Tag Archives: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider, Level 12: Sanctuary of the Scion

Overview, or in Need of Level Replayers Anonymous

Confession time: I seriously screwed up this level for myself. First I played it two or three times, as is my habit for these things, fully intending to write up a level review shortly. Then I moved into my new apartment and got sidetracked. Then I played the level again, thinking I would THEN review it, only to get buried in work for a few weeks. So as I played it again just now, for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, I realized I had managed to make one of the great Tomb Raider levels of all time appear boring via repetition.

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Tomb Raider, Level 11: Obelisk of Khamoon

It’s obvious that this level is a sister level to City of Khamoon, but what I didn’t realize until this time around was that it’s also a sister-level to St. Francis’ Folly; it’s all about going vertical. The main Obelisk room is all about the height, and most of the side puzzles involve traversing great heights. It also benefits from being a level with a strong central location, without it being too obvious how you’re supposed to progress.

However, unlike SFF, jumping from down from on high isn’t necessarily fatal, and it can actually be useful- it’s just a more inviting atmosphere. It’s interesting in that this is one of the levels where the whole thing is obviously an elaborate puzzle expressly created to keep people out (hence my feeling that this whole Egypt section is one giant tomb), but it never really feels like Lara isn’t welcome.

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Tomb Raider, Level 10: City of Khamoon

I’m a bit out of my depth with the Egypt levels- on the one hand, from the standpoint of playability, they’re all pretty much great. However, they don’t seem to conjure up the kind of thoughts in me that many other levels do, leaving me constantly aware while I’m playing them that I’m playing TR levels, albeit some very good ones, and NOT really exploring some ancient locale. This may have more to do with me than the game, but it does leave me a little puzzled in terms of how to rate them.

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Tomb Raider Level 9, Tomb of Tihocan

Lara fighting the first Atalantean CentaurI think I said at the beginning that these level write-ups would probably get shorter once I got into the game, and if anything they’re just getting longer and longer. By Natla’s Mines, we could be in Anna Karenina territory here.

Like Tomb of Qualopec, this level is more a gauntlet of traps meant to keep you from your destination for just a bit longer than an exploration-friendly locale. However, unlike Tomb of Qualopec, it feels less like an individual level and more like a mix of several unrelated ideas strewn together. Still, despite lacking cohesion, it’s actually more fun than the previous tomb level; the collection of traps and puzzles is varied enough not to get dull, and the level actually becomes something memorable towards the end.

Idea #1: The Cistern, Part Deux

Hmmm, where have I seen this before? Other than ten minutes ago?

The puzzles in the first half of the level just seem like an expansion of the previous level, the Cistern, complete with obvious-but-still-nifty water puzzles, fungi infestation, crocodiles (ack!) and rats (ick.) However, that’s not a bad thing, necessarily; because the puzzles are simple (in fact, calling them “puzzles” is a bit of stretch), you never really get bogged down in this area. I think the Cistern-area decor doesn’t get old because you’re quickly through this section before you have time to get sick of it.

As TR fans, we like to talk about the “diabolical” puzzles that tripped us up, but the sad truth is, not every puzzle can be a brainteaser; we don’t have the patience for it. While too many easy puzzles can start to bore, a few easy puzzles when all you want to do is get to the end of the section (which you clearly want to do at this point in the Greco-Roman hub of the adventure) can be satisfying in its own way.

Idea #2: Block Puzzles For Dummies

I actually don’t have a screenshot of the block puzzle, because uh…it’s a block puzzle, who cares. But I did want to point out that I hate these metal shutters that start appearing in this level, they make no sense.

Now on the other hand, the one major block puzzle is easy to the point of being kind of insulting; there aren’t really any choices to make, you just push the block onto the obvious places to push it- the order doesn’t matter- and doors open. Upon replay, I was struck by what a total free gift this “puzzle” was; we’re being herded, with a wink and a nudge, toward the end of the section.

A shoutout to the keyholes in this room for being one of the few sets of keyholes in the game you can traverse perfectly with a sideways jump; I always try to travel between adjacent keyholes/switches/etc. with a sideways jump, and it usually doesn’t line up properly and I feel stupid. At least, this one time, I was able to use the sideways jump for something more useful than wasting time in Lara’s music room.

Idea #3: Introduction to Atlantis

Now, this is more like it.

The underwater section preceding Tihocan’s actual tomb is among the game’s prettier areas, and there’s a great sense of majesty as well. It’s fitting that Tihocan’s tomb is surrounded by water, given that the Grecian section of the game is by far the most water-oriented of the four. The only downside is that it seems like the vast underwater caverns should be filled with secrets, and there’s really nothing there- I kept thinking a piece of seaweed was one of those TR2- style gold dragons, but alas, it was only some yellow-green pixels.

The statue coming to life is also a very surprising moment (although the story behind this confuses me, which I’ll get to in a minute), and I like the fact that both statues don’t come to life together; I don’t think I knew that the second one even could come to life after you’d entered the temple until this playthrough.

