Core Design and Eidos’ console-defining classic may have fallen fowl of time graphically, but timeless gameplay and design make it as relevant now as it ever was.
World-building & Story
Tomb Raider, as I’m sure nearly everyone is aware at this point, follows Lara Croft – a wealthy adventurer who travels across the globe in search of ancient treasures. The world she inhabits is very much grounded in reality, although certain supernatural and mythological elements are displayed from time to time.
The tale told here begins with Lara getting an invitation from Jacqueline Natla – head of a global conglomerate – to explore for artifacts in Peru which soon takes Lara across the globe on an adventure that sees her both collecting relics and unravelling the mystery behind them.
While story is mostly in the background, I have to admit I was fairly impressed with what was on display here. There’s a real effort to tell a decent adventure tale with memorable characters and considering the release was relatively early in PS1’s life, it stood out from its contemporaries in this regard. Of course, it is still a sparse story woven between many gameplay segments and by modern standards barely holds up, but it was still better than I expected.
What’s most fascinating about the storytelling, however, is the central character. While Lara is well-placed in pop culture history at this point, it’s incredibly intetesting to see her origins here. As an outsider to the franchise it was easy to see her popularity as a result of being the first majorly pushed female lead in gaming and her perceived sex appeal (which was increasingly played up as the games progressed), but there’s actually a lot more to her than that. Although she’s definitely presented as a power fantasy superwoman, able to fell scores of wildlife and propel herself up the side of building using elevator cables, her quick-witted quips and cool demeanour make her an inherently likeable character. I can understand why she became the phenomenon she did in the 90’s.
World-building mostly takes place through exploration of the zones you come across and Tomb Raider shines in this regard. Lara’s adventures mostly take place in increasingly elaborate ancient ruins that – despite the technical limitations of the time – really convey the feeling of unexplored labyrinths full of treasures. The feeling is amplified by isolation – most of the time Lara is the only living creature around as she unlocks doors and solves puzzles and this emptiness helps define the title’s tone. If there’s one thing the game nails, it’s making you feel like a true adventurer.
Presentation & Sound
Graphically, the game is very much a product of its time. All the elements here are basic 3D – from the character models to the FMV cutscenes and things like textures are almost confusing at times as they’re pixelated and it’s difficult to figure out what they represent.
Models in the game are fairly poor by modern standards – although it’s easy to figure out what each is supposed to be, they’re blocky and fairly ugly to view these days. Lara’s infamous ‘pointy boobs’ are here; lions and tigers are clearly reskins of each other and other human characters receive less attention to detail than the main.
With that said, animations are still fairly decent. Lara has a wide variety of moves, from vaulting over a block to elegantly diving into a pool, giving the movement of the character a certain flow (although they do become repetitive after the umpteenth time grabbing onto a ledge). I was impressed with things like her gun aim following enemies around the screen and stopping aiming with one arm if foes are too far over – clearly effort has been put in to make sure she felt as realistic as possible.
Environments are an equally mixed bag. In general you can expect things like pixelated walls where it’s difficult to discern what you can interact with and what you can’t; keys and collectable objects that blend in to the surfaces they’re placed on and foilage that is some of the earliest 3D gaming has to offer. Although it’s not hideous, time has definitely taken its toll on the presentation.
Yet there are still moments of beauty. When you’re crossing a rickety bridge over a gushing river or approaching a gigantic temple with centaur statues outside, it’s difficult not to be impressed with what the game has achieved. It’s situational, but conveys the feeling necessary to make Lara genuinely seem like an adventurer unearthing these areas for the first time in centuries.
Sound is an area the game excels in. Generally, things are pretty silent – which helps create the atmosphere of solitude as Lara explores. Her grunts as she grabs ledges are often the only noise, although the yelps of disturbed wildlife followed by gunfire add flair to things. A nice touch is an instrumental melody that plays whenever a secret area is uncovered, somewhat rewarding you for the effort spent finding it.
