Not very long ago, I published an article explaining and reviewing the original trilogy of Tomb Raider games, from 1996’s classic Tomb Raider, through 1997’s Tomb Raider II, to 1998’s Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft. It’s a series that skyrocketed from humble beginnings to intense fame within just a few short years, redefining many aspects of gaming as we knew it. If you missed out on the first part, be sure to check it out at this link right here!
Whilst the franchise may no longer be as prolific as it once was; Back in the late 90s it stood tall alongside Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, and Metal Gear Solid as one of the greatest examples of what 3D gaming had to offer. It was firmly believed that series developer Core Design could do no wrong, and talks had already begun regarding the Lara Croft movies that would work their way into cinemas just a couple of years later.
But what of the second trilogy of games? With so much fame to their name, did they continue to build upon the high quality that the series had become synonymous with? Well, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to pick up right where we left off in this franchise-wide review!
The year is 1999 and a new millennium is nearly upon us, but who cares about that when a brand new Tomb Raider game is about to be released! This is Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation, the starting point of the second trilogy of Tomb Raider games. Although the developer insight we’ve gained over the years strongly implies that TR4 was planned to be the final game in the series; It ultimately became the starting point for a brand new overarching storyline, which would tie the next few games together. As a result, each of the second trilogies of games’ narratives feel far more significant and meaningful than those found within their relatively standalone predecessors.
Speaking of narratives, Tomb Raider 4’s is rather bizarre. It begins with a flashback to 1984, when Lara was just a teenager. Whilst exploring Angkor Wat in search of an artifact known as the Iris, Lara is still being taught the art of treasure hunting by her mentor, Werner Von Croy. Upon finding the Iris, Werner’s greed, unfortunately, gets the better of him and causes a lapse in judgment, as he rushes to collect the treasure and springs a trap in the process. Lara manages to escape, narrowly avoiding her own demise, but Werner is sealed within the treasure vault, seemingly lost forever…
Fast forward to the ~present day~ of 1999, and Lara is now in Egypt, exploring the Temple of Set. Upon uncovering the legendary Amulet of Horus, Lara is put through her most difficult trial yet; Going head to head with Set, (the Egyptian God of Chaos himself), whilst also having to compete with —you guessed it— Werner Von Croy, who managed to survive all those years ago due to a deadly and corrupting power hidden within the Iris. Thus, the pair find themselves racing each other across Egypt in search of several artifacts, which could either seal Set away or grant him infinite power, depending on whose hands they fall into.
It’s a good story that emphasizes action and fast pacing over the series’ traditional exploration, with Lara and Werner both feeling like reasonably well-developed characters rather than just vessels for the story to take place around. As such, this is Lara’s most personal journey yet, seeing her finally face off against a villain that she actively wants to avoid killing. This results in a far more conflicted protagonist than the cold and professional Croft that we’ve come to know and love, but it’s nice to see a classic Tomb Raider game take such a drastically different tone within its narrative. I’d say it’s about as good as TR3’s story, albeit for very different reasons.
Hold on, though… Did you notice how I mentioned that Lara and Werner are racing across Egypt specifically? That’s because this is the first Tomb Raider game to take place entirely in one location, barring the very brief Cambodia-based opening. No more globe-trotting adventures for us, I’m afraid…
On one hand, this means that TR4’s graphics are a huge improvement from TR3, as the development team was able to focus on the quality of the texture tile sets rather than their quantity. On the other hand, this means that the environments all look very similar to one another and are quite dull as a result. I’m not entirely convinced that this was a worthwhile trade-off, and I do feel that TR3 ends up looking better than TR4, simply due to its more varied colour scheme and locales.
Gameplay-wise we have a couple of new mechanics, as per usual, in order to spice things up. This time around, we have pole climbing, rope swinging (quite impressive physics for 1999), and an actual sprint button that also allows you to perform a forward dive through closing doors and traps if necessary. They’re neat new mechanics that add some more variety to the way you can tackle specific rooms, but they’re pretty much the only particularly noteworthy new features that can be found throughout the entire game, truth be told…
Bidding farewell to the M4, MP5, automatic pistols, dual magnums, and rocket launcher, TR4 has far fewer weapons than either TR2 or TR3. The only new weapons on offer here are a crossbow and a revolver, which both feel fine but constitute another trade-off that simply doesn’t feel worthwhile. Admittedly, there is one new feature here in the form of different ammo types for some weapons (wide-shot shells for the shotgun or explosive bolts for the crossbow, for example), but none of them feel unique enough to make up for the missing weapons.