However, remember how that mummy in Tomb of Qualopec was implied to actually be Qualopec? Well it would stand to reason that the Atalantean Horseman is Tihocan (or his spirit, or whatever), except how can that be? I thought all the red creatures were abominations that Natla had created, and buddies Qualopec and Tihocan were decidedly not in favor of her handiwork. Okay, I know the real reason why the horseman is there is because a)it scares the daylights out of you in a good way and b)it’s foreshadowing the Atalantean hijinks to come, but it doesn’t quite make sense to me in the larger context of the story, which is generally more cohesive than many have given it credit for.

Stupid Pierre Tricks: Finale

It seems like the Stupid Pierre Tricks segment should end with some sort of glorious, no-holds-barred battle, but the last two encounters with our favorite magical Frenchman are nothing terribly exciting- although you do fight Pierre in much closer quarters than usual during the first one, making his teleportation act much more obvious than usual, since there’s just nowhere for him to run most of the time. Now, I know that not everyone is sold on my theory about Pierre, but honestly? After this level, I think the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks Pierre ISN’T magical.

The final confrontation is also kind of underwhelming- you shoot him, he forgets to teleport/run away this time, thus he dies. Hmm. I can’t even make some snide comment about how I’m glad to put him out of my misery, because I was actually kind of starting to enjoy having him around by this point…I think it’s Stockholm Syndrome.

I do like the fact that he actually reached the Scion before Lara; the implication is that he was in the area quite a while before her, since Larson knew that Pierre was headed to Greece when Lara was still tied down in Peru. Actually, the fact that he was there first brings up the possibility that he actually had plenty of time to leave before she got there, but decided to stick around just to finish her off- or was he going to suggest another activity entirely, if she hadn’t drawn her shotgun so quickly? I guess we’ll never know- thanks for ruining that budding romance, Lara.

Secretly Ridiculous

As I said previously, I’m not looking to get all secrets: typically, I play the level once just to complete it, then I play it again actively looking for secrets, and then I MIGHT play it again after looking up the locations of the secrets I haven’t found yet in a walkthrough. While I usually find at least one or two on my own, I had no idea where either of the secrets on this level were before I looked it up, and I don’t think I ever would have found either of them on my own.

I actually love the little jumping puzzles WITHIN these two secrets, but they got me thinking- what is the purpose of a secret, anyway? Secrets like the ones on this level seem to be really meant for the people who are willing to comb every pixel of the game looking for a pleasant surprise, and I just don’t have the inclination or the time. I’m kind of glad that they put that sort of thing in the game to give the truly hardcore a reason to keep playing, but it makes me feel kind of bad that even as someone who blogs TR, my dedication has its limits. For me, doing an “all secrets” playthrough would mean “all the secrets that I looked up on the internet, ‘cuz I’d never find them myself,” and I find that a little sad. I anticipate this becoming a major problem by TR3, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Look Over Us Kindly, Tihocan

I’ve always been very impressed with how much this short cutscene gets across about our heroine. 1: She can read the hieroglyphics, something the other tomb raiders probably can’t do (although Pierre’s abilities are questionable.) 2. She reads them in a slightly halting manner, because she’s not a perfect Mary Sue-type who’s fluent in a zillion languages- she can read it, but not quickly. 3. Regardless of what she may have thought coming into the temple, after reading about his noble, childless life, she seems to have some sympathy for Tihocan- it’s not all about breaking into his tomb and taking his stuff. I think at this point in the story there’s a subtle shift in Lara’s motivation; rather than just going after pieces of the Scion because they exist and she’s curious, she’s taking over for Qualopec and Tihocan in protecting the world from Natla’s horrible ambitions; she just hasn’t realized it yet.

Now a lot of the apparent empathy for Tihocan comes from Shelly Blond’s vocal performance rather than the script, but nevertheless, it’s in the game.

I also like the fact that Lara never says, “My, what are Egyptian hieroglyphics doing in Greece (or sometimes, more like Rome)? How strange!” Often in TR, they seem to give us enough credit to connect the dots ourselves without needing explicit instruction. I’ll get into the Egypt/Greece/Peru location issue, to the extent that it’s explicable, next level.

Best:
Swimming around in the large underwater area before Tihocan’s tomb is great fun, although this could rapidly become a “worst” if you spend an hour scouring the area for the secrets that aren’t there. The surprise appearance of the first Atalantean creature is also a best, although it’s in the exact same area, so I guess this whole segment of the level could count as the best. Is that cheating?

Worst:

That annoying glitch in the area where you get the gold key that prevents Lara from shimmying across the alcove unless the door is open. Although you can drop down to the spikes and survive with minimal damage, it certainly looks like you just glitched yourself to death, leading to unnecessary reloading. Most people probably find the switch first, thus never encounter this problem, but if you do encounter it, it’s annoying, and quite possibly the sloppiest glitch in the entire game. Also, as mentioned above, I hate the metal shutters- they always look out of place.

Now, this? This is annoying. Please tell me they fixed this in TR1: Revised?

Rating: Four Uzi Clips out of Five

I was actually going to give this a three due to the fact that only the last third of the level feels cohesive, but then I remembered that I bumped up the score for Tomb of Qualopec because of the boss fight and the end-level cutscene, and this level has two boss fights and an awesome little cutscene, so it’s only fair.

Next: City of Khamoon, or save me from the terrible panther mummies- seriously, they’re horrifying.

“It would appear that, fifteen years later, I will become the subject of literary analysis…hmm….”

