WHY 'TOMB RAIDER II' IS THE BEST ENTRY IN THE FRANCHISE
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Cover art for Tomb Raider II. Image scanned by Roy Mendez from his copy of Tomb Raider II for the PlayStation. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise has done and seen it all.
Featuring twelve entries in the franchise’s main series, thirteen spin-off titles, three feature films, novels, comic books, and even an animated television series, Croft’s tales as the Tomb Raider have been told time and time again. Her natural prowess, physical strength, adept skill with firearms and hand-to-hand combat, superior intellect, fluency in foreign languages, cultures, and histories, and her illustrious sex appeal and power have cemented her as one of gaming’s most iconic heroines.
Croft has had her high and lows over the course of her many appearances and incarnations, but there is merit in all of Tomb Raider’s games and related media (even the really bad ones). But with so many different blockbuster titles to choose from, how does one even go about choosing which one is superior? Could it be the original title, Tomb Raider (1996), that put Lara Croft on the map as a force to be reckoned with? Is it Tomb Raider: Legend, which saw Lara embarking on a quest to solve the mysteries of her mother’s death, thus making her story more humanly relatable? What about Rise of the Tomb Raider, featuring a modern take on Croft and hailed as one of the most cinematic and critically-acclaimed entries in the series?
Perhaps trying to determine which Tomb Raider game is the best is the wrong way to go about it, because it is simply too difficult to pick one over the other. They all have strengths and weakness that balance each other out. However, there is one entry in the series that continues to stand out amongst its sisters: Tomb Raider II (1997). No Tomb Raider game has ever come quite close to nailing the simplicity, the excitement, the challenge and the beauty of Tomb Raider II.
"So indulge me about the dagger. I'd be indebted with your life." GIF captured/created by Roy Mendez from his copy of Tomb Raider II for the PlayStation. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It
One of Tomb Raider II’s greatest strengths is that it changed very little from its immediate predecessor, Tomb Raider (1996).
Players that had played previous game would feel immediately at home picking up the controller to play Tomb Raider II as virtually all the controls were the same. Those playing a Tomb Raider game for the first time are presented with the chance to complete a tutorial set within the grounds of Croft’s mansion in London, to briefly get caught up.
This iteration of Croft Manor featured Lara's expansive backyard jungle gym, as well as her bedroom, kitchen, and hedge maze. Image captured by Roy Mendez on Tomb Raider II for Android. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
Tomb Raider II was not completely without changes and improvements. Lara is much more fluid and acrobatic in this game, able to perform aerial somersaults, climb ladders to reach new areas, and pilot vehicles such as motorboats and snowmobiles. She keeps flares in her backpack in order to light up dark, frightening areas over the course of her adventure, in conjunction with the game’s new dynamic lighting feature intended to add to the overall mood and challenge of completing levels.
Flares, like her dual pistols, have been a staple of Lara Croft since their inclusion in Tomb Raider II. Image captured by Roy Mendez on Tomb Raider II for Android. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
The beauty in the gameplay of Tomb Raider II is how easy it is to get the hang of. Where later entries in the franchise constantly remind the player of which button does which action and which gadget to use for whatever obstacle, mastering control of Croft at the beginning of the game means the player is set for the rest of experience, so long as they are able to use their brains to solve the challenging puzzles set before them.
A Simple But Thrilling Tale
Mommy and daddy issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ethics of grave-robbing all make for interesting explorations into the motivations and qualities of a character, but sometimes, all these heavy topics in a video game can feel like a little bit much. The newer entries in the franchise, starting with Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in 2006 all the way to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, released back in September have heavily relied on subplots such as these in order to make Croft’s story seem new, fresh, and re-imagined. While it has generally worked and makes for overall entertainment, I cannot help but miss the simple, Indiana Jones-esque plots of the original games, specifically that of Tomb Raider II.
In Tomb Raider II, Lara Croft must recover a mystical Chinese dagger with the power to turn someone into a fire-breathing dragon when the dagger is plunged into their heart. An Italian mafia-cult needs the dagger because they want to turn their boss into a dragon. Lara must stop them before they do.
That’s it. That’s the whole plot!
The opening cinematic for Tomb Raider II presents the legend behind the Dagger of Xian. Video posted by @Jami393 on YouTube.
While it might seem mindless and overly-simplistic, hours of unnecessary dialogue and subplots that really do not pertain all that much to Lara or her story are averted. Instead, the player just gets to have fun. The foundation is there, but the rest of Lara’s story is told by the player as they get lost in her virtual world. It requires much less work to focus on the game when it is set up like this. It is not something commonly seen anymore with games striving to be as cinematic and narrative-driven as they possibly can.
The Beauty of a Polygonal, Three-Dimensional Virtual World
Though gaming standards today scoff at the quality of the graphics of Tomb Raider II, this game was truly ahead of its time. Few games were able to achieve the quality and complexity of the Tomb Raider franchise.
Players were taken to the Great Wall of China, a Venetian opera house, the luxury ocean liner Maria Doria (bearing an eerie resemblance to the Titanic), and a Tibetan monastery. Though only one of these locations is a recreation of an actual location from real life, Tomb Raider II allowed players to explore other parts of the world without having to travel anywhere. Though the world environments may be fictional and may have been limited by the technology of the time, they absolutely borrow from the awe, beauty, and culture of the locations they draw inspiration from.
The box art for Tomb Raider II showcases some of the stops Lara makes on her globe-trotting adventure. Image scanned by Roy Mendez from his copy of Tomb Raider II for the PlayStation. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
Additionally, the levels set within these locations were complex enough to challenge the player to explore every inch in search of secret treasures or the answers to puzzles that led to the exit, but not so challenging that they were impossible. Later Tomb Raider games, Tomb Raider III in particular, were criticized for being too expansive and difficult, On the flipside, the most recent entries in the game often feel so streamlined it feels like exploration is put in just to satisfy the tradition of the franchise.
Tomb Raider II found the sweet spot in making levels and worlds so grand, magical, and beautiful, that players wanted to search every square inch in hopes of making a new discovery.
As for Lara herself, her character model included in this game is what is typically referred to as “Classic Lara” when talking about the franchise today. Advances in graphical technology meant that Lara could appear more human-like in Tomb Raider’s sequel as opposed to the original game, and Tomb Raider II marks the first appearance of Lara’s iconic ponytail on her in-game model.
Lara Croft's character model from the original Tomb Raider (1996), in comparison with...
... her character model from Tomb Raider II. The running gag is that Lara was finally granted with round breasts as opposed to triangular ones in her sequel. Both images captured by Roy Mendez on Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II for Android. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.
Though sub-par in comparison with the graphics and overall quality of today’s video games, Tomb Raider II still holds on to its nostalgic charm through its beautifully-detailed and layered levels. Even to this day, it is easy to pick up and play, and players will have mastered the controls within minutes. And of course, it contains the fan-favorite Lara Croft character model. Though she has re-appeared time and time again, Lady Croft of Tomb Raider II will always hold a special place in my heart.
The final image seen by players that have completed all of Tomb Raider II. Image captured by Roy Mendez on Tomb Raider II for iOS. All rights reserved to Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Square Enix.