Vehicles have also been stripped back quite significantly in this entry. There are only two drivable vehicles this time around: A jeep and a motorcycle. Although they may be the best feeling vehicles in the series so far, they both feel exactly the same as each other and manage to constantly overstay their welcome. This feels like a huge step backward in the long run that doesn’t even begin to compare with TR3’s vehicular variety.
Yet the biggest issue here is that TR4 has the worst level design of any of the games to date. There are 35 levels here as opposed to TR’s 15, TR2’s 18, and TR3’s 19, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that each level is shorter and more concise than those in the first three games. This is true to an extent, as the levels do tend to be more compressed, but there are a number of puzzles here that require you to backtrack across multiple levels —with no sense of direction or progression whatsoever— in order to find or use specific key items. Having interconnected levels like this makes for a completely overwhelming experience that has you constantly looking up what to do. Never before has the series felt so labyrinthian.
Other than that, there’s nothing else that can really be said. The movement feels identical to TR3, the gunplay also feels identical to TR3, and the variety is definitively worse across the board than its ever been before. I’m not entirely sure what went wrong here, per say; I have to assume that this was perhaps a case of burnout after making four entire Tomb Raider games in just as many years…
It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, as it still controls very well and has a large number of enjoyable levels and mechanics, but the small number of newfound positives simply don’t outweigh the large number of negatives that can be found here, regardless of the high quality of its story. Honestly, it’s a real shame to get off to such an average start after the incredible first trilogy.
Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation – 6.0 / 10
I have a bit of a gaming development story for you here, so prepare yourselves for some backstory! By this point, the majority of Core Design was very much done with Tomb Raider as a series, but Eidos Interactive (their publisher), was earning more money from Tomb Raider games than ever before. They were determined to keep up with the yearly releases as a new console generation fast approached. So, Eidos made the decision to split Core Design into two smaller teams: One would be made up of people who wanted to continue developing Tomb Raider games, whilst the other would be made up of the staff who were ready to stop.
The sub-set team that wanted to continue making Tomb Raider games were ordered to immediately start work on a new, massively evolved sequel for the upcoming PlayStation 2. This would end up being TR6, but its next-gen development cycle would take at least 2 years to complete, and Eidos weren’t comfortable with putting a pause on their annual release business model… As such, the team that didn’t want to continue making Tomb Raider games were —of course— forced to make one last game to fill that 2-year gap. Tomb Raider V: Chronicles, is their game.
Now that we’re about ready to dive into the game itself, I feel its worth giving one final spoiler warning. There’s no coming back after this. TR5 may indeed be a 22 year old game but this is a pretty significant spoiler for how TR4 ended and how this story begins. I wouldn’t read on unless you have zero intentions of playing through yourself…
Are you ready? Good.
Lara Croft is dead. She may have managed to save the day at the end of TR4, but she simply couldn’t escape quickly enough and fell to her demise amidst the crumbling ruins of a Great Pyramid. Chronicles takes place just after Lara’s funeral, where her butler Winston, the Croft family’s priest Father Dunstan, and Lara’s former history teacher Charles Kane, all sit down to recount tales of her past exploits. The game then functions as an anthology story, letting you play through each of the four standalone adventures that they speak of, from start to finish.
First off is the tale of Lara’s first true adventure as a somewhat cocky young adult. She trawls through the Catacombs of Rome in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, frequently clashing with Larson Conway and Pierre Dupont, who would go on to star in TR1. The second story tells of a more action-heavy adventure, as Lara smuggles herself aboard a Russian Submarine to reach down to the ocean floor, where she hopes to collect the ancient Spear of Destiny.