(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)

Tomb Raider, Level 8: The Cistern

Midas Water District: Tax Money Well Spent

Like City of Vilcabamba, this level makes you think just a little bit about what life must have been like for people in ye olden tymes. Unlike Vilcabamba however, I don’t get a sense of sadness from this level; it’s more like, “Once upon a time, people used sewers for municipal waste; they still do, just not this one. The End.” It doesn’t seem to be haunted by ghosts from the pasts, perhaps because ghosts aren’t particularly attracted to what’s basically a lot of plumbing.

That said, perhaps it’s appropriate that this level is much more alive than many of the others- and by alive I mean, full of things you probably find disgusting. The walls are infested with mildew, and instead of just having wildlife to deal with, here the key word is definitely “vermin”; seeing the rats swimming in the sinkholes makes me want to turn off the game and take a shower. There’s a palpable ick-factor here that even the fantastical, pulsating walls of flesh we see later in the game can’t match.

It’s almost like the holy temples are frozen in the past- Qualopec’s tomb, St. Francis Folly- the spirits that haunt them too dignified to play host to decay. In The Cistern, life does in fact go on, but it’s basically one big bacterial infection.

Forget mutated alien freaks bent on world domination, this is true horror; I wish I were kidding.

That said, it’s still a highly enjoyable level. I don’t know if it’s the lack of religious/symbolic imagery or what, but there’s something relaxing about this level. Even though there are still plenty of ways to kill Lara (see below: Crocodiles), I don’t find there to be a sense of peril about this area- it seems to lead more to calm, analytical thinking. “Ah, so if I pull this switch, the cavern will flood and I can swim over those spikes that would otherwise be impassable. Splendid! I’ll just swim on over this way and pick up some magnum ammo before I go after the key…” It’s all very civilized, really.

It’s also a level that involves a tremendous amount of swimming underwater, which I enjoy, without much danger of running out of air. Another personal thing: I’m not much of a swimmer in real life- my crawl stroke looks pathetic-but I’ve always been able to hold my breath for a long time underwater. So, when I do swim, I tend to spend most of my time chillin’ at the bottom of the pool. Exploring ancient ruins via swimming is something that appeals to me a lot, since it doesn’t seem that far afield from something I could actually do in real life, given the opportunity. Of course, the frequent deaths by suffocation that start to become common in TR2 freak me out a bit for the same reason, so I’m happy to have a chance to swim with Lara without being afraid of an imminent, watery grave.

Announcement: Crocodiles are the New Bears

I try to make a point of killing as many of these things from above as possible, however somehow, there’s always more around once I get into the water.  Maybe it’s like pulling the legs off of a starfish- kill one, grow six more?

Crocodiles are clearly the big threat on this level- so much so that you wonder why they even bothered with the monkeys and lions. Despite the more-or-less relaxing environment, if you’re into “OMG, where the **** did THAT just come from!?” sorts of moments, The Cistern has a lot of that- it’s like the oodles and oodles of crocodiles spontaneously generate from the mildew or something. There is one room where you are attacked by, no joke, three crocodiles. One crocodile would have been threatening, two would have been menacing, but three? Once you’ve gone that far, why not just put in 47 of them and make it like a clown car, only with vicious prehistoric killers instead of clowns?

Seriously, they should have done that for people on a replay game; shooting 47 crocodiles would probably use up all of your magnum ammo, but on a clear file with infinite uzis, I fail to see a downside.

Anyway, another notable feature of the local croc population is their tendency to chomp on Lara’s head when she goes for some of the keys in this level- and I’m not being cute, I mean they literally put their jaws where Lara’s head is. I don’t know if that was intentional, or it’s just the effect you get when Lara is picking up a key while a croc swims through an underwater door that just opened, but it’s disturbing nonetheless.

It’s interesting- back in the day, Lara’s horrible deaths were kind of fun because they were graphically incapable of being truly gruesome. Today, all Lara can do is fall over and grunt, and it’s really kind of a drag in comparison. I’m not a fan of gore by any means, but I kind of miss the idea of video game gore being so totally harmless- it’s the same reason I don’t enjoy any of the post-PSX Resident Evil games.

Stupid Pierre Tricks: Penultimate Edition

I confess, I’m a bit disappointed by this edition of Stupid Pierre Tricks: I kept hoping I would find some interesting method to Pierre’s madness, but it really does just seem random. You run into Pierre a ridiculous three times (hmm, weird theme with the number three…), and there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to his disappearing; sometimes he’ll disappear quickly, and sometimes he’ll stick around and soak up damage for a fairly long time, despite the plethora of corners available to slip away behind. The only thing I can really say for sure is that he doesn’t ever stick around for as long as he does in the Coliseum in this level, probably because that would make things too difficult, health-pack conservation wise.

Now in theory, Pierre’s frequent appearances should ruin some of the sense of isolation and whatnot in this level, but you know what? I’m not sure that’s actually the case. I think his frequent appearances kind of go along with the relaxed feeling of this level. Sure, in theory Pierre popping up out of nowhere could scare the crap out of you, but Pierre hasn’t been scary since MAYBE St. Francis Folly. Instead, he’s more like an old friend at this point; an old friend who shoots you, sure, but honestly, how else do you get Lara Croft to notice you?

