connection to the latter. Free Range Games knocked it out of the park with Old Man Gimli, and the rest of Return to Moria has a lot to live up to.

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