Well, the review title pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I guess I can sneak off for an early lunch now. Actually, I suppose since the original game this is ported from is 17 (!) years old now, I should probably elaborate a little bit. Tomb Raider I ($0.99), as it’s apparently called now, is a game I’m sure many readers know like the back of their hand, and maybe the front, too. If you are very familiar with the game and just want the brief, this is a port of Tomb Raider Gold, the PC re-release that included the Unfinished Business expansion. If you have a controller, you’ll be partying like it’s 1996 all over again, but if you don’t, you’ll be subject to virtual controls that mess up a movement system that hasn’t aged all that well in the first place.
Every gaming generation has its icons, characters and franchises that break through to the mainstream. A while ago I talked about Double Dragon and how it ended up falling between the couch cushions of history, but that might have been mercy compared to the Sonic-like roller coaster ride Lara Croft has experienced. For a while, though, she was a gaming star like few others. Interestingly, given the game’s SEGA Saturn roots, Tomb Raider was one of the big franchises that became connected in people’s minds with the first PlayStation, alongside Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy, Tekken, and Metal Gear Solid. It’s tempting to chalk that up marketing and trading on the character’s bizarre-in-hindsight sex appeal, but I firmly believe that the game itself was in the same league as those other greats.
Time has been a bit more harsh to Tomb Raider than the other games I listed, but it’s important to remember the context it was created and released in. The polygonal wave had just begun, and game developers were still trying to get a handle on how to take previously popular genres into a third dimension. Analog sticks were far from standard equipment at this time, though by the time Tomb Raider released, Nintendo had just made the scene with the Nintendo 64. You had a lot of developers trying to come up with ideas to translate running, jumping, and fighting into a 3D space, all on directional pads that were woefully inadequate to the task. Tomb Raider‘s seemingly grid-based movement perhaps didn’t feel as smooth as players would have liked, but the controls did prove functional, which was more rare than you would think at that time.
The game was developed around controllers with eight buttons, and it used every one of them. A full half of those buttons were allocated to helping the player move around more easily. You had a roll for quick turn-arounds, buttons to sidestep left or right without turning, and a walk button that allowed you to move more slowly and carefully. These were all vital to positioning Lara for jumps, picking up items, or throwing switches. The controls also made use of a context-sensitive use button that allowed Lara to interact with her environment in many ways, though it was most frequently used for holding onto ledges. To make things easier, the levels in Tomb Raider were basically designed in cubes, with Lara’s hops, leaps, and steps covering a fixed number of cube-lengths.
These controls may not sound so amazing now, but for the time, Lara had a ridiculous amount of actions at her disposal. Developers Core Design made sure to put that repertoire to the test in the 15 levels that made up the game. Navigating the treacherous traps and hazards required increasingly-complex sequences of acrobatic moves. While later games in the series would tilt the balance slightly more towards action and stealth, the first game was overwhelmingly about examining the environment for a path, doing the necessary gymnastics to follow it, and having the reaction time to deal with the unexpected tricks that popped up en route. Oh, and try not to accidentally stumble off your foothold, lest you have to do the whole thing all over again.
I’m no stranger to alternate control methods for this game. My first time playing through it was on the PC version, since I didn’t have a PlayStation yet and the Saturn version was a few weeks late. My only controller at that time had four buttons, so I played through using my keyboard. Ideal? No, but it worked. I can’t really say the same for the touch controls used in this iOS version of the game. Oh, they’re workable at first, when you’re running through the first few stages of the game. Barely workable, but you’ll get through if you will yourself to. I started getting really annoyed with the controls somewhere around the fifth stage, St. Francis’ Folly, and by the time I reached the tenth stage, I was ready to throw in the towel.
There are a lot of issues, but the biggest problem I was having was with Lara’s movement. After Super Mario 64 released and analog sticks became standard, Tomb Raider‘s tank-style controls, designed around the limitations of a digital pad, began to feel obsolete pretty quickly. The way Lara moved was so strictly designed around those controls, however, that switching things over to an analog stick never worked all that well. Being able to reliably hit the cardinal directions is extremely important in Tomb Raider, and you need to do it at a moment’s notice. A single misstep can undo a lot of hard work, especially in the later levels. Analog sticks made it hard to hit those cardinal directions, but a touch-based virtual pad is on a whole other level of awkward. Simply running Lara around in the directions you want her to go is a real problem here.