This room is just weird- there are gorillas (why?) a fight with Pierre that tends to involve him taking way more hits than is necessary, and a really sadistic non-secret that requires backflipping off a ledge to get. I thought it wasn’t until TR3 that you needed to whip out the “backflip into seemingly certain death to adjust trajectory” strategy, but apparently I was wrong.

I think this may be like all those times when my Mom said the boys just picked on me because they liked me, and even though I thought she was crazy at the time, now I see that she was right. It’s just unrequited love, people.

Best: Flooding the main room and swimming through it. There’s something really satisfying about making such a huge change to the level just by flicking a lever, and swimming through areas you could previously only traverse with running jumps feels great, almost as though you can suddenly fly.

There’s something very majestic about swimming around this room- I would say it’s unequaled, but I think swimming near the giant submerged statues in Sanctuary of the Scion later on probably tops it.

Worst: There isn’t anything that particularly stands out as bad in this level; the only potential annoyance is if you can’t find one of the many keys you need to progress, but getting stuck on this level is relatively rare- there’s always somewhere you haven’t explored yet. Really, calling it a “worst” may be a bit of a stretch, but the beginning and end of the level seem kind of disconnected from the main cistern area; they seem like they were just tacked on for a bit of extra length.

Whether they be rusty, silver, or gold, Lara never leaves abandoned keys out in the cold! Wow, that was terrible, let’s try again….Lara never met a key she didn’t like, the better to Tihocan’s Tomb to hike? Yeah, I think I’ll stick to prose….

Rating: Four Uzi Clips out of five. It’s hard to give this one less than 5/5, since flooding the main room and swimming around in it is one of my favorite TR moments in the franchise, but if I’m honest, is the entirety of the level that high-quality? There is an awful lot of key-fetching, and as mentioned above, the opening and closing areas aren’t anything to write home about. So it’s 4/5, but believe me, I was sorely tempted to go higher.

Next: Tomb of Tihocan, or ‘since it seems like this level is totally just filler, why is it still so fun?”

(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)

Tomb Raider, Level 7: Palace Midas

A Golden Opportunity, or All That Glitters is Entombed

You know, I feel like there should be a lot to say unrelated to the Midas statue and its hand of shiny, glittery-gorgeous death, but the hand of Midas kind of dominates this area. I’m trying to think about all of the other level features, which genuinely are memorable in and of themselves, but my mind keeps going back to that moment when I first positioned Lara on the hand, and magic happened- by which I mean, LITERAL magic, because that’s what’s going on with this level.

I think it was Toby Gard who said during the TR:A commentary that the Hand of Midas was the only thing in the game where magic was the only suitable explanation- all of the Atalantean hi-jinks later on can be attributed to technologically advanced aliens- and that it was a major decision whether or not to include it at all for that reason. I think this is the second moment (the T-Rex encounter in Lost Valley being the first) where your expectations of what the world of Tomb Raider is and can be are shattered, then put back together again, and it works brilliantly.

I always kind of wondered why Lara didn’t just step off once she started turning to gold, but I guess once her feet turn, they become too heavy to lift and she’s trapped.

I’m not 100% sure if this is how it went down, since it was probably fifteen years ago and I don’t remember every single second of playing this game for the first time vividly (for shame, I know), but I’m pretty sure I stepped Lara on the hand for the first time being aware of the myth, but thinking it would never happen in a million years. “Oh, and here’s a hand in a level that references King Midas, ha ha wouldn’t it be funny if Lara just turned to gold right now, except that so wouldn’t happen because there’s no way the game would be that amaziOHMYGOD IT’S SERIOUSLY HAPPENING.”

It was quite possibly the only time in my videogaming career where a Game Over produced both tremendous awe and a huge smile.

Tomb of Giant Statue Guy

If you think about it, Midas tomb seems to be designed so ONLY MIDAS CAN GET OUT OF IT. Creepy.

This is also a very pure Tomb Raider level in one sense, since the palace is clearly a tomb; it’s not one of the major plot-tombs where the pieces of the scion are kept, but an additional tomb. However, have you ever thought about the mechanics of this in regard to the magical giant hand? Stick with me for a moment, it’s a little weird.

Okay, so Midas was a king in Greek myth, who, in punishment for his greed, was cursed so that everything he touched turned to gold. With me so far? Okay. Except, Midas was a person, who is presumably buried somewhere in the palace. So, why is a giant, disembodied hand the thing that turns you to gold? Are we supposed to think that Midas was a giant, like in Gulliver’s Travels, and his hand was chopped off sometime before his untimely death? Or was his soul put into the giant statue made to honor him after his death, so his “curse” lived on long after his body decayed?

I’m partial to the second theory- it especially makes sense if you imagine he’s entombed somewhere WITHIN the giant statue, so ultimately, the statue is just an extension of him. Obviously, the reason why the giant hand came about is because having Lara stand on an actual human-sized hand wouldn’t work (and that would mean introducing Midas’ actual corpse, which is just like, eww), but I’m always kind of fascinated by these leaps of logic you make in games without even being conscious that you’re making them- I mean, I think I always subscribed to the “within the statue resides Midas’ soul” idea while playing this level without ever for a second consciously thinking about it.

I think that may be one of the reasons why I keep coming back to Tomb Raider- I’m fascinated by the mental gymnastics I do subconsciously in order to make the world make sense to me, because I must want it to so badly.

