Review by SethBlizzard
"Some tales are better left untold"
Tomb Raider Chronicles really busted out of the back of its predecessor. After four games, Core seemed just about ready to give up on Lara Croft and her 3rd person action/adventure gameplay that captivated the gaming world a scant four years previous. That was fair; they did her great justice with the epic Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. After such a devotion from the same team, you can't blame them for not being happy when they were ordered to make another game.
The Last Revelation would have made a fitting and dignifying conclusion for Lara Croft. Ditching the James Bond approach of especially the third instalment (which I actually quite liked), Revelation was a return to the spirit of the original Tomb Raider, with more puzzle solving, superb graphics and sound as well as a gripping storyline. Core obviously wanted the story to end there. Instead of rebelling when they were ordered otherwise, though, they decided to make a bold experiment; an episode-based game based on four different modes of play.
Now, the question is, after the way the Last Revelation ended, how to make a sequel? The solution was not to. The magic word is 'midquel'. The premise of Tomb Raider Chronicles is tying up loose ends. Something about that premise was lost in development, though, as nothing about the game ties up any loose ends, apart of course from the Iris quest. The main thing is that the story feels like a mere afterthought, and Lara herself isn't exactly up-to-date on her own controls, either, blatantly misinforming you on how to swim and even perform proper jumps.
The first level of the game is my favourite. It had a nice optional sidetrack into an opera house that doubles as the training segment, as well as nice visuals; overall not such a bad start. Little did I realise that I was not about to get much more. After playing a couple of levels, I got the horrible impression that Tomb Raider Chronicles isn't interested in making much of itself. There are a mere four missions, each of them three levels long bar one, with four. That makes a total of thirteen levels. The gaming environment is then truncated to the point where you wonder whether Chronicles merely functions as one long interactive movie rather than an action-adventure and puzzle game.
Visually, Chronicles is pretty decent. The character models are sleek and pleasing, and environments are well rendered. Some, like Rome, are very aesthetic. The lions will make you laugh when you think about the toothpaste-ad lions of the original. On the flipside, the FMVs are a serious slip in quality after Last Revelation's magnificent full motion movies. In terms of music, the game is hardly anything special. Peter Conelly does the best he can with what he has, but with a game as lopsided as this one, he had one hard task on his hands. Indeed there are two tunes (the men's choir in the opening titles and the magnificent underwater music) where he scores gold. But Tomb Raider III and Revelation this ain't.
After Tomb Raider III, Core wanted to make the following games not as open and confusing. In The Last Revelation, this worked wonders, with the gaming environment just big enough to allow for lots of exploration and wicked puzzles. In Chronicles, though, a step too far seems to have been taken. It's a linear game. In the full sense of the word. Everything is done in a preordained order. You only get one puzzle to solve at a time, ensuring that it won't take you long to solve it, something the limited gaming environment only helps even more. This makes you feel as though your hand is being held for the entire game. Another thing that lets you down is how extremely crammed and unfriendly the entire gaming world is. There's no big areas to explore. If you are an avid follower of the series at this point, you will expect running jumps, pushing objects around, finding the right path and having an option of many puzzles to solve. Not so in Tomb Raider Chronicles. There is a single token block push and a single rope swing sequence in the entire game, and some of the other stuff you're used to will probably only occur a couple of times, if at all.
Furthermore, the levels themselves have become exceptionally short. The entire submarine mission is smaller than many individual levels in Tomb Raider III. The numerous story sequences that pop in all the time make the levels feel even smaller. I was anxious to explore more of Rome, but the small environment I got was all I was going to get, something I hardly found fair. Part of the beauty of the series is exploring and slowly putting together the pieces of what it takes to complete the level; exploring, being excited about going somewhere and then getting there. In Chronicles, it has already been preordained how you are going to complete each level, like the world's most bullet proof script.
About the only thing that breaks up this A-to-B structure is the secrets, golden roses with three apiece per level (bar two levels, with three roses spread between them). Some are wickedly hidden and easy to miss. A few require you to deliberately make life difficult for yourself. And the reward for finding all? Developmental sketches from the game's FMVs (which, by the way, are quite dull). I like that the reward is split in four and you get to view each one at the conclusion of each of the game's chapters (on the title screen, of course), but it's hardly like a secret level to play.
