Hello everyone and welcome back to Retro Freak Reviews. Today, we’ll look at an iconic and influential title that has been on my backlog for several years. I’m talking about the original Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider is an action/adventure game developed by Core Design and originally published by Eidos Interactive in 1996 for DOS, Sony Playstation, and the Sega Saturn. It was later released in 2002 for Windows Mobile, in 2003 for the N-Cage, in 2009 for the Playstation 3 and the PSP, and in 2012 for the PS Vita and Windows through the Steam store.
After several years of creating games for the Amiga and later Sega consoles (including the Rick Dangerous and the Chuck Rock series), UK developer Core Design was ready to create new games for the 32-bit console generation and one of its new talents, Toby Gard, proposed an Indiana Jones-type action 3D game and was given a 6-people development team and a £440,000 budget for it.
Tomb Raider was originally designed to choose between a male and a female lead, but the team decided to focus instead on the female lead, partially based on Gard’s own sister and originally called Laura Cruz. Eidos, however, forced the team to adopt a more westernized identity for the character and change her name to Lara Croft.
But enough history and let’s look at the covers:
This is the EU PC cover and it’s the most famous and iconic one. Eidos knew that Lara Croft would become the focus of the game, so they put her front and center on the cover. All consequent covers would be simple variations of the above, except for one:
This cover art is taken from a sequel, Tomb Raider – The Angel of Darkness, with an altered title art from that game too.
But enough with the covers and let’s raid this tomb:
The game starts with a mysterious intro in the New Mexico desert then it cuts to present-day Calcutta, where our protagonist, Lara, is sitting in a hotel lobby until she’s approached by Larson on the behest of Jacqueline Natla, who communicates with Lara via laptop. Natla hires Lara to search for an ancient artifact in the Peru mountain range, to which Lara only responds with a smile.
This intro is more than enough to introduce us to Lara (and Natla too) and it shows us that she’s an experienced adventurer more interested in adventures than in money, and with a very posh accent by Shelley Pond (more on the voice acting later on). But the intro doesn’t reveal much of Lara’s face or body, maintaining a certain aura of mystery. Although the manual does give us Lara’s backstory, which would be expanded in later games.
But that aura gets a bit spoiled right after because the title screen features Lara’s full face, along with the Scion (the ancient artifact Lara’s looking for) and also decent title art and a nice, calm musical theme. The menu options are shown using several objects, like a headset for the audio settings or sunglasses for the visual options. Before starting the game, I recommend new players not used to retro 3D action games click on the Polaroid photo (Lara’s home).
This will send you to a sort of tutorial, where you can explore Lara’s mansion and learn all the buttons and combinations for all the platforming and swimming. This section was so well received that it became a staple of the original series, with every entry adding more areas to the mansion (and another infamous character in the sequel).
After finishing the tutorial, you go back to the main menu, and to start a new game, you need to select the passport for it. When starting a new game, you’re treated to another cutscene where Lara and a guide are transversing the Peruvian mountains until they reach an entrance on the mountain wall. Lara climbs the entrance to open it, but then the guide is attacked by a pack of wolves that emerged from within. Lara immediately draws his pistols, kills the pack, and goes inside. If the intro cutscene shows us, Lara, as an experienced adventurer, this cutscene shows us Lara as the action hero she is.
The game starts inside the mountain where we have full control of Lara and access to her unlimited ammo pistols. There’s basically no HUD on screen apart from a life bar on the top-left corner. If you click ESC, you’ll have access to the inventory, where you’ll find a compass and all the weapons, ammo, and med-packs you’ll pick up. If you click up, you’ll have access to all the keys and other objects needed to solve puzzles and if you click down, it’ll take you to the main menu, where you can save, load, or quit the game through the passport and other options.
The objective at every level is to reach its end by avoiding traps and enemies, solving puzzles with keys and other objects, and pushing levers to open doors to progress. For that, you need to run, jump, climb, swim, kill enemies with your weapons and avoid traps. All the levels are well designed and some can be very maze-like but I rarely got lost. There are 15 total levels, divided by 4 locations: Peru, Greece, Egypt, and a mysterious island. All the levels have secret areas which wield ammo and/or med-packs (you’ll know when you found them by a specific chime sound effect that plays when entering a secret area).
The platforming is perhaps the biggest mechanic in the game where you can pretty much have full control of Lara. I’m usually not a big fan of 3D platforming but the 3rd person’s perspective coupled with the tank controls makes it actually fun to play. And although the game has a fixed camera angle, the Look button (where the camera angle changes to an overhead angle and you can look in every direction) facilitates the gameplay tremendously.
The combat is also pretty simple. When encountering an enemy, simply push the Draw button and Lara will auto-aim the closest enemy and then push the Action button to shoot. However, you need to stop shooting when the enemy is dead so Lara can auto-aim the next enemy. And you can also run and jump while shooting (in fact, I recommend it). You start the game with Lara’s pistols which have unlimited ammo but later on, you can get a shotgun, which is great for close quarters, Magnum pistols, and Uzis. Each weapon has its own ammo to collect and I recommend if you’re at a safe distance from any enemy, switch to the pistols to save ammo.
