2004 was a strange time to be a Lord of the Rings fan. While fans were still buzzing about the emotional conclusion to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy (and Return of the King’s somewhat surprising 11 Academy Award wins), the immediate future of the franchise was very much in doubt.
Yes, the Lord of the Rings films were undisputed financial, critical, and cultural successes, but the trilogy was finished. The Hobbit films were nearly a decade away (and destined to disappoint), and there were only loose rumblings of further potential LOTR adaptations making the rounds at that time. The books themselves were always there, of course, but many LOTR fans old and new lamented the idea that the end of the movies meant the end of an era when we all felt united by our love for that fantasy franchise. LOTR would live on in our hearts and minds, but would it still fill store shelves, theaters, and TV screens now that the movies were over and studios were scrambling to find the next big thing?
Yet, there was one major Lord of the Rings adaptation still set to be released in 2004. While that adaptation is all but forgotten today, there was a time when it felt like it could have been the start of an incredible new way to keep the good times rolling. Yes, I’m talking about the 2004 RPG, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age.
The Third Age Was a Lord of the Rings RPG That Was Better Late Than Never
In 2002, publisher and developer Electronic Arts (I know, I know) revealed that they were working on two new Lord of the Rings game. The first was a direct follow-up to 2002’s beloved hack-and-slash action game, The Two Towers. The second was a LOTR RPG known simply as The Third Age. Fans at that time didn’t know much about that second project other than its simple existence, but that was all they really needed to know. After so many years, a major developer was finally going to make a proper LOTR RPG.
As The Third Age’s development progressed and a few clips of the project were finally released, it became abundantly clear that the game was heavily based on the blockbuster 2001 JRPG, Final Fantasy X. While the similarities between those two games certainly raised a few eyebrows early on, there was certainly a sense that The Third Age could end up being one of the biggest and best games of 2004. The in-development clips of the project looked fantastic, EA had already released multiple hit games based on the LOTR films, and the Third Age team (led by former Square Enix producer Steve Gray) seemed genuinely passionate about the entire project.
At the very least, many fans felt comfortable with the knowledge that The Third Age would allow them to dive deep into Peter Jackson’s vision of JRR Tolkien’s world one last time. The optimists among those fans even felt that The Third Age could end up being the start of something big. After all, the Final Fantasy franchise had become a mainstream industry player in recent years. Why couldn’t a Lord of the Rings game that was mechanically similar to the latest Final Fantasy title eventually enjoy a similar level of success?
All of that is to say that there was quite a bit of anticipation in the air when The Third Age was finally released in November 2004 for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. Despite all of the hype, though, the game debuted to a resounding “meh.” As it turns out, there was a large gap between the reality of playing the game and the dream of what it could have been.
The Third Age Was the Sincerest Form of Final Fantasy X Flattery
I know I just said that The Third Age’s gameplay was heavily inspired by Final Fantasy X, but I don’t think it’s possible to emphasize that comparison strongly enough. For all intents and purposes, The Third Age is FFX (at least from a gameplay perspective). The two titles feature similar combat systems (Third Age blatantly borrows FFX’s Conditional Turn-Based battle system), similar RPG mechanics, and some suspiciously similar animations. The Third Age’s overworld navigation sequences and cutscenes even utilize strangely familiar camera angles and other common FFX presentation concepts.
The biggest difference between Final Fantasy X and The Third Age is how “accessible” the latter title is. For the most part, Third Age ditches FFX’s more complicated mechanics or simply replaces them with far more beginner-friendly alternatives.
Whereas Final Fantasy X featured a wonderfully deep Sphere Grid system that allowed players to build characters pretty much however they’d like, The Third Age only allows you to choose between a handful of optional skills and assign experience points to basic stats. FFX was filled with elaborate sidequests, while The Third Age limited players to a handful of basic activities clearly outlined in each area. FFX’s combat pushed your party to its limits and often forced you to overcome XP roadblocks. Meanwhile, The Third Age offered little to no serious opposition, even when you played it on the hardest available difficulty. Players of any skill level could breeze through the title with relative ease. There were even options that let the game do most of the combat work for you.
