LV is one of those iconic levels that defines it’s era as much as it does the game; Not only is LV one of the things that tons of gamers are inclined to remember when they reflect on this era of gaming history, but it puts on display everything that was good about the early 3D era. This was when being able to explore a 3D world was completely new and exciting, and the very act of running around and looking for stuff was still fun, because you were not yet bored senseless by the very act of running around looking for stuff.
That said, the fun of the level isn’t limited to the original novelty value; most early 3D games that were fun at the time are nowhere near as memorable. Some would say that it’s the dinosaurs that make this level great, especially because the surprise arrival of the T-Rex boss is one of the most memorable moments in gaming, period. I would have been inclined to agree, but while replaying this level recently for the TR project, I realized it’s something else: this level takes letting you climb on stuff to a new frontier.
Sure, you can climb on stuff in tons of games, but Lost Valley is like the Citizen Kane of climbing on stuff: Do you see it? You can climb on it. Do you not see it? You can probably climb on it. You can climb on stuff that it makes no sense for you to be able to climb on. You can climb on stuff that in God’s name, you have no business climbing on, but there you are. Suddenly instead of a sedentary gamer and a reserved Miss Croft, you and Lara both are transformed into a wired three-year-old with ADHD who just ate a whole box of Chips Ahoy and isn’t about to stop until he’s put his tiny little feet on everything in the room. Only, instead of crying and being picked up by your mommy after your insane Romper-Room crazy-fest, you get to find the shotgun (finally).
“The One With All The Dinosaurs”
There is a slightly more subtle appeal to this level, in that it breaks your expectations of what the world of Tomb Raider is, and no matter what kind of technology they have at their disposal, no developer will be able to do this with the series again. Other than the fact that the wildlife in the previous two levels didn’t seem to have anything to eat, the world of TR up to this point has been fairly realistic. The ruins of the civilizations that Lara was exploring were rooted in reality (they say in the commentary for TR:A that archeologists actually found the real city of Vilcabamba in Peru not long after TR came out), and despite Lara’s monkey-like agility, the laws of physics seemed to be intact.
Then this level comes along, and you realize that instead of a stylized version of the real
world, you’re in a world where anything can happen. One minute you’re exploring realistic rocky caverns and shooting a few starving wolves (something you could do in real life if you were a bit of a strange individual and had no plans for the weekend), and the next minute you’re uncovering a valley hidden since before the Stone Age, and animals that have been extinct for billions of years are suddenly trying to eat you. But that doesn’t mean we’re off to crazy-town entirely; that historical foothold is always there, from the levels based on Greek mythology to serpentine Egyptian labyrinths. You can expect the grand majority of the game to be rooted in reality, but you can never let your guard down, because you never know when that bizarre alternate world is going to rise up and kick you out of your comfort zone with fanfare.
A lot of games try to do something similar and fail– it’s very easy for things to get over the top very quickly, and you cease being surprised by anything because your real-world expectations have been abandoned. In TR, there’s always that lure of actual history that drags you back from the edge, and the line between history and fantasy is handled with enough finesse that even though you know to expect the unexpected, the game can still throw you for a loop when it wants to.
This level also features one of the better puzzles in the game: It’s fairly intuitive, so you can figure it out without needing the design equivalent of a glowing neon sign over the solution, but not immediately obvious. There are also puzzles-within-puzzles, in that this is the first level that really requires you to understand Lara’s moveset. The standing jump, running jump, and back flip all have different distances and arcs, and navigating to the major set-piece of the level requires understanding which ones you need to do and in what order, and though it isn’t terribly difficult, you WILL spend a lot of time falling down the waterfall if you don’t pay attention.
By Tomb Raider III you needed to have a goddamned Masters Degree in Euclidean geometry to get across a small chasm, but at this point it was still fun.
Best: It’s hard to pick just one feature as the best of the level, but the secrets in general are fantastic. Some, like the one that requires hanging onto a waterfall show the game’s age, but they’re all satisfying to find– it’s like the game rewards you with free goodies for going as far off the beaten path as possible. There are 5 secrets this time around, too.
Worst: Uh…the whole game isn’t like this? Well, putting my great affection for this level aside for a moment, it takes a while to figure out what the objective of the level is– finding the cogs in the valley that will allow you to work the mechanism to close the sluice gate, granting access to the cavern behind the waterfall–and even when you’ve figured it out, it takes a while to find those suckers in the huge (for that time) valley. This level does take a long time on first play.
Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5. Perhaps not the biggest surprise of the year.
The next level is the relatively pedestrian Tomb of Qualopec; I feel claustrophobic already.