The enemies start by simply being the local wildlife. But in the 3rd level, you’ll face different animals, and more or less halfway through the games, you’ll start to face more dangerous and supernatural enemies. In fact, 1 of the best aspects of this game is the difficulty curve. Tomb Raider starts pretty easy with smaller levels with easy enemies and puzzles but then the levels will gradually get longer with harder enemies, platforming, and puzzles. I personally found the game starting to get really hard on the last 2 levels.
About the graphics, I’ve already mentioned that I like the level design and how well it aged, especially if you’re using the 3dfx graphics. The levels were all designed using blocks with textures and meshes on top of them. These textures are very well made and add to the game’s atmosphere, like the Lost Valley’s vegetation or the Egyptian levels’ hieroglyphs. The water ripple effects were created using Gouraud shading. For more information about the level design and data format, I recommend this page.
Unfortunately, the characters’ design hasn’t aged as well. Although Lara’s original character model became iconic throughout the years, I can’t say the same about the enemies’ models. They’re all low resolution and blocky. And the animation is acceptable if you’re playing on a fast computer. The cutscenes are a bit better, although still low resolution, but action-packed enough to move the story along.
Fortunately, the sound department is a lot better, with great sound effects and some nice musical themes composed by Nathan McCree. The game has a great atmosphere due in no small part to the sound effects, where the enemies’ growls alert the player to their presence and Lara’s footsteps echoing throughout the caves create a tense atmosphere where the player’s senses are on full alert waiting for an enemy or a trap just around the corner. The lack of music also helps that tension but the short themes popping out when the player enters a new area can either ease or worsen that tension (especially the danger theme, which didn’t help my anxiety).
The voice acting could have been better if the characters’ accents weren’t so exaggerated (and why Natla maintains her Southern accent during her flashbacks, I have no idea). But like I said before, Lara’s posh accent suits her and her grunts and screams throughout the gameplay are an excellent addition.
About the controls, I have to confess that I couldn’t configure my gamepad, so I was forced to use my keyboard instead. Any action game that isn’t an FPS or Diablo-like usually is played better with a gamepad or joystick, and Tomb Raider is no exception. The keyboard controls are responsive most of the time and like I said before, the Walk buttons help the platforming tremendously, although the directional buttons can be a bit over-sensitive when Lara’s running. Luckily, the controls can be redefined and reassigned.
So, in conclusion, despite Tomb Raider having some flaws, like the character models and the fixed camera angles, the good outweighs the bad, especially the level design and the difficulty curve. Regardless to say that I recommend it. And if you want to play it, you can buy it on Steam or on GOG (bundled with 2 and 3).
But the review doesn’t end here. In 1998, Tomb Raider was re-released for DOS under the title Tomb Raider Gold aka Tomb Raider: Unfinished Business aka Tomb Raider: Director’s Cut. It would be ported to the Macintosh in 1999, iOS in 2013, and Android in 2015. It’s basically the original game but with 2 extra chapters with 2 levels each, which totals 4 levels.
The 1st chapter occurs some time after the original game in Egypt, where the temple that we explored back then is flooded and Lara goes in to investigate and search for new pathways and artifacts. In fact, the 1st level is simply an old level but now flooded with water and new areas which you can now explore. The 2nd chapter occurs just after the end of the original game as a sort of prologue where Lara must explore 2 new levels based on the original game’s last 2 levels. I wouldn’t be surprised if Unfinished Business was made using assets and designs cut from the original game. And if any player found the original game a bit on the easy side, Unfinished Business will offer more of a challenge with tougher puzzles and more enemies.
Unfortunately, Unfinished Business isn’t included in any digital version of Tomb Raider but you can download a patch here that not only will add the extra levels but also the 3dfx graphics and other extras taken from the PS1 version.
And speaking about the PS1 version, it’s perhaps the best version of the game with graphics equal to the 3dfx graphics, better cutscenes, and better controls but there are now crystals throughout the game that work as savepoints (so, no more save-scumming). I’ve found the Macintosh version equal to the PC version but with a better installation setup. Unfortunately, I haven’t played the Saturn version.
Regardless to say that Lara Croft became an absolute sensation almost overnight and started to appear almost everywhere: TV ads, magazines, comics, movies, etc. To better understand Lara’s impact on pop culture, I recommend this documentary by Kim Justice:
After Crystal Dynamics was hired by Eidos to take the reins of the series after Core Design, they decided to do a soft reboot and remake the original game. So, in 2007, Tomb Raider Anniversary was released to celebrate the 10-year old anniversary of the 1st game.
And it’s a true remake, changing the mechanics to reflect Crystal Dynamics’ former Tomb Raider title, Legend, and the level design and puzzles to better use those mechanics. The story has also been expanded and tweaked according to the soft reboot. Still, it’s an updated and improved version of everything that made the original game work.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this big review of Tomb Raider and I promise that the next review (hopefully) won’t be as large and complicated as this one. See you guys next time and keep on playing!