Adding to that is the way the extremely important walk button has been implemented. The walk button is the best way to get Lara where you need her to be without her diving off the platform to her doom. On controllers it’s usually mapped on a shoulder button, allowing easy access without taking your thumbs off the directional pad or main action buttons. In the iOS version, it’s a toggle button placed above the directional pad, right beside the toggle to look around. It’s easy enough to use in mellow moments, but there are times where you might need it in the heat of the moment, and jabbing it on and off is most likely going to result in Lara’s doom.
While we’re on this side of the screen, I’m going to complain about that look toggle, too. Having it as a toggle is fine, but once you’ve pushed the button, you don’t look around by swiping, as you might expect. Instead, you have to use the directional pad, just like you would on a controller. Things like this make the touch controls feel like a badly-planned afterthought at times. The action buttons fare a little better, but like many games with too many virtual buttons, you will have occasional misfires, and things get dicey when you want to use more than one at a time.
The gun toggle button is wisely kept out of the way, presumably to prevent tragic deaths from whipping out pistols while you’re jumping, but in moving it out of the way, it takes a little more effort to draw and holster your weapons. As with the movement controls, this isn’t a problem in more calm situations, but when things heat up, the extra hassle can be fatal. There are a couple of extra options put in to try to alleviate touch control problems, like an auto-grab that can be toggled on and off, and they are useful, but on the whole, the control hassles leave the player ill-equipped to handle the challenges the game throws at them.
It’s a shame, because in all other respects, this is an excellent port. As I mentioned in the introduction, this port is based off the PC version of the game, so if you’re coming in with memories of the PlayStation version, you’re going to find a few pleasant surprises. The graphics are high resolution, and while that accents the low polygon counts of Lara and her foes, it still looks leagues better than the console versions. Unfortunately, the various pre-rendered cutscenes weren’t redone, so they’re kind of blown up and ugly-looking on sharp iOS displays. The environments in this game still have a certain wow factor to them, though. Some of the areas you need to traverse are huge, and they’re all very well-designed to appear organic while still being video game levels.
Another nice bonus for players who only knew the console versions is that you can save anywhere, just like in the console versions of Tomb Raider II and beyond. The crystal system from the console versions would have been ridiculous on mobile devices, so I’m glad the developers made the right call here. Of course, you also get the expansion Unfinished Business here, playable from the very start. It’s fairly short, covering just four missions, but nobody’s going to complain about extra levels, I’d hope.
The menu interfaces have been kept largely consistent with the PC version, and they’re a nightmare for it. Once you figure out that your touches are basically corresponding with mouse clicks, it’s not so bad, but they really should have redone things for the mobile version. Trying to flick options on and off on the iPhone screen was sometimes an exercise in frustration thanks to a slight lag in response and the small hit box of each item.
So, bad controls, great port, but how does the game itself hold up? Fairly well, I’d say. The tank controls are definitely a relic of that period of time, and I’m not even going to try to defend them, but in all other respects, Tomb Raider is still a fun game. We don’t see a lot of games like this anymore, with large, intricately designed platforming challenges. Thematic successors like Uncharted have largely eschewed platforming puzzles in favor of shooting and set pieces, while the closest series in terms of gameplay, Prince of Persia, seems to be on a time out. Heck, even Lara Croft herself seems to have abandoned this style of game, with the recent reboot more closely following in Uncharted‘s footsteps.
I’m not saying that to be an old man yelling at clouds or anything, because all of the games I mentioned are quite good. I only say it because I think Tomb Raider strangely feels more unique today than it already did when it first released. There’s certainly nothing quite like it on the App Store. You need equal parts good reflexes and sharp problem-solving skills to see the game through to its end. It’s really satisfying to eyeball your path out carefully and then execute it, and the abundant secrets reward players who think outside of the box a bit. The story is silly Indiana Jones-type stuff, but it works well enough and has enough sense to stay out of the way of the exploration for the most part. The game’s few attempts at making Lara say sexy things come off about as smoothly as a teenage boy trying to unfasten a bra, but Lara had yet to reach her status as history’s most confusing sex symbol, so those moments are very few indeed.
To sum this whole review up, it all comes down to whether or not you have a controller. If you do, then getting this excellent version of the game for such a low price is a steal. If you don’t, it’s not the most expensive curiosity, but that’s all it is for all but the most dedicated and patient. This is normally where I’d say that I hope things will be better if they do Tomb Raider II, but I’m not confident there’s any solution for the control woes with a touch interface.