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Old 15-09-13, 18:38   #38
sheepman23
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Location: Iowa
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PERU
Level 2 - City of Vilcabamba



When Lara wanted to run away to join the circus, this isn't quite what she had in mind.

I'm going to just go ahead and say that the review I'm doing right now is somewhat out of the ordinary for me. Then again, the first few levels of the entire Tomb Raider series are anything but ordinary for me. They signify something a lot more than just moving my avatar through a pixelated 3-D environment in hopes of getting from Point A to Point B. They're something a lot more than that, and something that I don't think I touched on too much in the Caves review.

For starters, I've probably played the Peruvian levels a lot more than any of the others in the series, simply because of the fact that they're right at the beginning. Often times I've started playing TR1, just to get a little taste of the experience via the first few levels, and then stopped because I couldn't commit myself to a long run-through. As a result, the City of Vilcabamba is practically engraved into my memory due to the high number of times that I've completed it, and explored every nook and cranny of it.


He's in permanent hibernation.

I don't think that this review would be a true review if I didn't detail the sense of isolation that this level provokes. Sure, there's the occasional wolf pack, stray bear ("Hmm, I'll just take a quick peak inside of this room... OH MAH GAWD THAT'S A BEAR."), or cute little bat to shoot at, but for the majority of the time, I feel like it's just Lara and me, exploring this lost, forgotten city.

In the future, most tombs will try to eat Lara up and spit her out. Vilcabamba doesn't do that. Save for a few darts and some odd swinging axes near the end, this entire level feels almost... welcoming to Lara.

Take the two poolrooms in the latter half of the level, for example. As we ascend to the top of each, there's always the chance that Lara will slip and fall. I know I did this a lot when I was a little kid, as I hadn't completely mastered Lara's jumping skills yet. However, instead of landing on a hard, cold surface or even some trap like a spike pit, we're provided a wide pool of water to land in should we misplace a step. I don't know if this analogy really works, but it feels like the city is almost... "helping" Lara proceed. It doesn't want to fight her. It doesn't want to throw boulders, fire, and every other dangerous thing at her. Instead, it wants her to learn the secrets of this forgotten world, but only if Lara puts forth the effort to do so.


"I'm not strong en- oh, wrong game."


I don't know about you guys, but I think that this medipack is cursed or something.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let's talk about the first part, the village. I love that underwater labyrinth. Not because it's particularly difficult or anything like that, but because it's one of the first times that the game lets us go way off the beaten path for extra things - secrets, in this case. Swimming down there is not something that we're forced to do, but something that we can do by choice to get a few extra goodies for the road.


Ceremonial temple, or glorified bathhouse?

In the previous review, I talked about TR1's music a little bit, and how certain moments are amplified by that background music. There is a moment in the left poolroom that pertains to that statement. As we ascend this harmless little room, the music track that I dubbed "Lara's Theme" plays as she nears the top.

As anyone who has ever played Tomb Raider knows, Lara's Theme is not a track that you would put in the middle of an action movie. It's a solemn, almost sad compilation of various instruments. Most notably is the harp, which plays the memorable sequence of notes over and over again throughout the entire piece.

In this moment... a music track is worth a thousand words.

If the designers had chosen to put some other piece of music here in place of Lara's Theme, this moment probably would not stick out for me. Indeed, some tracks might even ruin the atmosphere altogether. But not this melody. Everything that Lara's Theme symbolizes is symbolized here. The calm, peaceful pool that catches Lara if she falls. The lack of any truly dangerous traps to get caught in. The subtle squeaking of a stray bat every now and then. For lack of better words, it is a beautiful moment.


"I feel stronger now." Wait... what?


The VIP bathhouse has some extra defenses...

The three swinging axes that flank the central corridor, therefore, are almost a bit of a warning from the city about what lies ahead. Like it's trying to prevent us from wondering too far, and eventually into the valley full of monstrous dinosaurs.

Then again, maybe I'm overanalyzing all of this, and the three axes are just there because... why not?


Marco!

It's easy to miss the third and final secret in this last poolroom, when we're so focused on trying to get through the door at the lower level (not to mention that the secret room is very well hidden). It requires both the activation of a switch on the upper level, and the use of the golden idol that we picked up earlier. There's also some random switch in here that turns off the swinging axes for no apparent reason...

Conclusion

With all of my rambling above, I didn't really take the time to actually tear apart the bits and pieces of Vilcabamba like I normally do. At first glance, the level isn't anything entirely special. There are tombs within the series, and within this game that are a lot more grandiose and have atmosphere comparable to what is experienced here.

However, I feel that Vilcabamba is set apart from these other places for a variety of reasons. This is one of those levels where I often find myself just standing around, admiring things like the architecture, the desolate village, or even little things like the pots and other trinkets scattered about. And as I detailed quite extensively in the review, the moment in the first poolhouse where "Lara's Theme" plays hits home for me.

The colorful architecture of the main temple and the exciting battles with wolves and bears throughout just adds on to my immense praise for one of the game's most underappreciated levels. While the City of Vilcabamba may not be at 10/10 status - and to be fair, I believe that there are very few levels in the series that are - it comes pretty damned close.

Rating - 9/10
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