That’s the one element of Third Age‘s gameplay that proved to be too annoying for many longtime Final Fantasy and JRPG fans. The Third Age was clearly designed to appeal to the millions who saw the Lord of the Rings films rather than the notably fewer millions who dreamed of a proper LOTR RPG or even a version of FFX starring LOTR characters. I’ve always found that more hardcore RPG fans seem particularly venomous towards introductory RPGs, and I kind of understand why. RPGs are something you’re meant to lose yourself in. You can only make the pool so shallow before you start to question why it exists at all.
To make matters worse, those who did buy The Third Age simply to play as their favorite characters from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films soon learned a hard lesson about the complex world of copyrights.
The Third Age Let You Relive Lord of the Rings As Your Favorite Character’s Stunt Double
While EA was always going to be incentivized to make Lord of the Rings games based on the incredibly popular (and more modern) Peter Jackson films rather than the books themselves, they were also technically forbidden from basing their games on the books. That’s because Tolkien Enterprises previously struck a deal with Vivendi Universal Publishing that allowed Vivendi to make LOTR games based on the original books. More importantly, that deal prevented EA from pulling any elements from the books that weren’t present in the Peter Jackson movies. Their LOTR games had to be based on those movies or, at the very least, had to use LOTR-related material that existed in a strange negative space between the books and movies.
That arrangement obviously put the Third Age team in a bit of a bind. They were largely limited to the world of the movies, but EA’s other Lord of the Rings titles already retold those movies’ stories. Were they really going to develop an RPG that told the fellowship’s adventures yet again? If they did, then how would they fill in the gaps between certain major moments with the kind of gameplay “padding” needed to create the bulk of any modern RPG adventure?
The Third Age team eventually settled on an unusual compromise. While their game would feature some of the major characters, locations, and moments seen in the Jackson films, it would primarily follow the adventures of a “new” cast of characters whose adventures would occasionally bump up against the fellowship’s own journey.
I’m putting the word “new” in quotes simply because Third Age’s original characters are only as original as they need to be to get around certain copyright laws. Pretty much every playable character in the game is designed to resemble some other, significantly more popular Lord of the Rings character. For instance, there’s Berethor: the “totally not Boromir” soldier from Gondor. There’s also a “friend of Galadriel” elf named Idrial, a Dunedain ranger named Arago…err…Elegost, and everyone’s favorite surly dwarf, Hadhod.
Taken on their own, those characters (and the other playable members of your Third Age party) are not especially interesting. The game’s writers tried to give Berethor a mysterious past that unravels throughout the course of your adventure, but it’s a real stretch to assume that you’ll ever care about the character enough to feel emotionally invested in his circumstances. Speaking of circumstances, most of the other characters in the game exist largely for the purposes of convenience. Few of them enjoy anything close to a proper character arc, and their best “moments” are often relegated to whatever value you get out of their skills in battle.
What really seals the cast’s fate as utterly forgettable adventurers, though, is the shocking amount of screen time they eventually share with the proper Lord of the Rings cast.
The Lord of The Rings The Third Age Is a Lore Nightmare
As I mentioned above, The Third Age may focus on a new cast of characters who have set out on their own adventure, but there are many times when those characters’ adventures intersect with the fellowship’s famous journey. Now, you may think that means they occasionally run into members of the fellowship as part of some scenes that we just didn’t see in the films. However, Third Age’s writers decided to be…bolder than that.
There are numerous times throughout The Third Age when the game asks you to buy into the idea that its original characters were participating in major movie moments just off-screen. For instance, did you know that Berethor and Elegost were apparently instrumental in the victory at Helm’s Deep? Did you know that The Third Age party fought alongside Aargon and his ghost army in the Battle of Gondor? Even those who welcome the chance to suspend their disbelief will be left laughing at the logic holes this game opens.
To be honest, I can forgive the utter silliness of watching a dude named Berethor help Gandalf fight the Balrog. The Balrog is obviously a great boss for this kind of game, and there are only so many ways to have your party fight him. I can even forgive the canon-destroying absurdity of the game’s final boss fight which sees our heroes battle the actual Eye of Sauron by stabbing it with swords and shooting it with arrows. None of that makes any sense, but it’s all oddly entertaining.
