I feel like we’ve entered Tomb Raider’s darkest, dreariest time. Where games are unoriginal, clunky, or both.
Between Tomb Raider V and Lara’s first foray into PS2 territory with Angel of Darkness coming up next, it’s not a good time to be a Lara Croft fan. I’m honestly finding it necessary to tell myself over and over again that this franchise will get good again someday. That I’ll love Lara again like I did when I first discovered her. That I won’t need to pep talk my way through a game and I’ll want to just play it for fun. In other words, I’m eagerly awaiting my replay of Tomb Raider Legend.
Bury me with my PS2 copy of Legend.
But for now we’re a world away from the timeline reboot that will make these games fun again. Let’s launch into Tomb Raider V with our hopes very much lowered, shall we?
Before even beginning the game, we open on a cutscene that shows Lara Croft is dead. She’s only been missing for three days, but if you remember the end of Tomb Raider IV, our girl Lara brought down a big ol’ stone structure on the head of the god Set and then ended up trapped in the kafuffle herself because she didn’t trust Von Croy enough to take his hand. So those that knew her are just thinking she’s dead. And how do they mourn for dear Lara Croft? With a huge, imposing, and frankly gaudy, headstone of course!
The cutscene shows Lara’s butler Winston talking about how he fears she really is dead. And if she isn’t, Von Croy is digging for her, and him finding her alive might result in her death anyway.
It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Except maybe Von Croy. And if we learned anything from Tomb Raider IV, it’s that Von Croy loves when things go Von Croy’s way.
After the rather depressing turnout at Lara’s memorial service (there’s like, four people tops), Winston, Charles Kane, and Father Patrick Dunston (all close confidants of Lara) return to Croft Manor to chat about her exploits in the study. Her earlier pursuits are told as those gathered reminisce about the past. The game then has you take over as Lara to play the flashback/memory sections. We see Lara going after the Philosopher’s Stone, the Spear of Destiny, exorcising a violet spirit, and stealing the Iris (the artifact from the beginning of Tomb Raider IV) from Von Croy.
Like the game, let’s start with the Philosopher’s Stone.
A cutscene begins with Lara at the opera. She’s looking to complete a deal with Larson and Pierre DuPont (regulars of the Tomb Raider franchise will recognize those names from Lara’s very first game). She’s got a suitcase full of money for an artifact called the Mercury Stone. Wouldn’t you know it, they double cross her, taking the money and the artifact for themselves. Lara isn’t going down like a bitch though. She kicks the stone out of Larson’s hand, tucks it into her garter, and dives for the stage where she crashes a soloist’s performance and then makes a break for it into the streets of Rome.
This cutscene is honestly pretty bitchin’. It’s a good start.
After escaping Larson and Pierre (who are… “bumbling” to say the least), Lara navigates the streets of Rome, grabbing all the stones she’ll need to open the Philosopher’s Gate before she fights Larson and then fucks over Pierre with sass and smart-assery. She fights a three headed dragon statue, gladiators, and lions, grabs the Philosopher’s Stone from a golden cave and then BAM! Level done.
The memorial then shifts to Kane telling the tale of her exploits in a Russian Submarine in the Pacific Ocean. This Russian sub has just gotten hold of the Spear of Destiny, a super powerful artifact that the Nazis found during World War II but never got back to the Fatherland because it caused a catastrophe that sunk the first submarine it was on. Seems like something we shouldn’t let fall into the Russians’ hands either.
So Lara ends up in a personal submarine suit and goes to deal with some Russians and a dangerous artifact. She ends up sinking the submarine completely because the Spear is just too powerful an artifact for any human to own or control.
Next up is a story that Father Dunston recalls of how a sixteen year old Lara snuck onto a haunted Irish isle with him when he went to investigate and exorcise the ghostly apparitions. Lara ends up encountering a dead hanged man on the Gallows Tree who says that his heart has been stolen and he needs it back to rest in peace. He promises her a favour in the afterlife in return for getting his heart back and assures Lara that there is nothing to be scared of and she should be totally chill about this whole thing. Definitely not a bad idea to trust a wayward spirit, everything is a-okay.
Well it actually turns out that the heartless hanged man is a bait and switch and isn’t the main thing to be worried about. That title belongs to Verdilet, a seven hundred year old demon who has been trapped in a barn on this island for many years. It’s all under control though because Lara happened to come upon a Bestiary, which is a tome containing the names of demons. This is super important in lore because, traditionally, knowing a demon’s name gives you power over it. Before the demon can do any harm, Lara finds its name, speaks it, and traps it away on the island for all time.
