Like the sun and the moon, video games come and go. In our polygon and pixel fueled bliss (and frustration) we often overlook the signs that tell us what will be continuously embraced and what is down for the count. For example, if you had told me in 1998 that Tomb Raider III would be the last Tomb Raider title to grace my TV until 2007's Anniversary, I wouldn't have believed you. Sure, I didn't exactly enjoy everything Tomb Raider III threw at me, but there was no clear-cut decree that I was through with the series. Regardless, the damage had been done, at least in a covert, subconscious manner. Because of this the last two games on the PlayStation, The Last Revelation and Chronicles, didn't even register a blip on my gaming radar despite the fact the PS1 was alive and well. While it's only natural to leave certain things behind, there are times were we can't help but wonder what we missed out on, or see if a somewhat conflicted franchise can change its fortunes for the better.
This was the central question I faced as I placed Tomb Raider Chronicles into my PlayStation 2. Ten years late to the party, could it mend the bridge one of its predecessors unceremoniously burned long ago or would it only add insult to injury? An interesting proposition to be sure, I can't even begin to explain how the game managed to span such a crevasse. All I know is it did regardless of its problems. That said, in an effort to uncover how things went so right even when they could have gone so wrong, let's take a look at this potluck of mini adventures Ms. Croft's closest friends share with us:
The first story presented in Tomb Chronicles takes place in Rome. Here, we are reintroduced to Larson Conway and Pierre Dupont (from the original Tomb Raider) as they attempt to swindle Lara out of her payment for the Mercury Stone, the lesser half of the fabled Philosopher's Stone. Outside the fact we are faced with another series recon here (the idea that Lara never met Larson before the opening of 96' original being "shot to hell" in a matter of seconds) I couldn't be more pleased with the return of these characters. Well, almost. Was it really necessary to lower Larson's intelligence quotient that far? I think we already knew he was an idiot. Overdone as the characterization really is, by the time “Frenchy” promises to buy him a milkshake, all is forgiven. Unfortunately, while Core gets away with hitting the easy button when it comes to characters, the same can't be said of the level design. While it's great to see the whole “there needs to be a deathtrap around every corner” thing from Tomb Raider III has been put to pasture, we now have levels that are too safe (creatively, not figuratively) and are still uninspired. This starts to change once the player reaches The Coliseum - a level that almost recaptures the spirit of those in the original – but ultimately fails short due to its length, which is ironic considering most of Chronicles levels benefit from their short stature.
Lara's second quest takes place in levels that are as cold and as hardy as the most sea weary commander. In short order, this journey takes one through an indoor dockyard, the tight quarters of a ship (submarine), a somewhat forgettable underwater skirmish and back again. Generally speaking, the Russian Base is a very peculiar section of the game and it's not particularly easy to explain why. The gradual improvement in the level design combined with the rather stereotypical characters makes it seem like this story is stuck in traction most of its duration, but the experience never really grinds to a halt even though it feels like something's missing. That thing? The narrative is simply in hibernation here, and it only comes out of its sleep during the final level. It's here where the build up from the previous levels is finally justified, and while the game is not going to win any awards for original storytelling the payoff at the end is substantial enough to overshadow the fact you've seen this story in every submarine themed movie ever shot. As silly as it seems to applaud a game for successfully mimicking an overused plotline, Chronicles success here is a prelude of things to come.
This is where the game really starts to shine. While this adventure is more or less born out of the first recon that allowed Von Croy to teach the young Lara about spelunking in The Last Revelation (personally, I always liked how Lara's parents originally disowned her because of her appetite for adventure) The Black Isle has more in common with a MediEvil game than a Tomb Raider game. While most people would laugh at the mere idea of ghosts and goblins showing up in any kind of Tomb Raider narrative, or that it could be enjoyable to go around without any weaponry and focus on puzzles, such ideas quickly prove their worth. Still, what really brings these levels to life are the two ghouls the story focuses on and Father Patrick Dunstan, an Irish priest/demon hunter. Not since the original Tomb Raider has such an interesting character been introduced. Quite honestly, I couldn't get enough of the guy, from his cool and collected demeanor to his getting slapped for mouthing off to damned spirits, he literally brought everything together. The only bad thing is as high as Dunstan raises the bar there are other characters that insist on limboing under it.
The last set of levels is where Tomb Raider Chronicles plays a perilous game between positive progression and past pitfalls. Starting off in some air ducts above the fabled Iris, we're quickly introduced to several things that scream Tomb Raider III: laser traps, turrets, and the HK gun which looks a lot like the MP5. Truth be told, the last thing this game – or any game – should do is remind me of Tomb Raider III. It's just a bad idea. The second thing on the not to do list that is done is throwing the concept of creating likable yet stereotypical characters to the wolves with the introduction of (a somewhat insulting take on the quintessential African American hacker) Zip. For every line of dialog that is actually funny (“guns is metal”) there are fifty lines that are just terrible, and by the time Lara asks him why she's even bothered to hire him I'm asking myself the same freaking question. Of course, Zip's answer to that particular question is pretty excruciating, but when it comes to shades of Tomb Raider III that appear, it's surprising how the game takes those elements, makes them its own and makes them ten times better. Things almost fall apart during the final level (Red Alert!) for a multitude of reasons, but things miraculously come back together again before it's too late.
In its final incarnation on the PS1, it's nice to see that some of Tomb Raider's graphical deficiencies have been addressed. The polygonal breakup that ran rampant throughout the first three installments is nonexistent here, leaving clipping as the only occasional issue. Such an achievement really isn't Chronicles doing since this revision of the Tomb Raider engine was first featured in 1999's The Last Revelation. Still, the cleaner experience is appreciated. The only other gripe to be had is when the game shifts to an unchangeable, preset camera angle that makes it difficult to control Lara. I'm sure Core would love for me to believe this is to add a cinematic quality to certain areas, but in reality I think we all know the main reason behind it was to lighten the burden on the design team so certain objects didn't even need to be rendered. Still, things like this are easy to overlook when each area of the game finally has a look and feel to call its own.
While it suffers from most of the problems present in every game the series has seen thus far, I have to admit that I enjoyed my time with Tomb Raider: Chronicles, and I'm sorry that I allowed Tomb Raider III to keep me away from it for all these years. Chronicles doesn't really succeed because of its gameplay however, relying more on intriguing characters (old and new) than anything else. That said, fans who gave up on the series like I did should give this a go; they may end up just as surprised as I was to find out there is another game in the series worth their time.