No, the bigger problem with the Third Age’s many Lord of the Rings movie recreations and references is the fact that nearly all of them make the game’s original characters and plotlines feel even more pathetic than they already are. We know that there is no story happening in Middle Earth at that moment that is more significant than the quest to destroy the One Ring. Still, being constantly reminded that we’re controlling a cast of Poochies who will undoubtedly one day be dining out on that “time they met Gandalf” is a tough sell.
I suspect the Third Age team would have told a completely original Lord of the Rings story if they had the option to do so. With that option clearly off-the-table, though, I sometimes wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just turning the movies into a JRPG-style game. After all, The Third Age is still clearly designed to emphasize those moments you get to (kind of) play the movie. While it could have been fun (even hilarious) to play as a group of adventurers who were on their own weird adventure at the time of those films, the Third Age’s original cast clearly exists to afford its developers just enough creative wiggle room to utilize the movie’s best moments without being entirely dependant on them.
When you get down to it, The Third Age is a bit of a creative mess. It’s built on a big idea that rarely works, and its fundamental gameplay is often best described as functional. Released at a time when games like World of Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid 3, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2 had just hit store shelves (2004 really was the best year in gaming history), it’s hardly a surprise that The Third Age ultimately made the biggest waves among Lord of the Rings fans desperate for one more fix.
Yet, I still truly believe that The Third Age should have been the start of something special.
The Third Age Will Appeal to Many Lord of the Rings Fans Who Have Lived to See Such Times
For all of The Third Age’s many faults, it was still a JRPG-style adventure set in The Lord of the Rings universe. The entire appeal of the game was based on the undeniable appeal of that simple pitch. What happens if you combine the brilliant Final Fantasy X with one of the most beloved and fully-realizes fantasy universes in cinematic history? Ideally, nothing short of magic.
The Third Age may not be magical, but it is fascinating. For all of its faults, the game is still a ton of fun. As a JRPG, The Third Age at least captures the basic thrills of upgrading your characters, earning new (and often fantastic-looking) gear, and unleashing devastating attacks upon a variety of enemies. I do wish the game had retained a few more of FFX’s deeper design elements, but I really struggle to think of another JRPG of this style that does such an excellent job of making genre newcomers feel quite so welcome and engaged. It’s all a bit too simple in the end, but as a proof of concept for the potential of the entire concept, the game certainly works.
I’ve also found that it’s significantly easier to appreciate The Third Age’s bizarre parallel storytelling once you’ve put some distance between yourself and your first impressions of it. The whole thing is absurd, but there’s a certain charm to the necessity of that set-up that is often enough to carry you through the game’s relatively short (20-25 hours) adventure. There’s also something darkly amusing about watching a cast full of Mr. Poopy Butthole character archetypes act like they’ve been there the entire time. Besides, the potential for a (somewhat) original story set in the Lord of the Rings film has always been clear.
In the end, The Third Age’s legacy should be one of massive potential. The game reportedly sold well enough, but there’s never even been even a whisper of any serious attempt to revive the concept. While we did eventually get the somewhat underrated The Lord of the Rings Online and the truly excellent Mordor action games in the years since The Third Age’s release, none of the LOTR right holders have ever tried to turn the property into the kind of traditional single-player RPG that Third Age so warmly embraced in its best and worst moments.
That’s what makes The Third Age’s largely forgotten legacy so tragic. At a time when original properties seemingly exist to become Fortnite crossovers, it’s wild to think that there was a time when EA of all companies thought “let’s use Lord of the Rings as the perfect excuse to make our own Final Fantasy game.” In 2004, the idea of a LOTR RPG was just about the best thing I could imagine. As I watch The Rings of Power play out in 2022 and still crave a chance to dive back into Middle-earth via a single-player RPG, it’s bittersweet to remember that The Third Age still stands as the best example of that concept. In a better world, we would have better such games that built upon what The Third Age once tried to offer.