Alas, here we are: the final level of the original Tomb Raider. I thought I might be low on things to say about it since the level designers are far to busy trying to kill Lara dead to put in any beautiful vistas or meaningful symbolism, but naturally, sensible things like that don’t hold me back.
Good Night, Sweet Freak Show
You’ve gotta love that saucy Natla: she’s all about natural selection, passing on the strongest genes to the next generation and whatnot, and what does she whip out for her pièce de résistance? A giant mutant with no lower body, and therefore- presumably- no reproductive organs. Nice attention to detail there, Nattie.
Actually, I don’t think the Abomination was ever meant to serve any particular role in Natla’s grand scheme, and that’s kind of the problem: she didn’t need it to give birth to her new generation of spawn, she didn’t need it to kill Lara, she just made it because it seemed like a fun idea at the time. Because it was there.
See, if Natla had limited herself to just genetically engineering powerful warrior mutants, I think the other Atalantean rulers might have gotten on board with that. It’s the fact that she goes around creating giant legless chest cavities that can’t move without torturously dragging themselves by the arms and grunting in constant agony that made them start having second thoughts about Natla’s sanity. I mean, who looks at this thing and thinks “Hmm, this was a great idea with so many practical applications, I’m so glad I made this,” huh? Someone who’s better off cryogenically frozen in the ground for the rest of time, that’s who.
The poor Abomination, bless his tortured soul, probably represents the hardest boss fight in the game. It’s easy for Lara to run rings around him if you know what you’re doing, but relative novices are likely to spend a lot of time taking a long drink of magma when they accidentally run off the side of the platform in their zeal to get out of the thing’s reach. I believe I used the cheap method to defeat this boss on first play, which involves hanging on to the edge of the platform until the Abomination loses sight of you, hopping up and taking a few potshots, then dropping down to hang again, rinse and repeat. Now that I see how easy it really is to defeat this “hardest” boss in Tomb Raider, I can’t believe I bothered with something that tedious.
It’s an odd way to start a level, because while you’d think defeating a boss first thing would get you psyched for the challenge ahead, really it’s just kind of sad, like repeatedly shooting a horse that broke its leg or something. At the end of this fight you want to kill Natla, not because you’re there to kick tail and take names, but just to get her to stop doing things like this if at all possible.
You know, I never really gave it much thought before, but the more I think about it, the more I feel bad for this cursed Abomination that had to endure a torturous, if brief, existence, just because Natla’s out of her goddamn mind. I want my own little Abomination plush doll that I can cuddle and sing songs to, and tell it that it’s going to a better place. It’s possible that I need a Tomb Raider intervention.
Have Some Trap in Your Trap So You Can Die While You Die
By this point, we’ve seen all the traps Tomb Raider has to offer, but this is the final level: they have to find something to scare us with. So instead of encountering individual traps here and there, now we get fresh trap combinations like breakable floor + metal teeth door. Or breakable floor +swinging pendulum blade of death +mysteriously bloody spikes. Or boulder +boulder +lava +gravity.
It would be easy to just fill the level with sadistic traps to ramp up the difficulty for the final level, but in fairness to the game, it’s a little cleverer than that; almost none of these traps are really that difficult to overcome. Even the hardest ones can often be cleared by a few well-placed standing jumps. No, the real difficulty of this level is the kind you make for yourself by trying to come up with strategies to avoid the traps that are invariably ten times more difficult to pull off than the two or three moves you need from Lara to pass them unscathed. It’s a very specific kind of psychological horror, in a way.
Still, how much of it is your own fault is debatable, but unless you’re some kind of Tomb Raider savant, you’re probably going to be causing a lot of Lara deaths here- and sometimes from more than one trap at once. Even the combinations that are easy to pass in theory often require you to die once or twice before you figure out exactly what you need to do, leading to replaying the gauntlets between save crystals over and over again. Like Atlantis, the frequent reloading can lead to a frustrating experience, but it’s hard to argue with the last level of the game ramping up the difficulty. Furthermore, it’s a relatively short level.
The Immortal Croft
One effect of the “traps up the wazoo!” approach to this level is I start to wonder about how Lara survived all this. That may sound odd, considering I know full well that Lara’s not a real person, but let me explain; in theory, there’s a canonical Lara Croft- the one who never dies and goes on to have great adventures in Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III and so on (in which she ALSO never dies, of course). Technically, every time you kill Lara and see one of those amusing death animations, it’s a non-story event; Lara can’t die, because then the story would end. Gamers talk about how many times Lara “died” in a level so often, sometimes I think they forget that the character of Lara has never actually died. Not once.