Going way back to when Lara was still a teenager (not long after the 1984 prologue of The Last Revelation), the third story shows Lara following the family priest onto a haunted Irish island and attempting to banish an ancient demon that calls the island its home. Then, the fourth and final story focuses on her breaking into Werner Von Croy’s New York headquarters in an attempt to steal back the Iris artifact, not long after she first learned that Werner was still alive. As such: This is the adventure that sets the events of TR4 into motion.
As Tomb Raider stories go, this one is a particularly wonderful experience! The story framework of Lara’s friends and family reminiscing about her past is very well developed, and the narratives of each tale feel consistently immersive. Unfortunately, you only end up spending a couple of hours at most on any given story due to the game being so excessively short…
Overall it clocked in at a little over 8 hours for my playthrough, meaning that each of these smaller stories ended up feeling a lot less grand than those that came before it. It’s almost guaranteed to leave you wanting something a bit more fleshed out, but it does still serve as an excellent departure from the usual Tomb Raider stories. I’d say it’s not quite as good as TR3’s narrative, but it is shockingly close, thanks to the writing quality and its focus on variety.
New mechanics this time around include tightrope walking, somersaulting out of crawlspaces, and swinging around horizontal bars. They’re all neat additions that feel very natural to use, but the gameplay has become so varied and tightly designed at this point in the series, that these new features don’t actually appear very often. By TR5 there was just no need to centre any of these new mechanics when the rest of the gameplay already felt so worthwhile and rewarding. As such, the new mechanics feel like minor world-building examples rather than integral evolutions to the gameplay’s design. Nevertheless: It’s easy for me to say that this is the best feeling Tomb Raider game so far!
Weaponry, however, feels rather lacking again. In Rome, you have pistols, a shotgun, a revolver, and some uzis. In Russia, you have the same load-out, but a desert eagle replaces the revolver. In Ireland, you actually don’t get any weapons at all and must rely on scaring your enemies away with a torch, which makes for an excellent change of pace. And finally, New York sees you utilize the HK gun, which functions as both a sniper rifle and an SMG, although no other weapons are present. It’s an enjoyable selection, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s the smallest set of weapons since the very first game. It never gets any less upsetting seeing so many interesting guns get left by the wayside.
Vehicles are gone too, but you never really miss them here. Due to the higher quality areas and their more compact level design, driving doesn’t feel like a necessary inclusion. TR5’s smaller scale areas (which offer far more detail than ever before), render vehicles irrelevant in the face of the game’s design philosophy. Not to mention that with the game being so short: It’s not like they were needed to break up its pacing.
Graphically speaking, this is definitely the prettiest game yet. All of the higher quality assets and textures from TR4 are represented here, but with a huge amount of variety in the visual style thanks to the four very different environment types. It doesn’t do anything to really evolve upon TR4’s graphics, but it certainly manages to retain their high quality without sinking into the environmental blandness that TR4 often suffered from.
All in all, this is without a doubt, the best Tomb Raider game yet. Sure it may be short, and the weapons are somewhat lacking, but it’s such a well-designed experience in spite of those issues! The positives found within feel far more noteworthy than any of the downsides you may happen to come across. It never feels like a frustrating ordeal to play, and the level designs are incredibly intelligent when compared with the prior entries. To me, this is the de facto Tomb Raider experience that I would recommend to absolutely anybody wanting to get a taste of the original series.
Tomb Raider V: Chronicles – 8.4 / 10
Finally, it’s time to discuss the last game in the original series… After two entire years of being delayed time and time again, Tomb Raider VI: Angel of Darkness finally landed on store shelves; Not with a heroic pose, but with a defeated slump. It’s honestly hard to say where I should even begin with this train wreck, especially after talking about the best game so far. But: I have an obligation to see this through to the end, so we’re going to have to start from somewhere…
So — let us begin, as usual, with the narrative.
Tomb Raider VI: Angel of Darkness is an absolute travesty with next to no redeeming qualities. It tells the extremely fragmented story of how Lara had actually faked her own death at the end of TR4, because she was angry with Werner Von Croy for leaving her to die in Egypt… After finding out she’s still alive, Werner invites Lara to his home in Paris in order to apologise, (as if that would be enough), but not long after arriving — Lara is knocked unconscious and begins suffering from short-term amnesia.