The last story that the three men reminisce about has Lara in a latex cat suit as she breaks into Von Croy Industries to steal the Iris. And yes, that’s the same artifact that Lara watched Von Croy nearly die for in Angkor Wat. She might have been hesitant to take it as a teenager but goddamn does she want it now! So Lara does the only thing she can think to do: she gets herself a computer hacker named Zip, squeezes into a cat suit, and breaks into Von Croy’s New York headquarters.
After some shimmying through air ducts, killing guards (which include some cyborgs because why not?), and bantering with Zip, she grabs the Iris and makes a break for it. Boom. Done. A simple, clean heist that is maybe more of a murder spree than a heist, but whatever, Lara gets what she wants that’s the point of any Tomb Raider game!
The game ends with the men toasting Lara and her many adventures just as Von Croy, in Egypt, manages to reach the temple entrance that collapsed on Lara. He finds no trace of her except her signature backpack.
You know, the one she stole from a dead guy in Cambodia.
So maybe Lara is still alive after all. She’s resourceful enough. Too bad her programmers aren’t and this is the story they decided to finish off her PS1 tenure with. I will say that I think the premise of this game is so super interesting. I love the idea of a “best of” Lara Croft’s adventures told by reminiscing friends. I also love the idea that these little vignettes of stories couldn’t be full games on their own, but could all come together in a single game with a separate plot thread (Lara’s presumed death) being what ties it altogether. It’s a great idea!
It’s just executed poorly.
It’s not just the story that’s at fault with the lackluster game that is Tomb Raider V: Chronicles though. Every element of this game has a hand in making it what it is. Which is any number of adjectives: boring, repetitive, short, not worth playing with four better games before it, etc etc. Not a glowing critique with so much left to talk about, huh?
We’re five games in now and onto our fifth iteration of Lara Croft. She’s changed ever so slightly from game to game, be it her voice actress, her mannerisms, or her physical character model, each game’s Lara is just, as I said above, ever so slightly changed.
But Tomb Raider V’s Lara… isn’t. Lara is presumed dead in this game and the Lara’s we play as are only stories that her friends are telling each other. Do I think her character was left unchanged because a dead person can’t change?
No, that’s giving the lazy developers too much credit. That’s a happy coincidence as far as I’m concerned.
We see an unchanged Lara in this game because this is pretty much a clip show, a recycling of the best things of past games into something that the audience will enjoy in the way of “oh yeah, I remember that! Gee, I wish I were playing that instead of this”. At least that’s how I felt playing it. Other people might have a transference of the warm, fuzzy feelings onto this actual game instead of a longing for past ones.
It’s doubtful, but it’s a possibility.
So, yeah. Lara is pretty much unchanged. Her hair is a little longer and she’s especially coldblooded (just flat out refusing to help a man up from a cliff edge and watching him fall to his doom), but for the most part, we get just as little in way of emotions or character development as past games. At first, that’s something that’s not that huge a deal, but five games in and I’m a little eager for Lara to do something other than her resting bitch face.
As for the secondary characters (ie everyone who is not Lara) in Tomb Raider V, they are just that: secondary characters. They are here to talk about Lara in the “present” and spout some exposition at “memory” Lara before she goes on her way. Honestly, this game does not pass a reverse Bechdel test and that’s kind of my absolute favourite aspect of it.
It probably comes as no surprise to you, but the core gameplay of Tomb Raider V is almost identical to the core gameplay of Tomb Raider IV. Which was remarkably similar itself to Tomb Raider III. Which was only a slight improvement to Tomb Raider II. And while two offered a slight upgrade from Tomb Raider, the base of these games has remained the absolute same throughout Lara’s PS1 tenure. Climb, jump, explore, and shoot dudes in the fact to find an artifact that you have no right to owning, but take anyways, because fuck the cultural identity of countries that aren’t filled with white people, you need more trinkets around your English country Manor!
The only new elements added to the gameplay of Tomb Raider V are tightrope walking and shooting and/or kicking down walls or objects that look breakable. Everything you could do before is still around: flares, rope swinging, crawling, backward flips–all the classics. Each game that’s followed the original Tomb Raider has added on about half a dozen new things that Lara can do, but Tomb Raider V only managed to pull out two.
You can tell the devs were running out of reasonable things that a stick-thin, watermelon-boobed woman could do.
The last new thing this game provided were a few new enemy types, including ghosts, tiny little… demon things (I think they’re demons), and large flocks of bats. The bats are the fucking worst, I swear! They just swoop around you and you can either try and outrun them, or crouch down and just wait it out as they chip away at your health. Either way you’re getting lost, hurt, frustrated, or all three because of bats! Hope you’ve been finding medi-packs otherwise an errant group of bats could polish you off at any time.