In Which Lara is Not Nearly as On Fire as I Had Expected

The notorious pillar room, which separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls and the champion Tomb Raiders from the…people who have to reload in this room a lot. This fiery gauntlet is responsible for more people getting stuck than anything else in the entire game; at the very least, it has that reputation. You can tell the developers knew it too, because they put two save crystals virtually right next to each other so you can save right before you try it and right after you succeed. Even though there’s a metric ton of save crystals in this level, that still seems rather excessive.

To explain the significance of traversing this room to me, I have to explain something about myself: as much as I like video games, I don’t think I’m very good at them. Other than the Tomb Raider series and a few other third-person adventures, most of the games I play are RPGs- partially for the aesthetics and stories, and partially because they generally don’t require what you might call “reflexes” whatsoever. If I have to press a particular set of buttons in a timely fashion to avoid death, chances are my character is dead.

I don’t remember how long it took me to do this section when I first played the game eons ago, but I’m pretty sure I was stuck on it for at least a few days. I think I eventually used the “take damage whilst sucking down medipacks whilst on fire” technique to complete it. Needless to say, I was kind of dreading getting up to it for this playthrough.

And yet, when I first played through it again a couple of weeks ago, I was able to traverse this section using all running jumps (no pauses) in about three tries- no Lara on fire to speak of. The last time I played it just now, I did it on my first try.

I looked at Lara safely ensconced on the far platform (and, this is important: not even SLIGHTLY on fire), and wondered: How is this possible? The guys at the Tomb Raider Traveler’s Guide wrote, like, a full dissertation on how to get passed this part without having to do running jumps, because it was supposedly so difficult, and I just did it in ten seconds? HOW CAN THIS BE??

Friends, it may seem arrogant, but I think at this point I’m going to have to call it: after playing these games on and off for fifteen years, I am finally not that bad at Tomb Raider- in fact, I seem to be rather good at it. It is now my intention to bake myself a cake in honor of actually being good at a video game.

Pierre Takes a Holiday

There are no Stupid Pierre Tricks for this level, because everyone’s favorite littering Frenchman doesn’t make an appearance. Since my “Pierre is a Sorceror” theory is clearly the most promising new area in Tomb Raider Scholarship since the seminal thesis “Atalantean Culture: Natla and the Marxist-Feminist Imperative,” it seems only logical to assume he’s doing something properly magical- like sacrificing gorillas to his dark gods to renew his teleportation powers.

In all seriousness, I like the randomness of Pierre just not showing up for this level for some reason. I don’t know if it was an oversight, or they thought his presence was totally unnecessary due to the grandness of this level (in which case they were right), but it’s a check in the win column nonetheless. Of course, that almost makes it even more annoying when he shows up in The Cistern.

Running around the top tier of the level= somehow much more fun than it logically should be. It’s like you used the fly code, only you didn’t- it’s just great level design! Yee-haw crocodiles!

Best: On first blush, turning Lara to gold is the best because it’s the most instantly memorable- however, if you’ve turned Lara to gold, that means you’re dead. I’m not sure if dying should ever be the “best” part of a level. Fortunately, running around the topmost story of the level is a blast- it almost feels like you used a code to cheat and get somewhere you’re not “supposed to”, even though there’s no cheating involved. At least for me, I spend the first half of the level thinking “hmm, it would be awesome to stand there, but it doesn’t look like I can get there,” about several areas and then, TA-DAH.

Worst: Having to go back and forth between the doors with the symbols and the platform with the switches so many times. In theory, you shouldn’t have to do it that much, but something often goes wrong for me even when I’ve memorized the symbol. Sometimes I’ll memorize the combinations, have the door fail to open, then reverse all the switches positions and it will work. Then I’ll think “ah-hah, now I have this switch silliness worked out,” only to get it backwards in the other direction, somehow. Odd quirk of the game, or early-onset Alzheimer’s? You decide. I’m also not at all keen on that secret switch behind the trees- great idea, but it’s so well hidden I almost didn’t find it even when I knew it was there. Plus, why is there a death trap in a SECRET? It’s supposed to be a bonus!

Rating: Five Uzi clips out of five; it would be an extremely memorable level just for the hand of Midas gimmick, and yet, there’s so much going on here that it would be a great level even without it. Admittedly, I probably would have been tempted to lower the score if the flame pillars had actually frustrated me.

If I may be so bold as to say anything even slightly negative about this level (other than the fact that the switches annoy me, but I don’t blame the level for my stupidity), isn’t this spike-room kind of an afterthought? “You know what we haven’t seen for a while? Spikes. Mysteriously bloody spikes. Let’s put in 50,000 of them.”

Next: The Cistern, where I can’t even make a bacteriological infection joke because Scott Lee’s been there already.

(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)

Tomb Raider, Level 6: The Coliseum

Screenshots for this level taken from TombRaiderChronicles.com, since Katie's TR site doesn't have screens from this level for some reason.

Because Greece and Rome are Clearly Right Next to Each Other

On some level, I always assumed that the reason there was a coliseum at this point was because Lara had somehow passed- on foot- from Greece into Rome. Now in my regular, non-Tomb Raider life, I’m well aware of the fact that Greece and Rome are not within easy walking distance, but it never bothered me until I came back to this game for this project. Somehow, while playing Tomb Raider, my brain has protected me all this time from the crushing tyranny of geography.