This is a very bad situation indeed, as it leaves her unaware of how Werner Von Croy ended up being murdered in the same room as her, just after she passed out. On the run from the police and questioning her own sanity, Lara begins her investigation into Werner’s death, despite being the number one suspect. Unfortunately, she quickly finds herself wrapped up in an evil cult’s plans to resurrect a long-dead race of Nephilim, by using a collection of cursed paintings for… Some reason? That part isn’t very clear.
You see, TR6 had a lot of problems during its development… Core Design’s second team encountered a huge number of issues adapting the engine to a new generation of console and wasted so much of their development time creating new animations and models instead. Ironically, a large number of these assets ultimately needed to be scrapped due to the numerous problems they faced when it came to actually implementing them.
Consequently, TR6 had a lot of its content cut before it was released. The end result is a game where characters who have never met each other talk like they’ve met countless times before. And what do they talk about, I hear you ask? Well, they talk about past events that never ended up being shown or explained within the game, of course! Suffice to say that it’s a completely disjointed mess which makes very little sense and actively feels unfinished…
Alas, the gameplay is no better. TR6 has severely broken movement controls and an obtuse body strength upgrade system; Which never tells you what your strength stats are or how to go about increasing them, yet requires you to do so constantly to make progress in the main story. Platforming is also hindered by the introduction of an auto-grab mechanic, which frequently grabs ledges that you don’t want to hang onto, whilst also dropping you to your death in other areas by not grabbing onto the ledges that you do want to hang onto. Suffice to say that this previously integral and basic gameplay framework, now feels like a complete and total mess…
TR6 features a brand new hand-to-hand combat system that simply doesn’t work, as there are no unarmed enemies to use it against throughout the entire game. Meanwhile: Every enemy that does have a gun will stagger and stun-lock you with every bullet they fire, preventing you from performing any actions at all, including shooting back… It has a brand new stealth system that serves absolutely no purpose at all because the actual stealth levels were all cut from the game in order to save on development time. It also features a large amount of collectible money that is almost exclusively used to bribe people for information, as the game’s main shop was yet another feature that didn’t make it into the final release…
Seven types of one-handed pistols are on offer here, with only a single shotgun and SMG to vary things up. Lara’s signature dual pistols are gone for the first time ever whilst no reasoning is given for this significant omission. To make matters worse: Combat has been massively restricted as you can no longer shoot whilst jumping or performing flips in the air, meaning that evading your enemies’ attacks is no longer a possibility… Oh, and TR6 has a super unlikeable second playable character who uses interesting superpowers in every cutscene he appears in, but doesn’t use them during gameplay because —you guessed it— his character’s mechanics weren’t finished before the game was released.
Ultimately, TR6 is busted as Hell. It crashes all the time, and is filled to the brim with bugs, alongside all of the aforementioned examples of truly terrible design issues… Its plot holes and inconsistencies never stop coming, making it a conclusion that let down Tomb Raider fans all across the world. It would be impossible for me to recommend this game to anyone, even those that enjoy deliberately seeking out bad games because it isn’t even worthy of being laughed at… It doesn’t just feel like a bad game; It feels like the greatest example of wasted potential that I have ever seen.
Tomb Raider VI: Angel of Darkness – 2.8 / 10
There you have it: Six small reviews giving a semi in-depth look at the entirety of the original Tomb Raider series… But what came after? Well, apparently, Core Design had originally planned for Angel of Darkness to become the first ever example of an “episodic game”, with the team intending to release Angel of Darkness Part 2 and Part 3 over the following years, in order to further expand upon the story. Thankfully, that never happened…
Understandably, Eidos Interactive were very angry about the sales and reviews for TR6, and so folded the two Core Design teams back into one, leaving it as a shell company until it was bought by Rebellion Developments in 2006. Elsewhere, Eidos passed the Tomb Raider license over to Crystal Dynamics, who had been making waves at the time with their own video game series: Legacy of Kain.
From that point onwards, Crystal Dynamics would become the definitive Tomb Raider developers, going on to create six more mainline Tomb Raider games across two separate reboot series, releasing a large number of spin-offs to boot. But how were they, you ask? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned to find out because we’ll be talking about all that and more in the very next part!
Thanks for sticking with me on this wonderful retrospective journey!