Tales of the Shire preview – In a hole in the ground there lived… a game

Tales of the Shire is a picture-perfect vision of the world we know – though there are a couple of elements we're reserving judgement on.
Tales of the Shire

Cosy sim games are all the rage these days, and it’s not really shocking to now see one of the classic literary and cultural inspirations for the whole genre finally be turned into one of its own. What is surprising is that it’s being made by the very effects studio responsible for catapulting that particular property into irrepressible modern day cultural prominence.

So it is that Tales of the Shire has come to be; an upcoming Hobbit life-sim from Wētā Workshop’s games studio. The promise of being able to inhabit a corner of Middle-Earth crafted by the very folk responsible for depicting it so vividly in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a mighty enticing one, and while it is incredibly beautiful, the gameplay was something I found to often be on the fiddly side.

As with any game played under preview event conditions, one’s experience has to be taken in context. No game can ever really be experienced at its best in an unfinished state, during a 30 minute play window, and when you’re often not even beginning where the game itself is supposed to.

Nevertheless, I was dropped into my Hobbit-hood a few hours into Tales of the Shire, with a handful of quests to tackle and a variety of activities available to engage in.

Read: Tales of the Shire: First trailer reveals wholesome, cosy gameplay

Tales of the Shire
Image: Wētā Workshop

Gardening, fishing, cooking, crafting, and upgrading and customising your Hobbit-hole is the foundation of the experience here as one might expect from the genre. Fishing and gardening in Tales of the Shire both felt perfectly fine – there wasn’t a ton of opportunity nor time to explore home improvement, but the inherent space limitations of a Hobbit-hole did leave me wondering how carried away one could really get with it.

Given how much Hobbits are known to love food, it’s no surprise that cooking features as one of Tales of the Shire’s core pillars. Cooking is recipe-based, but grants players wiggle-room to make alterations as they see fit. Ingredients are organised into colour-coded groups including sweet or spicy, and so long as what you throw in fits the general profile of the recipe, the dish can be prepared.

Want to make a sweet summer fish stew? You could toss in some bream you caught earlier, but the carp in the pantry fits the profile better as it’s under the ‘sweet’ grouping. How finely or roughly you want to chop that fish before it goes in the pot is the next step, then determining whether you want to throw it straight into the dish, into a frypan, or into a jar for a quick pickling.

After each ingredient is ultimately added, a marker shifts upon a four-way graph in the corner of the screen indicating how far in any direction you’ve shifted the overall texture and flavour profiles of the dish, with the goal being to ultimately keep it on target for what the recipe intends.

It’s a system that on paper I really like. In practice I found it to be awkwardly menu-heavy and a bit unsatisfying in its lack of mechanical involvement. I wasn’t really expecting the level of input complexity found in Cooking Mama here, but as a foundational element of the Tales of the Shire experience it underwhelmed me.

Tales of the Shire
Image: Wētā Workshop

Tales of the Shire ventures through, well… the Shire

The rest of my time in Tales of the Shire was spent out wandering the Shire itself and doing quests for fellow Hobbits. This is where the experience started to really degrade for me though.

There is a principle in designing good, memorable characters, (cartoon ones especially), that states that they should have a strong and unique silhouette in order to ‘read’ well. It’s something that Animal Crossing, king of cosy life-sims, has always excelled at. Isabelle is completely different in shape to Mabel, who is completely different in shape to Blathers.

Tales of the Shire’s commitment to building an immersive recreation of its Shire setting however has meant that no Hobbit living within it really stands out from one another. Hobbits roam about living their own lives throughout the day and never really remain in one place too, which becomes immensely frustrating when you’re trying to find specific ones for quest purposes.

You can find whichever Hobbit you need to on the map and select them to plot a path, but the way you’re then directed to them while in the world is via birds who perch in the environment and point the way with their beaks. It’s both delightfully whimsical and really irritating at the same time. There’s no option to run either – that would be un-Hobbit like! You can hold a button to skip merrily, though, which is hilarious and perfect.

Hopefully come release there will prove to be more in it of good than I know. Tales of the Shire is slated for launch later in 2024 on Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

Jam Walker is a games and entertainment journalist from Melbourne, Australia. They hold a bachelor's degree in game design from RMIT but probably should have gotten a journalism one instead. You can find them talking entirely too much about wrestling on Twitter @Jamwa