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Old 30-03-19, 17:20   #27
sheepman23
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INDIA
Level 2 - Temple Ruins




Man. Where do I begin with today's installment to the retro review? Temple Ruins is a loaded package. I think I struggled to find things to talk about during my analysis of Jungle, because, to be honest? While it was a perfectly solid opener and didn't do anything wrong, it also didn't take any risks. Playing it safe is just fine for the opening level; Temple Ruins, on the other hand, shows what the designers are going to be capable of over the next 18 levels... *gulp*

Temple Ruins actually starts off calmly enough - well, almost a little too calmly. Anyone who has a fear of snakes gets their nightmare as we see cobras popping their heads out of the bushes. The decision to make these entities inanimate works well, I think. There's still a huge surprise factor if you stumble onto the wrong patch of grass and don't notice them, but it prevents the snakes from feeling a little OP by being able to sneak up on our heroine at any point. The addition of the poisonous bite is also a crucial gameplay changer; take one bit of damage from these guys, and you're sucking up one small medipack...

But after the shock has worn off and we realize that we've got these slithering beasts to contend with throughout the stage, the first quarter of this experience is basically an extension of Jungle. It's complete with a nice little platform-heavy tree tops section where Lara can make some tricky jumps for a few nice prizes.



We get a gorgeous waterfall view, crawl through an opening, and all of a sudden the droning ambiance hits us... we're not in the outdoors anymore. We've made it.

Let's all be honest with ourselves for a moment. The interior portion of Temple Ruins is, to put it lightly, a bastard. If you didn't feel this way on your first playthrough, then you're either in the top 1% of our population reflex-wise, or you enjoy getting your ass kicked over and over again by traps.

The reason that Temple Ruin is ultimately a bastard is because so many of its traps are very, very unfair. Sorry guys - even though I still love this level's ruthless and unforgiving difficulty, many of these encounters are not really what I would call quality design. Too many of the traps in Temple Ruins are nearly impossible to see coming or to possibly have a chance of avoiding successfully on your first try. There are some boulders or spiked walls which you can plan for, but Temple Ruins relies on a high amount of trial-and-error gameplay segments. It's great if you're a hardened vet like me who remembers and expects these bits of unfairness, but for a newer player? Have fun ripping your hair out here.



Bits like the area in the above screenshot say it all, really. What starts out as an expected trap - in this case, the sound of a slashing horizontal blade - turns into either a fatal death or a massive amount of damage as the player isn't able to account for the spiked walls that come out of nowhere. Although it may seem harsh, I do think the level has to be docked some points for the absolute randomness of its traps, but even more so because Temple Ruins is only the second level of the game! This type of unpredictability works in grand finales like the Temple of Xian or Atlantis, but to throw in this mayhem on the title's second stage is just a bit too unforgiving if you ask me.

The good news is that there's still plenty of other gameplay dispersed amidst the numerous gauntlets and trials of the ruins. Invisible platforms make a return here, and this time they're ever-so-slightly revealed by the presence of fire light. That's a nice touch which showcases TR3's vastly improved lighting dynamics compared to its predecessors. Speaking of great touches: the moments where a chamber's ceiling falls in or a previous water pool turns into a gross mud bath makes this treacherous temple feel... well, alive. There's quite a bit of animation going on here, mind you, but architectural changes are also important in selling the deadliness to us, and Temple Ruins certainly gives us that.





On that note, I appreciate how Temple Ruins is broken up into a series of "trials" as opposed to one long romp with no end goal in sight. From the moment we discover the large gateway with two keyholes in it, we can tell that we're on the hunt for two keys to progress further. While the randomness of the traps is not great design, the stage's flow still works surprisingly well since our objectives are always clear. This occurs again near the journey's end when we're tasked with uncovering three more keys. Of course, this final bit of the level also features one of the absolute most unforgiving rooms: the player is forced into a dark room, must throw two switches, and then has to escape through a trapdoor... all in the nick of time to avoid a descending spike ceiling. This one is particularly brutal because the time limit is extremely tight. Is it possible to survive this chamber on first attempt? Probably not, and I think that kind of sucks since even quick problem-solving isn't enough to get you out alive.

