It’s fair to say that, if you were to get a group of Tomb Raider fans together in a room and ask them what their favourite Lara Croft title is, not many people would cite Tomb Raider Chronicles (or TR5) as their number one fave. It’s considered by some to be uninspired, too short, too easy, and a cash-in. Indeed, I’ve yet to see a documentary about Tomb Raider that speaks of Chronicles in a favourable light. The game is kind of brushed past and buried (not unlike the artefacts that Lara seeks after.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the Tomb Raider franchise, a brief history… Tomb Raider Chronicles was released on the PS1, PC and Dreamcast in the winter of the year 2000 AD. It was an unexpected title, because at the end of the previous game (spoiler alert) Lara Croft was seemingly ‘killed off’ as she tried to escape from a collapsing pyramid in Egypt, having just thwarted the machinations of the deranged god Set. For this reason, the very existence of this title makes people believe that it’s nothing but a blatant cash-in, and in some ways they’re not wrong; there was arguably no ‘need’ for it story-wise, and even some of the developers have confessed that their hearts weren’t invested in the project.
So how do you tell a new story about Lara Croft when the protagonist herself has shuffled off her mortal coil? The game’s premise is actually a strong one, and I feel it works well. Chronicles basically begins with Lara’s ‘funeral’ (or memorial service, if you will) after which her close friends retire to Croft Manor and reminisce about some of her untold exploits, which cover four different locations: Rome, the Pacific Ocean, Ireland and New York. Fade to black, pick up the controller, draw your pistols! I love it.
Actually, I believe this framing device is one of the game’s strengths. Say what you will about Chronicles – it is not lacking in variety. Rome is more in the traditional vain with deep pits, temples and wild animals. The Pacific Ocean levels, meanwhile, are more stealth and combat-based, and in fact there’s one part where you get to navigate the ocean floor in a deep sea diving suit. However, when you get to Ireland, you’re a teenage Lara without any weapons, and you have to conduct your business using sheer perspicacity and wit – and some fast running. This is not the case in New York, though, where you’re armed with a three-mode machine gun, a headset and infrared goggles, tasked with infiltrating a high tech skyscraper and escaping with the famed Iris.
Yes, Chronicles is one of the shorter Tomb Raider instalments, but when you have so many rich and varied ideas jam-packed into such a compact title, the quality shines all-the-more. Very little is repeated and every level feels markedly different from the last. Okay, two of the levels are set on the same submarine, but even then it’s not a copy-and-paste job. For example, on your first visit you’re weaponless, so you have to creep stealthily along the dimly-lit corridors until you can locate your trusty pistols. But on your second visit the sub is flooded and going under, meaning that you’re more concerned with not drowning and avoiding electrocution from the loose wires that are dangling from the ceiling. Oof.
Then you have the New York levels, and I defy any Tomb Raider fan to look me in the eye and tell me that they suck. Because they patently don’t 😛 Lasers, cyborgs, teleporters, x-ray machines, poison gas, helicopters… This part of the game is a veritable rollercoaster from start to finish, and indeed I believe that the very last level – Red Alert! – is one of the toughest in the series’ history.
For instance, in the Escape with the Iris section – when you’re unarmed and vulnerable – you open the lift doors to find yourself under attack from a cluster of heavily-armed thugs, one of whom is wielding a laser weapon that can fry you in a single shot. So you must first close the lift doors to avoid a painful toasting and quickly set the elevator in motion. However, something goes wrong and the lift starts to plummet to its doom, meaning that you have to hurriedly apply the emergency brakes before you end up as a pile of goo on the Manhattan sidewalk. Should you survive the deadly descent, you then have to use Lara’s dexterity to climb the cavernous lift shaft whilst avoiding flames from the skyscraper’s super-powered heating system. It’s top notch stuff!
Admittedly, the puzzles in Chronicles are a lot easier and more ‘contained,’ and the game is certainly bereft of the huge, multi-zone head-scratchers that typified Tomb Raider 4. But then, this is another thing that I believe TR5 has going for it. It’s much more accessible, and doesn’t command the player to possess a high degree of psychic ability. Chronicles is much easier to just ‘pick up and play’ with a bare minimum of frustration, and for the youthful and inexperienced 13 year old that I was in the year 2000, it was perfectly matched to my playing ability. I freely admit that TR5 must seem a little too easy to the hardcore raiders who had previously endured the hell that was Tomb Raider 3‘s Lud’s Gate, but I don’t think it’s fair to brand Chronicles as “uninspired.” In terms of creativity and ideas, it’s positively bursting at the seams.
But is it a cash-in? Oh yes, most definitely. At this point in Lara’s career, her publisher Eidos Interactive was settling for nothing less than a new Tomb Raider game on an annual basis, and it wasn’t going to let a little thing like the death of the main character get in the way of making a quick buck. That being said, I certainly don’t regret Tomb Raider Chronicles, and I am so glad to have it in my collection. Let’s celebrate it for its audacity, richness and variety, and not be so bashful about its existence.
Further reading: I interviewed composer Peter Connelly, who produced the music for the stone cold CLASSIC that is Tomb Raider Chronicles. Read it here.
I also interviewed the wonderful Stella of Tomb Raider walkthroughs fame, who has composed detailed level guides for every single Lara Croft outing. Read it here.
Also, tell me what you think about Tomb Raider Chronicles, if you’ve played it. Do you think it’s wonderful, brilliant, or just simply superb? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.