Tomb Raider Chronicles is not the best game in the series, but trying to figure out exactly where it is on ‘the list’ is trickier than you might think. Unlike Angel of Darkness, it is not completely without merit, but unlike Tomb Raider 3, it’s difficult to damn it with the faint praise of ‘at least they were trying.’
The game picks up a shortly after the events of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, with Lara Croft missing, presumed dead. After a memorial service, several of her friends reminisce about past adventures. Much like Tomb Raider 3, the game is made up of mini adventures, however, where that game would say, ‘oh, you’re finished with Nevada? Where would you like to go now?’ Chronicles ties them together smoothly, with each FMV beginning in the past, coming into the present and then moving into the past again.
If there is one thing that Core Design always excelled at it was the soundtrack. Sadly a lot of the score of this game is borrowed from the previous one, resulting in music for an Egyptian themed game turning up in a level set in Rome or Ireland. Where Chronicles does stand out is in its soundscape, which often helps the lacklustre design come to life. Whether it’s nearby church bells or the creaking of a vessel as it moves underwater, the sounds allow the player to become immersed in the locations long after the graphics have become dated. The real standout is the Ireland levels, in which rain, thunder, owl hoots, crows, and the occasional other creepy sound can be heard.
It’s a shame, then, that the game is so often lacking when it comes to the visuals. That’s not to say that the graphics are bad, in fact, for their time, they’re pretty good. I can clearly remember playing this game when it came out, thinking, ‘this is as good as games will ever look. How can anyone improve upon this?’ Rather, it’s the design and imagination that is so often lacking. It was really no surprise to learn that the game was put together with a series of rejected or abandoned ideas proposed for previous games(1), as Chronicles feels like a game in which randomly selected ideas are thrown together. The most glaringly obvious example is Ireland, in which you are fighting a Russian demon. Why not draw on Irish history and mythology to come up with an opponent? Because they don’t, there is nothing particularly Irish about those levels. Even one of the better sections of the game, Rome (which was clearly made at the beginning of what I don’t doubt was an otherwise rushed production), suffers this problem. Yes, it has a colosseum, statues, and other architecture to place us in the location, but these are fleeting, and so much of those levels are just generic streets and buildings.
A real bug bear of mine in the classic era is a lack of level to level continuity. In the original game, the end of one level is the beginning of the next, giving a sense that each level is a part of something larger. In every other game, save The Last Revelation, the beginning of a level is in a completely new location with no logical explanation as to how Lara ended up there. On a few occasions, Lara is shown getting to the new area through cut scenes (Ireland does this particularly well), but on many occasions it’s as though Scotty from Star Trek just beamed her there. The result is levels feeling more like set-pieces than actual locations to be explored (Rome being the only time in the game where the individual levels feel connected due to returning to a central area).
The individual stories themselves aren’t particularly satisfying, despite the potential for them to be so. Rome only tells us that Lara is after the Philosopher’s Stone, we don’t learn why. In the original game her motivation is never in any doubt, and The Last Revelation pushed the storytelling up to a level the series had not previously known. To come directly after that, makes Chronicles seem a hollow affair in comparison. You could argue that she’s after the Philosopher’s Stone because she read Harry Potter, there is nothing to contradict you. In the last section of the game, Lara is after the Iris and wants it badly enough that she breaks into a secured building to get it. Again, we are given no real reason why, though if you’ve played the previous game, you can make the argument that it really belongs to her. Von Croy only appears in one cut scene, and never interacts with Lara directly, so any potential to enrich their rivalry or set up where that rivalry is heading in The Last Revelation is lost.
There are some stand out moments in the game play, such as the all too short ‘Deepsea Dive’ level has Lara exit the Russian submarine and move about underwater. In an era of gaming in which clunky controls were the norm, the suit handles extremely well, making the level actively enjoyable. Lara is also given a few new moves that actually feel like a bit of a step up. Being able to exit a tunnel front first instead of having to turn around is a blessed relief (though the game is a bit fussy on when you can actually do this). Pole swinging is so beautifully graceful, I do wonder how they managed to go so wrong with the controls for Angel of Darkness, a next-gen game that seemed to take a step backwards in comparison to the late PlayStation One entries in the series.