The official Prima strategy guide tries to play it both ways: “Here’s a real treat! A Greek Coliseum complete with maniac lions roaming around.” No, strategy guide, we know coliseums are not Greek; don’t try to be clever (although in fairness, the guide does point out a major shortcut in this level, so maybe it is a bit clever.)

There's a lot of fighting to be had, but that's pretty much neutral as far as I'm concerned. Shooting the lions and gorillas in the middle of the coliseum from the stands is fun, in a totally unfair, shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of way.

I think I must have played this level about ten times over the past week or so while trying to figure out what I was going to say about it. It’s another one of those levels that people tend to remember, but I’m honestly not sure how much I like it; once you’ve reached the main section of the level and have that “oh cool, it’s a coliseum,” moment, the level empties its bag of tricks rather quickly. The traps are fairly pedestrian, running around the “stands” gets repetitive (and disappointing, due to an inexplicable lack of pick-ups there), and it’s actually one of the more simplistic levels in the game.

Part of the problem here is probably me, since the concept of a coliseum doesn’t speak to my imagination as much as a lot of the other concepts in the game do- I never bothered to see Gladiator, and never really had much of an interest in Roman culture, period. I think some people probably played this level soaking up the atmosphere, thinking what it must have been like to live in Roman times and watch actual gladiators battle actual lions for their actual larynges, but my mind doesn’t tend to go in that direction, and that’s really not the game’s fault.

There's a shortcut to the lower balcony here- you can backflip onto the rock, jump forward and grab the ledge. It requires such precise placement that it's not really much of a shortcut, although I still feel awfully proud of myself when I pull it off.

All that said, this level does have some rather interesting touches. They totally fake you out with the ending- it seems so obvious that the goal of the level must be to get through the giant double doors on the balcony, since, like trained seals, by this point we have learned to associate large doors with progression. It’s actually kind of a surprise when the level ends with Lara underwater.

We also get a save crystal about one minute before the end of the level (behind the aforementioned double doors), which is quite odd. In theory, you could die in the underwater passage before you complete the level, so the crystal isn’t entirely useless, but it still seems out of place.

Stupid Pierre Tricks

On the plus side, for people who enjoy messing around with Pierre (and I hope that includes you and everyone you know), this level happens to be a particularly fun place to play around with his wacky disappearing-mechanics. Since the stands of the coliseum are long straight-aways, Pierre can have a hard time finding a decent corner to slip behind for his ninja routine, and as a result, spends a tremendous amount of time getting shot. I think I shot at him once for five minutes straight.

Interestingly, he will often run far away from Lara, and then loop around back for some more punishment- as though he suddenly decided “No, I’m not going to be a sissy-man and run away, but rather be an HOMME about this and finish off ma petite* once and for all! ,” then changes his mind again sixty rounds later.

I think if you keep him out and about long enough, he will basically teleport away from you- at one point, the camera angle changed when Lara rolled, and by the time I reoriented the camera, he was gone. Poof. Bam. Like Nightcrawler or something.

Based on this indisputable in-game evidence, I have now concluded that Pierre Dupont is a  sorcerer.

If you have another explanation, hey, knock yourself out.

It is now my intention to gather more evidence to back up this exciting new theory in the realm of Tomb Raider scholarship.

Best: It’s really satisfying the first time you get to the elevated room with the chaise lounges, I mean the Emperor’s Balcony, according to the strategy guide. Climbing on the rocks to get to the balcony is fun in that Lost Valley I-love-jumping-on-stuff way, and it’s just cool looking out at the expanse of the coliseum once you’ve ascended.

Worst: The first minute or so of the level is boring. You might be thinking “hey, it’s the FIRST ROOM, why be so harsh?” but think about it: we just did HOW MUCH work to open that door in the bowels of St. Francis Folly? I don’t know about you, but I was expecting more from the other side of that uber-defended door than a room full of sand and a disoriented crocodile. Plus, I find the lack of pick-ups in the stands area to be truly disappointing.

Rating: Three Uzi Clips Out of Five. The idea of the coliseum, geographic switcheroo aside, is probably great, but the execution could have been better as far as I’m concerned.

Next up: Palace Midas, or I no longer care about the whole Greece/Rome mix-up because OMG SHINY THINGS!

*Yes, all of my knowledge of French comes from Gambit of the X-Men. Why do you ask?

Edit: I just realized that Katie’s TR Screenshots DOES have screens of this level, I just missed them- considering I’m working on Palace Midas now I think I’m going to let it slide, however.

Tomb Raider, Level 5: St. Francis’ Folly

I have a fear of elevators in general, so Lara’s stunt in the cutscene that precedes this level has always, always freaked me out just a little. Scenes like this push her firmly over the line from “adventurous free spirit” to “batcakes insane adrenaline junkie,” and I am not keen on it. That said, I do like this cutscene overall, since it features the interesting excerpt from the monk’s journal. Like Tihocan’s epitaph later, I like the gentle reminder that people actually once lived in these places Lara explores.

I like how absorbed Lara appears to be in the book; I've always been partial to the idea that she spends most of her non-tomb raiding time reading and studying ancient languages.