Rather than a long, cohesive game, Chronicles is split into four individual chapters as already stated. Your previous instinct from the game of gradually collecting a huge stock of ammunition for the last levels is cancelled out, as you can't take anything with you between missions; you start from scratch with each one. Story-wise, this is more than understandable, but it furthers your lack of choice even more. The first mission is Rome, which feels like a toned-down sidetrack section from the excellent Last Revelation. The aesthetics and the dogs are nice, as is the idea of the second level being completely devoid of enemies apart from its three bosses. However, the confined environments and linear pace dull its impression. Second is a Russian submarine base, mainly taking place on board said submarine. There is a bit more action and challenge here, with a few more puzzles, but it's also over at the drop of a hat for reasons stated above. Then we get a reunion with a teenage Lara in a really quite spooky adventure on a remote island, featuring a small handful of simple enough puzzles.
The last mission is decidedly the most developed; the stealth mission. Taking place inside Von Croy Industries, this is the only mission that justifies the game's existence, seeing how it's the only story that ties up any supposed loose ends (the game's main selling point). It explains how the Iris (first seen in Lara's mansion in Tomb Raider III) came from being trapped with Von Croy in Cambodia to being in Lara's treasure room. While this mission sees a return to the somewhat ruthless treasure hunter of Tomb Raider III, it is also the mission of the game that's most involving on your part. Lara must sneak around the building, taking out guards with headshots or chloroform (which means sneaking up on them, made possible by improved enemy AI). One false move and all hell breaks loose, and you ain't blasting your way out of there in your skimpy plastic. The added gameplay elements of the grappling gun and searching shelves and cupboards could have been employed much more as strong puzzle elements of the game. Unfortunately, the grappling gun only shows up towards the very end of the game, and the cupboard search is rather limited. Zip then also makes sure you aren't going to make any false moves without at least him telling you about it. Though the VCI are also only three levels long, they will at least keep you on your toes a bit longer than the others because of the stealth aspect. And even then, it's as linear as the other chapters.
The storytelling in Chronicles is a pretty big dud. The new characters are nothing to care about. Father Patrick is an exceptionally irritating character, and one who comes as a slap in the face to the openly supernatural nature of the games (especially The Last Revelation). There is a lot of humour present, particularly in the first and last missions, but this comes at the cost of any real content. There are also a lot of story inconsistencies, such as how Von Croy went from an archaeologist adventurer to a military weapons mogul (not to mention BACK to an archaeologist adventurer), and how Larson and Pierre's roles are tied in with the original Tomb Raider. The game doesn't dare to state whether the Rome chapter should take place before or after the first Tomb Raider. Nothing is fully developed, and the premise might partially be to blame for that. Just when the adventure is getting somewhere, it ends and the next chapter begins. This makes sure that you will never get to know Tomb Raider Chronicles like you got to know the previous installments in the series, which still feel like real adventures. The level names have even got more facile, such as The base or The submarine.
Making matters even worse are needless revisions to the gameplay stables of the series that make it worse instead of better. If the setting of the game weren't a set of flashbacks, you'd wonder if Lara had put on a few pounds, because she runs much slower than usual, and the controls even feel just a tad less responsive. Even worse is that when you shoot enemies and they get out of your sight as you and they are moving about, you don't stay locked on to them. Not only do you have to find them again without the camera helping you like it always has when you keep the action button pressed, you waste ammo too as you keep shooting when you're not locked on. Way to take one of the central combat elements of the series and throw it out the window. But perhaps the most disappointing thing about Chronicles is how safe it plays. The gameplay has never been this shallow, and this after The Last Revelation tried to be so innovative. The innovations of Chronicles are all of the surface level; it's the New Super Mario Bros. of the Tomb Raider series.
When you consider that the Tomb Raider Level Editor comes with this PC version, one can't escape the feeling that the main function of Chronicles is to be a demonstration for the capabilities of the Level Editor. Chronicles doesn't feel like a proper Tomb Raider game, with neither the energy or spirit to get to that point. It feels like a shadow of its glorious past. It's just a shame that this had to be the last outing of this generation's Tomb Raider games, seeing how the production of the follow-up, the ambitious but flawed Angel of Darkness, was so disastrous. As it is, Chronicles and its linear gameplay, constant movies, preordained puzzles etcetera feel cold. There is neither choice or true involvement. You don't feel like you get to know the levels anymore, seeing how small they are and how your hand is held the entire time. Tomb Raider Chronicles thus ends up a quite shallow experience. As it is, I'm wishing Eidos would have allowed Core to leave Lara Croft where we last left her. She would have gone out with a bang as opposed to a bah.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 12/15/09, Updated 05/06/15
Game Release: Tomb Raider Chronicles (EU, 11/24/00)
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