Still, these individual trials at least help segment the level into recognizable and manageable bits, and this also extends to the enemy encounters. Temple Ruins is mostly devoid of normal combat, unless you count the occasional inanimate cobra or the weak monkeys roaming around. (That being said, there is an absolute troll of a cobra - see the below screenshot - who sits up on a high ledge and cannot be shot until you're literally standing right next to him. Well played, designers, well played. )

Instead, Temple Ruins opts for encounters with gargantuan, reanimated Shiva statues. The reveal of the Shiva baddies is effective because the first statue we run into doesn't animate; the second one does, however, and takes the player by surprise. When I was little, I used to hate the Shivas because I wasn't confident enough in getting right up in their faces. Thus, my battles with them would be long and boring, especially when accounting for my normal use of pistols. This time around, however, I went toe-to-toe with these foes and had a great time. It's absolutely refreshing to see a Tomb Raider enemy that has a means of defense, and, subsequently, encourages a riskier play style to defeat them. I wish this type of encounter occurred more frequently in TR3!





On that note, Temple Ruins practices combat better than most levels in this series manage to. Instead of overloading us with enemies or one-off surprise encounters, the designers instead give us three separate battles which almost feel like mini-bosses. And unlike the absolutely random hordes of traps which cover the rest of the experience, the Shivas are refreshingly predictable; tough to defeat, yes, but they follow a pattern and do what you expect. They are the perfect intermediaries between much of the other chaos (good or bad) going on in the level.

Moving on from the excellent enemies, Temple Ruins also earns high marks with its use of secrets. The secret themselves work as great intermediaries between traps, just like the Shivas. All but one of them requires keen observation to discover, but they're not ridiculously well-hidden (like the first shotgun in Jungle... ). A few of them even diverge into their own side challenges which feature more traps or cobra encounters.



At its core, Temple Ruins uses its two most prominent features - the relentless traps and the symbolic Shiva guardian statues - to craft an awesome atmosphere. This is a very lonely and haunting experience for our heroine, and it's made all the more unnerving by the general darkness and droning ambiance in the background. I don't think there's a single level of Tomb Raider II that managed to pull off this loneliness, actually, so the fact that TR3 does it in its second entry is pretty damned impressive. Temple Ruins is indicative of what this series is supposed to be about, and that should always be commended.

One more thing before ending this review. I've always appreciated TR3's use of cutscenes in between individual levels because it helps remind the player about the journey they're on. TR3's individual locations are all pretty isolated in nature and have their own little subplots going on - which we will see later with the South Pacific and London levelsets - but in India, there's just a clear case of a deranged bad guy stealing an artifact that Lara believes should be hers. It's a classic and solid TR story formula, and it's perfectly fine for the opening section of the title. The final cutscene here nicely sets up the finale of India: we've gotta chase Tony down the river, and once we find him, we're taking that damned Infada Stone whether he likes it or not. See, it's as simple as that!



Summary

Pros:
+ Great progression from the jungle to the temple
+ Excellent atmosphere
+ Shiva encounters are memorable and unconventional
+ Heavy use of traps plays well into the level theme
+ Satisfying secret areas
+ Pretty good level design

Cons:
- Numerous random traps can make the player feel like they're not in control
- Overall experience is ultimately too frustrating for the game's second level

I'm in an interesting position with my review of Temple Ruins. As a TR3 veteran who hasn't touched the game in years but still knows most of its nooks and crannies, I appreciate this level's challenge and relentlessness... but that is only because I know what to expect. On the other hand, I've watched Let's Plays of people who have never seen the level, and their frustrated reactions support the point I've been making over the course of this analysis: Temple Ruins isn't just too hard, it's too unpredictable. A difficult experience is fine, but difficulty only works if the player still feels like Lara's deaths are their own fault. Often times, it's just nearly impossible to have time to react to the things thrown in our way here, and when that happens, the responsibility of reloads shift from the player to the designer. That's not a good thing.

Still, even the unfair bits don't manage to take away from the truly atmospheric and well-designed level that's placed in front of us. Temple Ruins attempts to chew Lara up and spit her out, but it reinforces the idea that the Infada artifact is not supposed to be a lolly-gagging easy grab of a treasure. What's more is that Temple Ruins sets the tone of TR3 quite well. The designers are not going to hold our hands, the level design is going to be very tight and cohesive, and the enemies are (usually) going to feel more meaningful and unique for the scenario that we're in. I'd like to think that most of these points apply to the remainder of the game.

Rating - 8/10

Last edited by sheepman23; 06-04-19 at 02:47.
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