Konami’s Riders of Rohan – PC Review

An intriguing quality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the
Rings trilogy is that it refuses to be confined. That is, it
cannot be summarized, adapted, reworked or otherwise
carried from print to some other medium without first having certain
plot branches either pruned or altogether removed.
Konami’s Riders of Rohan (Riders) very likely represents the
first time in Middle Earth that the tree has been pruned away in
order to display a single branch. It portrays the story of King
Theoden and his struggle with the traitorous wizard Saruman.
Hence, it represents the most lengthy passage of The Lord of
the Rings which does not deal directly with the more spiritual
and weighty matter of the evil ring.
The graphic touches in Riders of Rohan are simple, yet pleasing.
Both the animated and still screens are presented using the
same soft watercolor hues with which J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed
painting. Unfortunately, from a gamer’s perspective, the minuscule
figures that occupy the battlefield during some sequences
and the master map of Rohan in others are very difficult to locate
and select when the player needs to act quickly. Overall,
however, the game has a satisfying look.
Rider’s creators have produced a most faithful recreation of a
scene from Middle Earth, although its value as a game is another
matter to consider. Essentially, Riders is a lightweight strategy
game that includes several action sequences and some very
limited character interaction. Those who have not read the trilogy
will probably have a difficult time understanding the events which
have led up to those in the game. However, the events that unfold
within the game are simple enough to follow.
Libretto
In the game, the kingdom of Rohan is under attack from the
west by the wizard Saruman. The player directs the forces opposed
to Saruman, although not all of these are available to the
player as the game begins. Several bands of “Riders” patrol the
River Isen, across which Saruman’s armies of Orcs and Dunlendings
are marching. At the fortress of Helm’s Deep, groups of soldiers
prepare for a siege. King Theoden remains at his home in
Edoras, under the spell of the vile Grima Wormtongue, refusing
to mobilize the remaining Riders. In Fangorn Forest, Ents —
those mighty personified trees of Middle Earth — need only be
pointed in the proper direction to vent their anger against the evil
wizard. Finally, the remaining members of the broken Fellowship
— Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry and Pippin — are each
about to take part in the approaching confrontation.
So, the majority of Riders of Rohan is concerned with individual
battles between the game’s title characters and
Saruman’s armies. In each case, the Riders are greatly outnumbered
and the player must use strategy to survive. This strategy,
as suggested by both the classic trilogy and the game’s
documentation, involves using light cavalry and infantry to distract
the enemy while the heavy cavalry gets ready to charge.
For these battles, the screen switches from its normal view of the
map of Rohan to a close-up of the battlefield. The battles take
place in real time, although the action will freeze long enough for
the player to input his commands to each unit. Using either
mouse or keyboard, the player places the pointer on the tiny onscreen
figure representing the unit he/she wishes to address.
Clicking on that figure gives access to a menu of commands.
This means that the player has to click on units incessantly
throughout the battle in order to monitor their progress. The battle
ends when either the player or the enemy issues the retreat
command.
Battle may sometimes be preceded by one of the game’s arcade
sequences, in which leaders of
the two forces agree to a duel to the
death. Using mouse or keyboard, the
player controls the full-screen figure in
both attack and defensive moves. The
army belonging to the deceased leader
will then suffer from low morale during
the ensuing battle. The player also has
a “quick battle” option in which the
computer automatically generates the
results of the confrontation without any
input from the player.
Cast of Characters
In combat, there exist no more intimidating
fighters than the Ents, who
handle their enemies much as a
modern-day lawnmower treats grass. It
is important that the Ents become active early in the game because
they move very slowly and unless they are on the battlefield,
their movements are not under the player’s control. The
hobbits Merry and Pippin may activate the Ents if they have
been freed from the Orcs, or the job may fall to Gandalf — the
renowned wizard who has returned fresh from the bowels of a
mountain, wearing a new set of clothes.
Any army which has Gandalf as part of its company will enjoy
the benefit of having a list of spells at its disposal. The player
controls which spells will be cast, but will quickly discover that
overuse of the good wizard’s magical prowess will not only exhaust
the wizard, but will also attract the attention of the dread
Sauron in Mordor. Upon discovering Gandalf’s potent intervention
on behalf of the forces of good, Sauron will promptly dispatch
one of his demonic Nazgul, mounted on a flying serpent,
to investigate. This, in turn, leads to Gandalf fighting the hellish
creature in the game’s second arcade sequence. Floating in the
air like a medieval version of the “Rocketeer,” the wizard trades
lightning bolts with his foe until one of the two manages to
microwave the other.
Aragorn’s purpose in Rohan is to remove King Theoden from
the paralyzing influence of Grima Wormtongue. There is some
brief character interaction in which the player has only a small
part in deciding how Aragorn responds to certain questions at
Theoden’s home. On the road, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas will
frequently be ambushed by Orcs, leading to the same arcade
dueling sequence as the one which occasionally precedes the
army battles. Fortunately, Aragorn is a master swordsman and
any orc challenging him might just as well challenge Michael
Jackson to a moon-walk competition.
The final arcade sequence involves archery, and frequently occurs
as the enemy gathers at the fortress of Helm’s Deep. The
player directs an archer shooting at oncoming enemies who
must be hit as they come into range. The enemy will be throwing
spears as they approach and the archer must duck down or be
impaled. Legolas the elf may also engage in a similar sequence
while traveling through Rohan, although his shafts are apparently
AIM-9M “Sidewinder” arrows of elven manufacture.
Rohan will eventually receive a message from Gondor requesting
the assistance which the Riders are pledged to give. If the
player has been defeated by Saruman, if too few of the Riders
remain alive to assist Gondor or if any of the powerful members
of the Fellowship have been killed, the game is lost. If the Riders
are able to fulfil their commitment, the player will win.
Opening Night Notices
In a very real sense, then, a player’s
performance is judged by how closely
he or she has followed events from the
Tolkien canon. Thus, seasoned
strategists and wargamers may find
themselves unhappy with the restrictions
under which they must achieve
victory. Likewise, many will find the battle
sequences repetitious, since they
constantly feature similar units facing
similar enemies under similar disadvantages.
So, oddly enough, the arcade
sequences in Riders of Rohan end up
being the most interesting parts of the
game, even though the game appears
to have been designed primarily as a
strategy game.
Perhaps, there is a limit to how many different game products
Tolkien’s famous trilogy should be expected to inspire. One cannot
help but survey the large number of software titles which are
based on The Lord of the Rings and wonder if they are, in actuality,
a tribute to the diversity of Tolkien’s work or simply a
reflection of the power of a successful license? Are such games a
recognition that Tolkien’s Middle Earth touched archetypal symbols
and emotions (such that gamers are continually drawn back
to Tolkien’s vision) or are they an indictment of the repetitious
nature of current game design?
Such questions may be as unanswerable as whether books
should be made into films, films into television series or films,
television series, books or comic books into computer games. Ultimately,
it depends upon the artistic implementation in each
product.
As for Riders of Rohan, there is little to hold the interest of experienced
strategy players and wargamers and too few of the arcade
sequences to challenge the dedicated action gamer. However,
it is likely that many devotees of Tolkien will enjoy this faithful
approach to one of Middle Earth’s most memorable battles
and the characters who participated in it.

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