Now we know it’s totally unrealistic that any person would subject themselves to the trials of Lara’s world, let alone survive them, but I think, in the back of your mind, you want to believe in the idea of it: Somehow, someone could be just that awesome. However, when the situation becomes so perilous that you’re watching your avatar die dozens of times before reaching the next save point, the fact that the character of Lara Croft is only supposed to have one, human life is remarkable if you actually think about it.
Dispatching Ms. Natla and Her Quite Fetching Red Bat Wings
You know, I was hoping to come up with some Stupid Natla Tricks to go with my Stupid Pierre Tricks, but I confess, I couldn’t find anything: maybe someday, someone will come up with something awesome you can do to exploit a quirk of her programming, and it will make for funny screenshots, but that day is not today. She shoots you a lot; you shoot her a lot.
While it is a bit of a surprise when you see that Natla has “evolved” to have the wings and powers of some of her creations, the boss fight overall is underwhelming, and it’s not really a surprise; boss fights in Tomb Raider are kind of like brushing your teeth, a necessary activity that no one waxes poetic about. Fighting Natla is such an afterthought from a gameplay perspective that they didn’t even bother to give her a boss pattern- you know, “You can only shoot her when her force field is down and the color of her energy blasts are purple,” and all that nonsense.
That said, the fact that she gets back up for one last salvo is a nice touch; it scared the hell out of me the first time, and it plants doubt as to whether you’ve successfully killed her even when she goes down again. The fact that Natla’s final words seem to come out of nowhere, devoid of background music, to this day strikes me as extremely creepy.
So the final boss fight isn’t hard, or complex, or even particularly good really, but I suppose it’s…memorable? Whatever its faults, I prefer this approach to trying to create an epic boss fight when the whole style of the game really does not support it.
And of course, when Natla goes down, we get to face Lara’s true, eternal enemy one last time: gravity. The last thing you do in the game is jump from pillar to pillar, grabbing ledges if necessary, and running down a few corridors. They could have put the ending cutscene of Lara escaping the exploding pyramid just in the nick of time right after Natla went down, but having us do one last round of navigation drives home the fact that Natla was only a bump in Lara’s path to platforming dominance.
Plus, there’s the bonus that despite how incredibly easy this platform sequence is, you feel paralyzed with fear the whole time that you’re going to miss a jump, kill Lara, and have to fight Natla all over again. Not that that would be hard, or take longer than a minute really, but you’d just feel so bloody embarrassed.
All I can really say about the ending sequence after the slide to oblivion is that it feels kind of perfunctory; we know Lara gets out alive, and oh, here’s an image of Lara in casual clothes in the credits. I think most people just felt elated to be finished at this point and didn’t really care, but I’m glad Tomb Raider II improved on this by giving the player an actual ending.
That long drop into the pool of water, right before the final area where you fight Natla. After spending most of the level ascending, there’s something inexplicably exciting about taking your final downward plunge of the game. It builds appropriate anticipation for the final boss fight.
Worst: That long shimmy along one of the pulsating flesh walls, right after you shoot the scion and drop down from the last area from the previous level to the underground escape route. I don’t mind that you can’t avoid the dart traps, but it’s extremely likely you’ll end up doing this part over again many, many times as the gauntlet of traps up ahead find new and exciting ways to kill Lara. It’s inoffensive the first time, but by the fifteenth….
Rating: Three Uzi Clips out of five. This one is hard to rate because I think the great frustration this level holds for me, even today, has more to do with me being too careless than its inherent difficulty. The structure, with you starting the level by finding your way back to the scion chamber and then fighting the environment to Natla’s lair is memorable, but on the whole this level has always felt too much like Atlantis, Part II: Now With Bosses. Atlantis was an amazing level, and having a Part II isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it keeps the level from standing out much in its own right.
Next: I was considering tackling the gold levels for the first time, but since I can’t play them in comfort on my PSP the way I’d like to, I’d rather go with what’s convenient and jump straight into TR2. However, the immediate next post is probably Parasite Eve, since I’ve been meaning to finish my playthrough of that for a while now.
(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots, unless otherwise noted.)