Unfortunately, the lack of imagination is not just in the visual design of the levels but in the game play as well. There is often no logic to what the player is expected to do, with Lara picking up items that she shouldn’t know she needs until much later. There are many times when it is not clear where to go in order to progress, such as a hatch on the floor which is incredibly difficult to spot. The levels don’t so much feel like a journey as a pointless exercise in running back and forth, making them feel like padding, such as ‘Escape with the Iris’, in which you are not so much escaping as running around in circles only to end up back at the beginning of the level.
Chronicles also tends to go against logic set up in the previous games, which is an odd thing for the last game of the PlayStation One era to do. An example of this is when Lara has to break open a damaged wall. In Tomb Raider II, Lara shot at windows to smash them open, and this damaged wall looked like a similar strategy was needed, yet the bullets did nothing. Instead, Lara has to be standing directly in front of it before the action button is pressed to kick it. The only other times Lara has interacted with the physical environment in order to open up a passageway is with the use of a crowbar. The developers introduced this new approach in the last level of the game! If that didn’t smell of laziness, introducing a new weapon, the grappling hook, in the last level certainly does. I can understand wanting to bring new weapons into the Iris section to set it apart from what has come before, but it should have been done in the first level not the last. There is a whole section of this level dedicated to Lara going off in a different direction in order to find and learn how to use the grappling hook, slowing the overall pace down dramatically. The last level of any game, especially one called ‘Red Alert!’, should be fast and dramatic, not slow and clunky.
And then there’s the boss battles. Rome feels like ‘traditional’ Tomb Raider, meaning very few enemies other than the odd animal, and as a result, there is an increased amount of boss battles, from statues, to a Hydra, to an octopus/spider…thing. The latter is, on paper, the easiest to deal with, as you need to shoot out both of the eyes, however this is hindered by a truly awful laser sight that requires you to stand completely still in order to line up the shot – the boss is doing exactly the same, so if you aren’t quick, you’re toast. The good thing about this boss, though, is that the shot out eyes tell that you are doing damage to it. This is not the case with the other bosses in Rome, as they never seem to react in any way to Lara’s gun fire, causing you to wonder if you’re having any effect. It is only with a lot of patience and persistence that you will begin to see damage. The encounter with the Hydra was the most frustrating boss battle I have ever encountered in Tomb Raider because I was shooting for a good ten minutes before getting any sense that I was doing damage, all the while having to constantly side jump in order to avoid fire blasts that were, to all intents and purposes, instant-kills.
Both the Russian and Ireland levels deal with supernatural weirdness and both simply hint and some kind of ghostly creature lurking in the shadows, which succeeds in adding to the creepiness of the Ireland levels, but fails in the Russian ones. Ireland’s level also has its Russian demon defeated in a cut scene. This may sound fair given that this is teenage Lara who has no guns, but still a clever puzzle she has to solve while under attack from the demon might have given the end of the Ireland levels more drama. This is done in the Iris level, when Lara has a gun and is in a position to have an actual fight again. She has to trap an enemy in a room before filling it with poisoned gas in order to kill him, and while initially confusing, once I figured out what I was meant to do, I appreciated the puzzle and the challenge that came with it. The other major enemy is a robot that must be shot with the second worst weapon in the Tomb Raider franchise (nothing could be worse than the harpoon gun). Weapons that are not duel wielding tend not to work in the classic games, as combat relies on Lara being able to jump and role to avoid enemy fire. One handed weapons make it incredibly difficult to pull off, and the Iris levels only give you the one combat weapon. Admittedly, it has three shooting options, sniper, burst, and rapid, and in my experience, I found that sniper was the most efficient and saved on the already scarce ammunition. But what this means is that Lara has to stand still during combat, something that feels completely foreign.
Tomb Raider Chronicles is a game that has moments that are interesting, clever, or downright brilliant, but they are just moments that never come together to make a good game. If this game was just being made now, it would be downloadable content, some extra stuff to tide the player over until the next major release. I can imagine Rome being downloaded and played, then a month or so later the Russia levels being released. In a way, I played the game like this when I recorded my Let’s Play as I recorded it in four main recording sessions. When the game is played like that, the shortcomings of each section – the pacing, the level design, the over abundance or dearth of boss battles – becomes painfully obvious. Chronicles was a rushed production that Core Design didn’t intend or want to make, and ultimately it is the brand name that causes it to still be played to this day, rather than the quality of the game itself. It’s a sad way for one of the biggest icons of the nineties to end on the original PlayStation – had they been allowed to just end with The Last Revelation Lara would have gone out with a bang, and a legitimately good game.