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Tomb Raider (PlayStation) artwork

Tomb Raider (PlayStation) review

"For a time, it seemed that Lara Croft was poised to take her place among the likes of Pac-Man and the Nintendo pantheon as an icon who transcended gaming and became truly mainstream."

Tomb Raider was a groundbreaking game when it was released. Arguably, it was one of the big leaps forward in 3D game design, along with Super Mario 64, which was released a few months earlier. For a time, it seemed that the game's heroine, Lara Croft, was poised to take her place among the likes of Pac-Man and the Nintendo pantheon as an icon who transcended gaming and became truly mainstream. A string of sequels full of strange missteps and deviations from the original formula seemed to dash those chances, though, despite two mostly successful films starring Angelina Jolie.

The series is now experiencing something of a renaissance, but the reputation of the earliest titles is no longer what it once was. Unlike the simplistic, high-contrast graphics of early arcade games and the hand drawn sprites of classic sidescrollers, Tomb Raider's low resolution 3D world is eye-bleedingly ugly today. The platforming, once exciting and innovative, seems odd and restrictive. And the combat, something most future Tomb Raiders would struggle with well past the PlayStation generation, mostly amounts to finding the right perch from which to rain down gunfire with impunity.

Lara's platforming world is an invisible grid. It can be hard to deal with if you are not acclimated to classic Tomb Raider conventions, since attempting to jump where you want to go when you want to go there will almost always result in failure. A jump needs to be considered carefully and lined up properly in Lara's world. One of Tomb Raider's big tricks is to have the player approach the edge of a platform, holding the walk button to make Lara automatically stop when she gets to the edge. Then, the player taps the Down button to jump backwards exactly one, precise unit. From there, the player holds forward and jumps at the same time to make Lara advance and leap perfectly from the edge, regardless of the timing of the button presses. It's a mechanic that allows for exacting precision, and it also allows for jumps to be spaced out to their absolute maximum for dramatic effect. Most importantly, it works. Even though the player usually knows when a jump is doable, it's still a thrill to watch Lara just barely reach a ledge by grasping it with her fingertips after a long jump.

That mechanic is reinforced by excellent level design. The tombs encountered here are filled with platforming that will make you think. If you find a good vantage point, you might spend several minutes looking and planning out a route to your destination if draw distance permits. In the largest levels, looking out will reveal only empty space that fades into blackness. However, just how big some of these levels are is impressive in and of itself, even today. And the thoughtful platforming required to navigate such areas complements the puzzles of the game. Lara isn't above dragging boxes around ancient tombs to build steps to new areas, but mostly tomb exploration involves throwing a lot of switches. That means you will be traveling to an area, throwing a switch, then traveling back to go through the door it opened. That door may contain a key, which you can use to...well, you get the idea. Thankfully, it gets a little more interesting than that from time to time, with one level offering multiple puzzle rooms based on mythological figures, and another demanding the use of a statue of Midas to turn lead into gold.

Every level is really just a long puzzle, broken up by the occasional round of combat. It's a curious fact that tombs no one has opened in at least hundreds of years are filled with thriving ecosystems of apex predators. Lara will start the game fighting wolves and bears, and eventually graduate to lions and gorillas. The strategy for all is the same: ascend a platform and shoot them to death while they run around you. One would imagine generations of animals living in an ancient tomb of platforming would develop basic climbing abilities by the time an intrepid explorer reached them in the 1990s, but Lara's move set, limited as it is by the need to jump precisely on a grid, demands she have some way to gain an advantage over predators that run at her in straight lines as quickly as they can in an open plane.

After the animals, enemies escalate nicely into ancient monsters with ranged attacks, and combat with these enemies is a bit more interesting. Lara's jumps work well against slow-moving fireballs and, camera permitting, combat with these enemies can be challenging and exhilarating. In addition, there are a couple of battles against armed human opponents, but they are (thankfully) rare. Since neither you nor your opponent can dodge bullets, and Lara aims automatically, the gunfights are pointless exercises in hoping the enemy AI turns away and stops shooting at you mid-battle. If it does not, you reload your save and try again.

Tomb Raider is an odd duck and reviewing it today feels weird. It's a platformer with severely restrictive and limited jumping, an action game where combat is mostly limited to a sprint for safety. Perhaps most of all, it's a groundbreaking classic that many of today's crowd may well find unplayable. If you're interested in the evolution of 3D games, though, or you are interested in experiencing an eclectic mix of titles, go ahead and give Tomb Raider some of your time. Otherwise, perhaps consider a later game in the series for your adventuring needs.

Germ's avatar
Staff review by Jeremy Davis (September 07, 2014)

Jeremy plays video games, sometimes.

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