I’m still confused about the line “my toes sweat at such possibilities,” though- is that supposed to be a joke, or is that something people actually say and I’ve just never come across it? I feel kind of sorry for this character we only experience in a paragraph of text: powers, beyond the creator himself, locked beneath his monastery! And all he can do is ponder the condition of his toes! Poor troubled monk, I hope he had a good, long life and spent none of his time in St. Francis’ Folly anywhere near that abysmal second secret.

Innovating Against the Clock

This level is a conundrum; on the one hand, it’s incredibly daring and inventive, but it also shows just how rushed the designers were like no other level does. First, they swap a Roman god’s name with the proper Greek one (Neptune for Poseidon), and include a Norse God, Thor, for no apparent reason. I mean, Neptune was an oversight, clearly, but THOR? If you were thinking “Greek Gods” and “Lightning,” how could you NOT think of Zeus, exactly? I’m still puzzled by that omission.

And why Neptune, Thor, Atlas, and Damocles? How arbitrary is that?

Really, monks? REALLY?

Second, the challenge rooms are mostly one-trick ponies, and of them all, only Damocles and Thor are really memorable, and Thor mostly for the wrong reasons (although the hammer trick was admittedly cute.) That said, I found the additions they made to the challenge rooms in the incarnation of this level from Tomb Raider Anniversary extraordinarily tedious, so it’s probably just as well.

I guess I feel there’s an element of wasted potential here: can you imagine if you actually had to go through a pantheon of 12 Greek Gods, each with their own trial, in an even larger vertical room? Sure, it probably would have been broken up into two or three levels, but that would have been mind-blowing. As it stands, it’s still amazing for the time, but the choice of the Gods (even aside from the mythology-switcheroos) always made it seem more like the monks just slapped together a bunch of trials than anything else. Didn’t they care about protecting the Scion?

The Case of the Disappearing Frenchman

This level is also notable for introducing Pierre Dupont, a bane to those trying to conserve health packs. Back in the day, when I incurred a lot more damage to Lara and actually needed all the health packs I picked up, Pierre’s creeping out of the woodwork and shooting at Lara several times per level was a real problem.

Now, however, I find him more interesting to mess with than anything else; there seems to be a remarkable amount of variation in terms of how many times you can shoot him before he’ll run away. I believe there is a technical amount of damage that you need to do, but if he doesn’t happen to be near a good column to disappear behind when you finish inflicting it, he’ll run around in circles like a chicken with his head cut off and soak up a ridiculous amount of bullets, to the effect of three or four times the amount of damage he’s “supposed” to take before he runs off.

I will say this for him though: at least he knows to get the drop on Lara and start shooting at her from behind, which puts him in the top 99th percentile of Tomb Raider villains, intelligence-wise. It may not have worked out for him, but at least he had the right idea.

Speaking of his Houdini act, I know that Pierre disappears as soon as he leaves your line of sight due to technical limitations, but I always thought it was kind of cool; I like the idea that Pierre is aware of all sorts of shortcuts through the level that Lara isn’t. I mean, imagine that when you play as Lara, you see everything through a kind of “Lara-filter”, meaning you’re only aware of the routes she finds. Now in theory Pierre, who won’t have access to all the same keys and whatever Lara finds, has to find his own way, and sees parts of these venues that Lara doesn’t get anywhere near.

Seriously, a cool idea for Tomb Raider Level Editor wizards: Make a Pierre’s-eye-view of

Cool thing about Pierre's verison of this level: Does NOT include Atlas room.

these levels. Same levels, but with new areas and different puzzles, and you periodically get to sneak up behind Lara and scare the daylights out of her. Actually, since he doesn’t show up in Palace Midas, you can assume he takes a completely different route and goes through, like, five additional Greco-Roman levels. I suppose you could do the same thing with Larson in Egypt, although I can’t imagine Larson figuring out very difficult puzzles.

Oh, and awesome TRLE people? While you’re at it, do the full-on Greek Pantheon version of this level I was talking about above; people will be impressed. Although lord knows what kind of trial Demeter will spawn; maybe something Harvest Moon inspired.

Secrets: The Medipack Ain’t Worth It

By the way, this level is the reason why I decided against doing an all-secrets run; I have never gotten the second secret on this level, and I think it’s evil incarnate and have no intention of doing so. I’m also not keen on the last secret of this level, which requires you to lose more than half your health.

I know some people like truly difficult secrets that you have to work for, and I can definitely understand that, but I like to be rewarded for exploration, not repeating the same ten minutes of a level over and over again, or trying a death-defying stunt. I might have a different view of these things if I was playing the PC version, however I will always think of the Playstation incarnation as the “real” version.

Best: Nothing beats when you first walk into the main room and take in the view. Also, the game is generous enough with save crystals in this level that you can afford to jump around a lot without worrying about having to repeat fifteen minutes of progress- or maybe it just seems that way to me after having experienced the relative paucity of crystals in Tomb Raider III. Also, if I may be so bold as to include several bests for this level, the gorillas are very cool- it’s really a shock when you discover that an enemy actually follows you to higher ground, and for that reason they’re actually more intimidating than many more powerful enemies.

