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.)

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