"Strictly for the hardcore."
In the world of Tomb Raider timing is everything. Being just a little off on a jump when navigating through a dangerous tomb will lead to disaster. The original Tomb Raider was the very definition of the right game at the right time, and its sequel, while not without its critics, was an improvement on the formula in nearly every way. Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft is the series' first serious mistake, its iterative update of an early 3D design ethos arriving just a little too late.
If you want an illustration of just how far 3D gaming had advanced since the original, look no further than the PlayStation controller. The Dual Shock was shipping with new PlayStations six months before Tomb Raider III's release, and Lara's d-pad-friendly escapades on an invisible grid of squares suddenly seemed ridiculous with two analog sticks designed for smooth movement now offered as standard parts of the PlayStation experience. Tomb Raider III awkwardly supported analog functionality, but left the grid platforming intact. As a result, analog mode is unplayable. The reason, of course, is that the essential design, made for precise taps and button combinations, remains the same. The basic platforming structure still involves the following: press R1 and forward to walk to the ledge, tap the back directional button once to leap to the back edge of the current square, then press forward and jump at the same time to perform a perfect running jump. In most cases where a running jump is called for, anything less than perfect execution will result in death. Leaving any of the above steps in the process (which, love it or hate it, will be necessary hundreds of times throughout this adventure) up to the whims of a slippery analog stick is not possible if you're serious about completing the game. You will need to go digital.
Tomb Raider III rigidly, stubbornly, sticks to the formula that came before. Sure, Lara has a few new moves now. She can sprint, monkey swing across ceilings with grips, and crawl. And, to be fair, the grid is pushed to its limit here. Many jumps occur now on angled squares, half squares, diagonally, etc. However, the central gameplay is otherwise unchanged. The player descends into a level, explores, finds switches and keys that open new areas, and proceeds to the next level. Along the way, animals, dinosaurs and armed thugs get in the way. To its credit, the level designs in Tomb Raider III match and in some cases exceed previous games, with branching paths through levels, myriad secrets that are deeply challenging, and thrilling, well-staged encounters with monsters of various kinds. Graphics are noticeably improved, as well.
Tomb Raider III also has its share of unique problems, though. The difficulty has been amped up to an extreme level. The series was never easy, but even the introductory levels in India are off putting in the way they repeatedly punish new players trying to explore. Some traps seem to be more about luck than skill. In particular, a late-game underwater blade trap that requires Lara to swim into small corridors is made far too difficult by her tendency to get stuck when colliding with walls underwater.
The game's difficulty is made worse due to the reintroduction of save crystals. In the first Tomb Raider, save crystals could only be used where the player found them. The result was a series of tightly designed and tested areas between crystals that challenged and rewarded the player. Tomb Raider III turns the crystals into items, which the player can use at any time. This design choice would not be so bad in and of itself, were it not for how inconsistently the crystals are spaced. Throughout the game, I struggled with repeating huge portions of each level due to the scarcity of crystals until I reached a series of levels set in London. Once there, I accumulated an excess of crystals into the double digits. It was confusing to go from desperately conserving them to suddenly using one after every difficult series of challenges in the final areas. Overall, the save crystal situation seems like it was not properly play tested before release. Did I mention that saving in the wrong area can result in invisible walls making it impossible for the player to complete a level? (Note: the PC version of the game wisely adopts the system found in Tomb Raider II, which allows the player to save anywhere.)
Despite this enthusiastic raider's misgivings, in the fan community at large the game has its ardent defenders. Many claim it to be their favorite title in the series precisely because of the high difficulty. You can find a sterling defense of the title in the form of a reader review on this very site.
My recommendation? If you're just looking into PlayStation-era Tomb Raider in 2015, try the two earlier games first. If you play both to completion, then you have quite a challenge to look forward to in Tomb Raider III. Who knows? It could wind up being your favorite in the series, too! Everyone else, steer clear. Lara Croft's third adventure is strictly for her most hardcore fans.
Staff review by Jeremy Davis (January 31, 2015)
Jeremy plays video games, sometimes.
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