Music is the highlight of the audio package, however. It’s used incredibly sparingly – usually the tracks are only around a minute long – and they’re only played during specific moments. This really accentuates what’s happening in the game – having an intense blast of music play during a difficult encounter with enemies really makes the battle unique and this extends to uncovering areas of the tombs too. Truly, Tomb Raider understands how to make a little bit of music go a long way in creating atmosphere.
Gameplay & Content
At its core a 3D adventure game, Tomb Raider mixes exploration, platforming, puzzle solving and light shooting elements to create an interesting package, although some parts shine brighter than others.
It’s worth noting that this is a level-based game – you’ll be making your way through different zones before loading into the next. Generally they follow themes – Lara’s adventures start in Peru which mixes jungle areas with ancient ruins, before travelling to Greece which throws in lots of underwater challenges then on to Egypt with its sandy colour palette and unique architecture.
Levels are presented one of two ways – either a series of corridors with puzzles blocking progression; or a more open sandbox where you can explore freely from the start but have to figure out the order of events to get you to the next stage. The latter are by far the most exciting due to the sense of adventure you get from exploring every nook and cranny, yet are also the most frustrating as there can be some obtuse solutions to progress, sometimes obscured by visual issues that make things less obvious than they should be. Still, once figured out these levels create an incredible sense of satisfaction and as such are one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
In order to tackle the challenges thrown at her in these levels, the main character needs a good moveset and Tomb Raider doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Movement is fully 3D and Lara can walk, run, jump, roll, grab and shimmy along ledges, push blocks and a lot more. For a first title, it feels like there’s a lot of choice in what Lara can do which is impressive, and the level design makes the most of this with intricate puzzles involving pushing this block here to shimmy to that ledge there to pull a lever that opens a door elsewhere.
However, it’s worth pointing out the grid-based structure the game is based on that works for some people and doesn’t for others. Everything is based on fairly big squares – although Lara can move freely, jumps all require you to clear a certain distance based on squares you can’t see. The easiest way I can describe it is with the blocks you push in the game – they will always be pushed one square at a time and can never be half or a quarter, because everything is based on precise measurements. In this way, movement is actually incredibly easy to figure out but it’s a system you have to get used to first. It’s not something five-year-old me could figure out during my first ever hands on with it.
The other element of Lara’s moveset is shooting, although thankfully this is fairly infrequent. Whenever foes are encountered – whether it be wild animals; other humans or mythical creatures, Lara can draw arms and take them out. As long as they remain in her line of sight she’ll automatically lock on and you simply fire to take them out, possibly running/jumping to avoid incoming attacks. While other weapons are available other than her trademark twin pistols, combat remains simplistic, although it was never meant to be the focus of a game like this.
The PS1 version of the game uses a save crystal system rather than letting you save anywhere, which can be a frustration as there’s no other checkpointing. As death is often instant, particularly if jumps are missed or an enemy catches you off guard, there can be a lot of backtracking from the previous checkpoint to make up progress which feels like a bit of a waste of time as it’ll simply be re-solving puzzles you’ve already done once.
And difficulty is definitely high in this title – some puzzles require all of your focus to figure out, while some combat scenarios require you to have total control of Lara’s movement to overcome. In addition, there are some fiendish platforming sections that basically require you to pull off every move perfectly to complete – but these just provide the greatest sense of satisfaction once achieved. Tomb Raider isn’t an impossible game, but there were numerous occasions where I had to take some time away to think or consult a guide when I was really stuck.
Content-wise, the game has a lot to offer – there are 15 levels here, each brimming with not only content to progress forward but many hidden secrets and bonus areas that are worth seeking out.
I often see Tomb Raider praised for being a classic but berated for being too dated. While certain elements haven’t stood the test of time, the developers created a clever game brimming with content and a real sense of adventure that make it as thrilling as ever and well worth revisiting.