Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Humansoft Inc.
Release Date: November 14, 2006
Though I largely skipped the four entries following Tomb Raider II, I have now played three distinct versions of Tomb Raider: Legend. Is it really that great? Well, yes and no. Tomb Raider: Legend for the Xbox 360 (as well as other consoles and PC) updated the aging formula with aplomb, emphasizing the joy of exploration – the crucial element that had been sadly lacking for some time. The subsequent PlayStation Portable version maintained much of what made its console brethren a worthwhile experience, but it struggled with control issues and a spotty framerate.
Just prior to the release of the Wii in November, Eidos quietly released Tomb Raider: Legend for three additional platforms: the GameCube, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS – the last of which I have spent the past few days wrestling with. While I am truly impressed by the ability of Humansoft to pack much of the Legend experience into such a tiny cartridge, the actual gameplay ranges from frustrating to embarrassing. With a handful of forgettable mini-games and several annoying glitches, Tomb Raider for the Nintendo DS is one Legend that deserves to be forgotten.
I anticipated a number of compromises when it came to the Nintendo DS version, so it came as a complete shock when the narrative and all of the CG videos were completely intact. One necessary disclaimer, though: While all of the videos are here, they have been compressed beyond belief. Do you remember what streaming video was like five years ago? It was pretty bad – and so are these clips. Still, I believe the game is made better by their inclusion, so it is actually worth putting up with the poor compression. It can be tough to hear the voice-acting at times, but subtitles are presented on the touch-screen to help you out.
Additionally, much of the in-game dialogue between Lara and her associates, Zip and Alistair, has been included in the form of touch-screen text. I'm happy to see so much of the story preserved, because – well, believe it or not, the narrative is actually pretty solid, and the dialogue is fairly snappy. Legend casts a new light on the legend of Croft herself, who has more than a few bad memories in her past. Hoping to find details about the mysterious circumstances that led to the separate disappearances of both her mother and her friend, Croft sets off on a voyage that takes her to Bolivia, Africa, and Kazakhstan (sans Borat, sadly).
Shockingly enough, all of the levels from the console versions have been recreated in pseudo-3D for the Nintendo DS, and despite the significant visual differences, these are basically the exact same environments. You will solve puzzles and navigate the terrain in a very similar fashion as you would have in the console release. Legend uses a fixed perspective that often finds Lara in a typical side-scrolling setting, though you can often move up or down within the visual plane, in addition to left or right. The environments are modeled in 3D, and the camera will shift along with the action to maintain that "2D within 3D" perspective.
This is where the trouble starts. Though it is nice to see all of the familiar levels from a new perspective, it seems that little was done to make the game easily playable from a fixed viewpoint. Not being able to look around or change the positioning of the camera leads to many difficult situations, some of which will contribute to your unfortunate demise. On the Japan level, I spent about half an hour navigating a portion that required me to scale the outside of a building via poles, ladders, and what look to be lighted signs. This section should have only taken five minutes or less, but several issues forced me to do it over and over again.
Gaps that would have previously been easily avoided are sometimes impossible to see, such as during that Tokyo ascent, when a random gap would be hidden behind a lighted sign. What should I do in that situation? Unless you get lucky, you will fall through it the first time; beyond that, you had better memorize its location to avoid another mishap. The fixed perspective also makes it difficult to judge when and where to jump from when trying to grab onto a pole or rope.
Most infuriating, though, are the repeated glitches that will knock you out for no reason at all. When finally getting near the top of that building in Tokyo, I reached the peak of a metal pole and fell for no reason. Well, all games have random glitches, right? I chalked it up to bad luck and tried again – with the same exact result. Add to that the time I fell through the ground into nothingness and the multiple occasions during which I mysteriously fell from whatever else I was holding onto. After a while, you start to get the feeling that the Quality Assurance department had the month off prior to this game's release.
The occasional bug would still be bearable with a competent checkpoint system, which is yet another thing sorely lacking in the DS version of Tomb Raider: Legend. Sure, the game has checkpoints, but they are not conveniently placed at all. Instead of having one prior to (and immediately following) every major puzzle or troubling ascent, the checkpoints are inanely activated at insignificant junctions. Following nearly every unexpected death, I had to spend several minutes going back through whatever areas preceded the one that was giving me trouble. Again, it gives off the impression that nobody bothered to figure out how to make this a user-friendly experience.
Navigating the levels can be frustrating, but firing your weapons is just embarrassing. As you approach a human enemy, the bottom screen ceases to serve as your inventory, instead acting as a stylus-assisted firing range. Regardless of who you are shooting at, the exact same pixelated grunt wanders around the touch-screen, giving you the opportunity to tap him with your stylus. Lara can still fire her weapons without using the stylus, but most of those shots will miss by a wide margin. Not only is it silly, but having to whip out your stylus for headshots really takes away from the adventuring experience, which is fairly suspect as it is.
What made the previous versions of Legend so great was the game's ability to put the fun back in exploring ruins and figuring out what you had to do to move forward. In the DS version, everything is obvious and laid out for you, so not only is the game buggy, but the gameplay is dull and the action is ridiculous.
That's not to say that this version of Legend is all bad, but the good parts are not nearly worth the price of admission. The motorcycle sequences are still reasonably enjoyable, and there are some DS-specific flourishes, such as having to blow into the speaker to remove the dust from a found artifact. It's neat, but it hardly betters the experience. Even the six unlockable mini-games are generic and forgettable.
I can't decide if it was ambition or laziness that guided the development of the DS version of Tomb Raider: Legend. Including all of the levels and videos from the console version is a plus, but actually playing the game is an oft-miserable exercise in frustration. These levels weren't meant to be played from a fixed perspective, and the addition of several brutal bugs makes for a painful portable experience. Tomb Raider: Legend for the Nintendo DS may represent an even greater disaster than The Angel of Darkness or "The Cradle of Life." Ouch.
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