Monday, 22 November 2010

Tomb Raider Chronicles Review

Tomb Raider Chronicles is the fifth game of the Tomb Raider series and the last developed for the original Playstation. Varied and imaginative, it takes the form of short episodes told in flashback following Lara Croft’s accidental entombment in a pyramid (oh, Lara).

The premise is an unusual one: Lara’s friends, Charles Kane, Winston the Butler and Father Patrick Dunstan gather at Croft Manor to remember her adventures. Between them, they tell the stories of four forgotten exploits, each exploring a different area of Lara’s past, a different part of the world and – to an extent – a different kind of gameplay.

The first episode, set in Rome, harks back to the original Tomb Raider and acts as a homage to the series’ origins. Featuring two of the older game’s villains, scheming Frenchman Pierre DuPont and pratfalling Texan cowboy Larson Conway, the first three levels are a polished example of what Tomb Raider has always done best: gorgeous scenery, satisfying puzzles and atmospheric set-pieces.

Opening with a scene in an Italian opera house (memorably featuring our heroine in a slinky evening gown), Rome progresses gracefully and concludes with a rare fragment of self-aware dialogue back at Croft Manor. “I'm sure Miss Croft would be the first to apologize for her not entirely courteous behaviour regarding some of the more delicate religious artefacts,” remarks Lara’s loyal butler Winston. Irish priest Father Patrick waves aside his concerns. “No need, my friend, all for a good cause. At least we knew they were in secure hands. And fortunately the Church was above sending a bulletproof envoy to retrieve them”.

Self-referential moments are rare in Tomb Raider, so it’s nice so see characters alluding to the fact that the authorities never troubled Lara, despite her liberal approach to the concept of ownership.

The next section takes place on a nuclear submarine, following Lara’s mission to stop the Russian Mafia gaining control of the ominously-named Spear of Destiny. Following the rich golds and blues of Rome, the game is plunged into shades of industrial grey as Lara (herself clad in cloud-coloured camouflage) infiltrates a military base.

The gameplay also undergoes a subtle change, as the acrobatics of Lara’s Roman adventure give way to an altogether stealthier approach. At one point, Lara is discovered and her weapons confiscated, and she must make her way through the bowels of the submarine to reclaim them.

The climax of the episode is a slightly stressful underwater sequence in an “Extreme Depth Suit”, where Lara must navigate the sea bed in order to find the Spear of Destiny. Although the suit is jet-propelled and made out of metal, the slightest knock will make her heartbeat skyrocket, thus reducing her air supply considerably. This can be a little frustrating, but it contributes to the sense of urgency and underscores the surprisingly emotional ending to the episode.

Father Patrick, who has apparently known Lara for much of her life, recounts an episode in her adolescence when she accompanied him (uninvited) on an exorcism. The Black Isle levels are extremely spooky, not least because teenage Lara spends the entire time unarmed. She must find other ways of circumnavigating the hazards in her path.

The puzzle-focussed gameplay sees Lara undertaking such macabre tasks as retrieving the heart of a rotting cadaver strung from a tree and locking a worm-like demon in an underwater cage. Lara’s defencelessness not only makes the episode more nerve-wracking, but gives players a glimpse of another side to her character. We’re so used to seeing Lara the gun-toting super-vixen that controlling a hesitant teenager who has only her wits to protect her is as refreshing as it is unnerving.

The final episode sees our heroine decked out in a Matrix-style cat-suit and wraparound shades as she invades the American Headquarters of Von Croy Industries. Players of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation will remember Werner Von Croy as Lara’s sinister mentor, entombed when he couldn’t leave an ancient artefact well enough alone.

It’s this very artefact, the Iris that concerns our heroine here. She’s here to reclaim it, and her tactics for doing so are myriad. It’s here that Chronicles’ restraint begins to fray a little at the edges. It’s the most futuristic episode in any Tomb Raider, a series which has traditionally relied on ancient magic for its pyrotechnics. Consequently, the freedom afforded to the developers translates into a dizzying avalanche of new ideas and concepts introduced three-quarters into the game.

For example, this episode features silent takedowns using chloroform and a handkerchief. Interesting though this is, Tomb Raider doesn’t really lend itself to stealth-based gameplay. Lara occasionally handles awkwardly, and whilst this can be marginally annoying during an acrobatic sequence, it can be maddening if you’re trying to sneak up behind a guard armed with a machine-powered rifle.

There’s also the introduction of Lara’s infra-red sensitive glasses, necessary for scoping out the whereabouts of deadly lasers. Although this technology makes sense in context, it’s still strange to learn a new technique this late in the day. It’s also a little frustrating not being able to move and look through the glasses at the same time.

Perhaps due to its experimental nature, The Von Croy Industries episode is palpably harder than the preceding three. So many new ideas are crammed into these levels that the player occasionally has a hard time keeping up. It’s also a little jarring having the voice of Zip - Lara’s heretoforth unknown tech-expert friend – punctuating tense moments. He’s connected to her through a headset, and occasionally offers helpful hints or snappy comments.

Again, both this new communication technology and the streetwise character of Zip fit the context of the episodes, but their contrast with the artistic loneliness of the earlier levels might be a bit much for some players.

That said, Chronicles’ few flaws are a consequence of its inventiveness. Hindsight shows that it was ahead of its time, taking the form of a collection of “short stories”. These days, many major franchises release episodes of a similar length in addition to their main content. Grand Theft Auto have done this very successfully, as have Bethesda’s Oblivion and Fallout games. Even Core’s successor’s, Crystal Dynamics, have released short and experimental episodes in the life of Lara as independent downloadable content, most recently the innovative Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

In fact, Darrell Gallagher, the current GM of Crystal Dynamics, refers to the creative potential of the short episode in this article on downloadable content in Edge magazine, saying that it "heralds a new age of atristic freedom".

The idea of placing a well-known character in a short experimental game seems a relatively recent one, and although Chronicles wasn’t the first game to do this, it’s certainly one of the most interesting examples of the technique. Consequently, it deserves a little recognition. And if you’ve got a spare few hours and a working PC, you might just want to give it a play.

Thanks (as ever) to Katie for the beautiful screenshots.


  1. Thanks for the post. Earlier this year I played through this one again. I think you hit the nail right on the head--this game did break new ground, but accomplished it in a way that I've always enjoyed most about most Tomb Raider sequels: I don't care about new engines or gameplay, I just want to play more stories and adventures. Looking at the upcoming game, I think I just wish that they would keep the Legend engine, and just write a great new story. But, I am looking forward to find out how they will do it up.

  2. Hi gary, I think you have a point about the stories and adventures.

    For a game that was so technically revolutionary when it came out (back in 1996), Tomb Raider's strength has tended to lie in its storytelling and the levels themselves rather than the gameplay.

    My favourite Tomb Raider are the Core ones (including Angel of Darkness because the level design and the puzzles are so intricate, atmospheric and (yes) difficult.

    Whilst I love the polish and freshness of the Crystal Dynamics games (especially Legend, and the wonderful things they did with Lara's house in both Legend and Anniversary), the levels themselves are just a touch too linear for me to fall in love with them.

    I loved Chronicles so much because of the ingenuity of the individual levels, especially the Black Isle episode.

    Ah well. Nothing will stop me being excited about the next Tomb Raider. I thoroughly enjoyed Underworld, and I'm not ashamed to say that the beautiful graphics had a lot to do with that!

    I really love Tomb Raider.