Worst: I almost want to give worst-honors to the incredibly tedious level of Tomb Raider Anniversary that this level made possible, but that’s setting a bad precedent. The true worst aspect is the Thor puzzle which, while it can be bypassed harmlessly by doing a forward roll, appears to be a random death trap, and usually is in practice. I only found out about the forward roll trick after reading about it online, because there’s no indication of how you’re supposed to pass it. It’s especially bad since you can get nailed with it on the way back, and have to do the rest of the puzzle over again.

Rating: Four Uzi Clips out of five; it may be blasphemy to give this level anything less than full marks, since it’s one of those levels from the first game that people tend to remember, however I just don’t find it as fun to play as Lost Valley or City of Vilcabamba. Maybe it’s the prospect of falling to your death so easily, but it’s not as fun to explore. I guess I could give it a 4.5 out of 5, but what do you do with half an Uzi Clip?

Next, it’s time for the next Greek level, a Roman Coliseum-um, make that the next Greco-Roman level. I foresee issues trying to explain this.

(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)

Tomb Raider, Level 4: Tomb of Qualopec

Before I delve into ToQ, a note about a change to the TR project; due to the fact that I’ve switched over to playing these games on my PSP, which is about fifty times more comfortable for me for some reason, I’m not taking screenshots anymore. Fortunately, with a game this well-known that’s been out for this long, you can bet that someone else has taken great screens already, and that person is Katie. From here on out, unless I note otherwise, all screenshots come from the excellent Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots; Used with permission.

Oh, and it just sort of hit me the other day that since Tomb Raider is now owned by Square-Enix, there’s an otaku-connection there that I didn’t even realize. Go blog-cohesiveness!

Would You Like Some Tomb in Your Tomb Raider?

Level 4, Tomb of Qualopec, is actually the first tomb in all of Tomb Raider-dom; that sounds awfully significant. In fact, that makes me wish I liked it more.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with this level- it’s a respectable puzzle level 95% of the way through, if a little short, and the last 5% is remarkable due to actually exiting the temple and backtracking into the previous level (which is actually a lot more novel and exciting then it probably sounds) but it seems lackluster coming off of the Lost Valley high.

Last level: traverse vast distances, find loads of goodies tucked away in hidden alcoves, take in scenic views, and finally, meet lots of interesting dinosaurs and kill them all. This level: there are switches. Pulling them accomplishes things.

Still, the rampaging raptors add a bit of excitement to the otherwise dull proceedings; they’re a bit intimidating in these cramped surroundings.

Now, does anyone understand what’s going on with that one mummy whom Lara targets in this level? It would be one thing if you could shoot all the mummies, but the fact that only one of them can be targeted leads me to believe that he’s a special mummy- i.e., this is HIS tomb. Like, Qualopec himself sees what Lara’s about to do and isn’t keen on it. I like indulging the idea that some of the plot-related moments in this game are more subtle. EDIT: I have since read on the internet that this is widely believed to be the case by many TR fans; I guess I don’t get any analysis brownie points for this one.

This level also features a “boss” fight (a generous use of that term if ever there was one) with Larson, everyone’s favorite Southern stereotype dude. Stereotypes generally don’t even bother me (I just think of them as offensively hilarious), but I guess it’s worth pointing out that he is one nonetheless.

I find the conversation between Larson and Lara here more interesting than the rest of the actual level; not the bit about the scion, but the fact that Larson is threatening to shove something up Lara’s unmentionables, and she APOLOGIZES for interrupting him. I think this is what I initially loved about Lara’s character, and what’s been missing pretty much ever since; that absurd level of politeness, a relic of her prim and proper upbringing, that clashes tremendously with her day job. I don’t know, there’s something charming about a woman who will apologize to a cursing southern redneck (that she’s holding at GUNPOINT) because interrupting other people is just rude.

Showing his southern spirit, Larson cheerfully walks off the thirty or so rounds Lara introduced to his redneck hide. The first time I played this game, someone told me that Lara actually kills Larson here by snapping his neck with her kick; you can imagine how surprised I was when he started shooting at me later.

Best: Revisiting the previous level; revolutionary for the time, still surprising. The fact that there’s a new secret there is just icing on the cake. Of course, that means the best part of this level is technically STILL Lost Valley….

Worst: The spike pits that crop up all over the damn place. Okay, I understand the need for some challenge, but there’s something surprisingly gruesome about those primitive-looking spikes; yeah, you don’t see anything when Lara dies to them, but in some ways that just makes the idea of impalement worse.

Umm, why are they bloody? Do they actually get much use? If other people were impaled on these things, why are there no bodies? Wait, I’m just as happy they didn’t put in any bodies, that would be gross and I would have thrown down the controller, screaming. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean….

Rating: Three Uzi Clips out of five; it would be two Uzi Clips, however the last two minutes of the level elevate it considerably.

Next up: St. Francis’ Folly, or Let’s Get Vertical.

Tomb Raider, Level 3: Lost Valley

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.

What am I walking on here? I DO NOT CARE.

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

"This is a definition of 'extinct' of which I was previously unaware."

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.

If you can remember standing here, you are good at Tomb Raider.

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.

Me, circa TR III. I kid because I love.

There's a physics teacher I know who could explain all of the reasons why this wouldn't work.

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.

Also: This:

Oh, and GUESS WHO HAS THE SHOTGUN! Of course, it might have been more useful to have BEFORE fighting the T-Rex...shut up.