Review by Unbridled9

"This belongs in a museum"

We see relics every day about us. Things from the past that, while they may have been great at the time, simply are not part of the here and now. Things like bell bottoms and video tapes. They existed at one point, maybe even were influential, but when we go back to look at them, their many shortcomings become very apparent. Things that we may have excused or ignored back in the day because we did not know any better or nothing better existed that, now, would simply not be acceptable. Tomb Raider is, sadly, one of these relics. Something best off looked at, possibly admired for what it meant at the time, but not actually played as the many glaring flaws render it simply unacceptable by modern standards. It is a good thing that we have moved on from games like this, for both Tomb Raider and for gaming in general. So, what, exactly, has decayed so badly about this game? Well, like with all things, let's start at the beginning.

First off, the good. What did this game do right, especially back in the day when this game was popular? Well, first off, it has an amazing soundtrack that serves to legitimately enhance the game without being intrusive. Where as most games attempt to stick in some music or underdone ambience, Tomb Raider instead attempts to graft in not only ambience, but ambience done RIGHT! Small things like hearing the wind and waves from far-off shores, the gentle creak of aged wood and stone, the growl of far-off panthers and the squeak of approaching bats. While the sounds may not be the high-quality files modern gamers are used too, they are still very well done and help the player become fully immersed in a game in which the main character is largely alone and enhances the environment and atmosphere of such a thing immensely.

Secondly, the story is surprisingly robust and good. There are plenty of problems with it, but most of them are caused by something not directly related to the gameplay later on. Laura is hired to hunt down an ancient relic by a woman known as Natla and soon discovers that things are not all as they should be. This pits Laura in a race to collect two remaining relics and stop Natla before she can do far too much harm. The story is, surprisingly, engaging and, if there had been more of it, this game would have certainly scored higher than it did in my eyes. Laura is well presented and, while the villains tend to be… less than fleshed out… they are still solid and decently well-done. Understandable at the very least, if a bit stereotypical.

And… That is where the good parts of the game end and the bad parts begin. Let us start with the VERY beginning of the game to start seeing the problems.

In the beginning of the game, there is absolutely no tutorial. Tomb Raider is a very difficult game and gives you stark-little to work with by any standard. Assuming you picked up the game and didn't have a manual you would be left utterly confused as not even simple instructions like ‘press X to jump' will appear on the screen to help out, let alone actually explain how Laura is supposed to navigate these tombs. Instead you have to go to an entirely separate mode called ‘Laura's Mansion' to find the tutorial. This might have been acceptable still if it had been clearly labeled as such, but few people would think this much more than an extras mode as it most certainly *sounds* like one. The only reason I even checked it was because, after navigating through the tombs and being forced to learn everything on my own, outright beating the game, I decided to see if all the ‘secrets' I had found unlocked anything and just what those things were if I did. That was when I discovered that there was a tutorial. Poor design.

The poor design doesn't stop there either. For whatever reason they decided to deprive Laura of a map, waypoints, notebook, or even off-handed comments about what certain things might be doing. This deprives the player of a lot of critical information, like what the heck they're actually doing, and replaces it with having to take down notes in real life. HEAVEN FORBID you put the game down and come back a week later as you will be totally lost and spend a lot of time retracing your steps to figure out just what you need to do and have already done.

And then there are the controls. These controls are simply the worst I have ever used in a game that weren't clearly outright neglected. Laura utilizes the ‘tank' style of controlling where turning left and right are handled separately from moving forwards and backwards. This, actually, wasn't a poor choice and isn't the problem. The problem is what comes AFTER that. Many places require careful navigation and timing, and jumping is an outright mess at this. Laura has three ‘jumps'. A standing jump that launches her just up, a ‘forwards' jump used by hitting forwards and jumping at the same time, and a running jump which requires Laura to move for one ‘square' of terrain with the jump key held down before launching her forwards. Any mismanagement on these can be disastrous and it is quite easy to do so. Didn't carefully navigate to the edge of the ledge (using the ‘walk' key you might not have known existed)? Your run-jump will fail. Need a forwards jump but didn't nail the timing? Standing jump!

To make it worse the ‘action' key is very precise to the point of making picking up things on the ground far harder than it should be. Instead of simply running over an item or just pressing action ‘near' it, Laura must be almost precisely on the item she wants to pick up. Want to flip a switch? Unless Laura is very close to it, it won't work. Better hope you know how to use that ‘walk' key. Wait, you didn't even know it existed due to poor tutorials? Too bad!

Laura can't even aim well. Instead of a targeting reticule, lock-on function, or anything of the sort, if there is an enemy nearby Laura will just point her guns (if they're drawn) towards them automatically. No aiming involved. This would be great if all combat happened at medium-range. It doesn't. Want to take out a crocodile from long range but he's *just* a foot or two too far? Better hope he wanders closer and isn't too low. That bat that flew into your hair? Now you have to deal with the poor controls to get him back into targeting. If you have to fight multiple foes the game doesn't even automatically switch targets when one dies which can lead to wasted health and ammo because you had two lions in your face and didn't realize one was already dead.

So, how can this get worse? Tomb Raider is full of very precise jumps and acrobatics combined with careful navigation. Combined with the poor controls and plenty of insta-death drops and it quickly becomes a case of ‘messed up on one jump, have to reload and try again, and again, and again, because I need to experiment and the poor controls make things constantly difficult'. To make it worse, plenty of the things in this game can only be navigated in one particular, exact, manner. Even with a guide this is slow and tedious and I dread to think of what it would be like without one.

Combining the poor controls and dated (if acceptable) graphics yields the secrets. Small, often hidden, alcoves that give small rewards in ammo and health. One would thing this is good, right? Except that these secrets are often dependant upon exploiting poor controls and/or spotting things that, due to the graphics of the time, are near-invisible and almost impossible to spot. It would be one thing if these secrets were merely unconventional in how to reach them. When you can easily walk past one because you didn't realize that there was a hole in the wall despite looking right at it and spend a while trying to figure out how to reach it simply because the controls are so fickle and willing to sabotage you, that is a problem.

Then there is the level-length. I grew up playing JRPG's and other long games; so spending a lot of time in one level isn't a problem. What is, is spending a lot of time in one level and lacking a feeling of engagement due to little action and having to repeat tasks because of missing a jump. This caused me to start to wonder and question a lot of things about the game as I repeated things over and over. Why was there a T-rex in a cave in Peru? How could it survive so long with almost no food? How could these animals survive in a subterranean coliseum without anyone to care for them for so long? How did the plants survive despite no sunlight? How did people navigate this place while building it? To make it worse, this level-length makes the story segments very spaced out by having to repeat jumps over and over again making it easy for the story-segments to become muted and forgotten.

This leads me to my final verdict. Tomb Raider is *not* a bad game… for 1996 where things like the overly-long levels, sparse story and combat, and the rest were acceptable. By modern standards this game is simply too unforgiving for even non-mistakes like taking a week off to be quality of any kind. Too much of the game relies on things that simply are too technical for their own good and many simple things, like maps, that would have made the game far more tolerable are non-existent. This results in a game that is simply far too hard for all the wrong reasons. Something best looked at, admired for what it might have meant at the time, then put in a museum and left unplayed.

My recommended price: $0-$5. Its only real application is as a show-piece for the PS1 era and maybe some nostalgia for people who grew up playing it. For modern players, it is best to look elsewhere for gaming enjoyment.

Reviewer's Rating:   1.5 - Bad

Originally Posted: 10/17/13

Game Release: Tomb Raider (US, 11/15/96)

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