The settings of Tomb Raider V play very much into the idea of each vignette taking place a complete world apart from each other. Lara starts in Rome for the Philosopher’s Stone, traversing tight back alleys of brick and temples with columns and shining, decorative tiling.
Then she’s at the bottom of the ocean in a sunken German U-Boat and a Russian nuclear sub on the quest for the Spear of Destiny. It’s a stark contrast to the beautiful Rome to then be at the bottom of the dark, cold ocean making your way through ocean rock caves and the corridors of a military sub.
Then, moving from a haunted looking sunken sub, we go onto an actually haunted Irish isle where there’s a good mix of the natural and the ancient. But an ancient that’s different from Rome’s. There’s no neat brick work here, this is solid stone catacombs and mud huts with collapsed straw roofs. Ireland’s level also takes place over the course of a single night with rain pattering to the ground. It’s a foreboding feeling place to be sure.
Lara’s last level takes us into the heart of human industry with Von Croy Industries as Lara makes her way through airshafts and corridors that are bright and clean. It’s not visually the most interesting place to set a tomb raiding adventure, but it injects some shakeup into the narrative and gameplay.
I personally think that where Tomb Raider V’s locations fail is that there’s not enough of them. This is a very short game, each level only lasting around an hour each. It doesn’t feel like any one place is explored enough. What’s presented in Tomb Raider V is done better and more effectively in future Tomb Raider games.
Much like the gameplay, the graphics are pretty much the same as what’s come immediately before. There are no discernible differences between the graphics of this game and Tomb Raider IV. And considering how the core gameplay never switches it up that much, better looking graphics was all this series could boast when the yearly instalment dropped right before Christmas.
Mouths started moving in the in-game cutscenes last game, and I’m happy to say that sticks around here, but character models that aren’t Lara are still just haphazardly thrown together rectangles that come at you like the Terminator. And yeah, there is still the distinct danger of running off a cliff because the cliff edge is the same texture and colour as the wall that’s across from it and you’ve mistaken it for a continuation of flat ground!
Holy crap, can you please make deadly drops look like deadly drops, development team??
There is an interesting part I can make note of! I can make note of it because it’s the only visually different thing to happen in the series and it’s the first and last time it will happen in a Tomb Raider game, so it stands out greatly.
I’m not bitter, you’re bitter!
Anyways, while in Von Croy Industries there is a part where Lara is making her way across a room and the camera angle changes so that someone is sniping Lara and you see and control Lara through the scope of their rifle. It’s pretty neat. There’s also another part in Von Croy Industries where Lara is in an x-ray room and you control what is just her skeleton. That’s pretty great too.
Actually, all the great parts come from Von Croy Industries. The other settings give you more of what we’ve seen before, Von Croy’s level gives us something fresh. That being said it’s still a graphically boring place to be with endless corridors and metal vents to crawl through. A whole game of that would have been tedious, but one level is a nice switch up.
It reaffirms the whole “this was a good idea it was just poorly executed” thought I had with the story.
It’s all coming together!
Tomb Raider V has the shortest soundtrack of any of the PS1 games, coming in at less then seventeen minutes. That’s shorter even than the first game’s soundtrack, and it was designed to be sparse. Peter Connelly is going minimal like it’s his goddamn birth right!
The longest tune of the game is the end credits song at one minute and thirteen seconds. Literally everything else is one minute of less. This isn’t music, Connelly! These are micro sound bites and they need to be expanded because ten seconds is not enough!
I personally think these early Tomb Raider games work better with very select musical selections that are triggered at very specific points. Atmospheric music is all well and good but the select music tracks that are actually songs feel like a reward for your hard work! Next to these micro sound bites? These aren’t rewarding. It feels like punishment it’s so unrewarding!
I didn’t know a single thing about Tomb Raider V: Chronicles going in, and come the end of it, I still feel like I don’t know a single thing about it. It’s just so… short. Forgettable. Completely meaningless in the larger scope of this Lara’s timeline. It’s very middle of the road in terms of its story, and filled with disappointment when it comes to the graphical and gameplay improvements.
I posed a question at the end of my Tomb Raider IV retrospective: will Tomb Raider V: Chronicles have PS1 Lara go out with a bang or a fizzle? After experiencing the game, I can say that’s a big no on the bang, but it’s also not even a fizzle.
A fizzle implies there was some sort of reaction to begin with. And Tomb Raider V is as inert as a noble gas.
Up next is Tomb Raider VI: Angel of Darkness. We’re wrapping up the original timeline with a clunky PS2 game that I hated as a kid and hate more as an adult. Goodie…