The Lord of the Rings movies came out at arguably the height of video game movie tie-ins. The series got everything from traditional hack-and-slash action games to strategy titles, but one of the weirdest and most interesting of them all was 2004’s The Third Age. Part Final Fantasy knock-off, part movie retelling, it asked a weird question: How do you tell the story of the Fellowship of the Ring, without the Fellowship actually being there?
The answer: you make your own Fellowship with the serial numbers filed off.
Although there are no Hobbits to be found in The Third Age’s retinue, its motley party essentially follows in the shadow of the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings from the get-go with an almost comical closeness. There are two Gondorians, a Knight named Berethor and a Ranger named Elegost, two Rohirrim, a member of Theoden’s guard (Éoaden) and a villager (Morwen), an Elf (Idrial), and a Dwarf (Hadhod). Opening with Berethor being ambushed on the way to Rivendell to accompany Bormir’s party to the council of Elrond in Fellowship of the Ring. From there it’s a 30-hour re-imagining of the Lord of the Rings movies with RPG mechanics that can only be diplomatically described as stolen out of the back of a truck labelled “The Kids Like That Final Fantasy X, Right?”
It’s comical how close behind the regular Fellowship — a thing you can apparently just become by gathering a few random people about, instead of it being some kind of formal title like the one Elrond grants Frodo and his retinue — is to the actual one throughout the events of The Third Age. Guided by psychic communication from Gandalf — in the form of unlockable clip reels from the films and new Sir Ian McKellen narration (why didn’t he think of doing that with Frodo after the Fellowship got separated? His death and rebirth doesn’t stop him chatting to Berethor!) — Berethor and his friends race from the forests around Rivendell to Moria. Then from there to the villages of Rohan and Helm’s Deep, and eventually Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, and even literally the top of Barad-dûr to go take turns poking at Sauron’s giant eyeball to end the game.
Aside from rare moments the party is actually alongside main LotR characters — helping Gandalf fight the Balrog in Moria and the Witch King at Minas Tirith, or helping Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli hold Helm’s Deep — they’re explicitly in the primary Fellowship’s shadow, just off-screen or mere moments behind them. At one point in Moria it’s your party that gets to watch the Dwarven skeleton Pippin knocks loose plummet through the ceiling to land right in front of you. At another, as you ascend Minas Tirith’s levels during the siege to aid Gandalf, you literally reach the top as Denethor runs screaming past you in flames, turning his death into something that definitely needs the Benny Hill theme playing in the background:
I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS IS A REAL CUTSCENE IN LORD OF THE RINGS THE THIRD AGE pic.twitter.com/NCAEwcZDrp
— James Whitbrook (@Jwhitbrook) August 13, 2021
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.
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.