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Old 11-02-19, 19:20   #231
GRaider
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Great reviews as always, sheepman. It is refreshing to see, that someone can put so many effort and thinking into these old games and can reveal aspects that are totally new, even for one who played this game hundred times.

Some thoughts of me for "Great Pyramid": I think the big climax of this level is the beginning. You are confronted with the biggest and most bullet-consuming enemy right at the start, the enemy you were teased with for an entire level which started with this cutscene where Natla activates the pyramid.
After this fight is over it is good for the pacing that the game give you some relatively calm moments. A not so easy avoided teeth door (what are they called, even in german i have no proper term for them), the block puzzle, the bridge puzzle and the boulder traps. The developers were like: You proofed that you are a good fighter and now we will give you a moment of reprieve.
After this section you return to the Scion room. This is the big moment of the game: the artifact you first searched the pieces for twelve levels and than another two levels, only to realize, that this is a very dangerous artifact, that must be destroyed. The moment the Scion explode the game is practically over. Lara has done her mission. But the developers won't let the player escape so easily. He (or she) played their game for fifteen levels, they want him to earn the end, even when the actually goal is reached.
So first there are these three atlanteans. The last one in the game and I don't think there choice are odd. These are the last three, that the Scion created, the pitiful rest of Natla's dreams. You see that the destruction of the Scion took effect, because for the rest of the level none other will appear.
The traps are there to not let the player get away so easily and they are a much better symbol to slowly end Tomb Raider 1 than tons of enemies. First, in comparison to Atlantis you are not inside of a thriving being anymore (the pyramid itself), you are inside of a dying one. Like you say in your review, many of the traps are more a symbol of the slowly destruction of the pyramid like the boulders, the lava flows or even the crumpling platforms. It is your hardest task in case of traps and not in enemies, because you already proofed with level 14 and the fight against the big mutant, that you are capable of this.
Then at the end is the fight of Natla. Of course there is Natla. Natla introduced you to the whole game and set Lara on the trail for the Scion, now she is the farewell to the game. It is symmetry. And of course it is a personal matter for Natla. You destroyed her whole plans, did you really think she would let Lara go without a try for revenge? No, the player must face her and must proof one last time, that he is ready to leave the game, so it is only natural, that you must overpower the one person, that is responsible for everything that you experience until this point. And the funny thing even Natla's death isn't the ultimate end. You end with some jumps and platforming to get to a high point. The last test is a test of your very basic skills and only when you past this test, you finally have completed Tomb Raider.
And I don't think that Core Design had Unfinished Business in mind as a direct sequel to the end of Tomb Raider I. It defies some logic like the destruction of the pyramid still taking place and Lara can spend hours to kill many more atlanteans.
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Old 07-03-19, 01:31   #232
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Thanks for your comments GRaider - you make some awesome points. I agree that The Great Pyramid does a great job of making it feel like the pyramid is falling apart around you; I mostly just question why there isn't a tiny bit more focus on combat against mutants throughout. Just because the "living being" that we're standing in isn't living anymore doesn't mean that Natla's army shouldn't all be released on Lara. But I appreciate the experience well enough, I just think it mostly pales in comparison to Atlantis.

New review coming up very soon...
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Old 07-03-19, 02:37   #233
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EGYPT
UB Level 2 - Temple of the Cat




Temple of the Long, Long, Cat

It's been a decent while since my initial playthrough of Unfinished Business - about 8 years, actually - and as a result, I've forgotten so much about the game's second level. Whereas Return to Egypt contains a couple of fairly recognizable areas and isn't too long, Temple of the Cat is very much the opposite. There are several chambers and outdoor areas that, when packaged together, create one of the definitely more grueling stages of the franchise. Or at least, that's what I perceived upon replay. Maybe part of the reason that I see it as such a long venture is because, unlike most other titles in this series, this is only my second playthrough of it. My vague memories of the first time through only came into play during 3 separate parts of the level that I remembered all-too-fondly from the original... and everything else was more or less like playing brand new, oddly enough.

In any case, Temple of the Cat brings the player in for the long haul right from the very beginning. The Gold designers start by throwing a very obvious teaser trap at us. After flipping a switch, we're presented with three gates that have opened: two house goodies, while the third houses a frozen mummy. We KNOW that picking up the medipacks is going to result in the animation of our bandaged friend, which creates a tremendous amount of tension upon hitting the "action" button and getting that second item. We haven't even exited the first hallway of the level and I've already had my fair share of thrills!


Sand in the hair? Good luck getting that out...


It's not a Tomb Raider level if I don't find a perfect swan dive spot!

Indeed, this mentality covers the entirety of Temple of the Cat. The designers consistently give us a glimpse of what danger we're about to face, but give us plenty of time to actually face that danger. It's the dynamic of jump scares vs. anticipation, and in my opinion, the latter is always better in video games. Which brings me to my next point...

Show, Don't Tell

The classic "show, don't tell" mantra is very common for authors, but is also something that game designers should take into account. I'm going to jump ahead a little bit in this level and talk about the hallway of eight mummies - you know, the one that you walk down, grab Uzi clips all around the edges, and wonder when the hell those beasts are going to actually animate. Yeah, that one.

As I mentioned earlier, this was one of the few parts of this level that I instantly recognized upon replay, because it struck me so hard on first run through. No, it's not uncommon for Tomb Raider to give us glimpses of the enemies that we're going to fight, but what is uncommon is the game letting you know ahead of time that not only are you going to have to fight these mummies, but you're likely going to have to do it from the confines of one room with very little protection available. TR1's Atlantis also does a very exceptional job of using the "show, don't tell" dynamic for its various egg-bursting Atlanteans as it progresses.


These damn mummies have been dropping Uzi Clips around like CANDY. Do they want to be killed once they wake up? Lol

The Gold designers also have a knack for using "god-mode" visions whenever Lara pulls a significant switch or underwater lever. These visions don't just alert us that our switch has done something, but it gives us a little glimpse into where we might be going. If the player recognizes the previous color schemes, doors, or architecture, then they have a much less frustrating time of trying to figure out where to go next. It's the perfect way of lessening needless exploration without being a hand-holder.


Oh you've got to be kitten me!


I apologize for that bad pun. I will croc it off my list.

Keys, Keys, Everywhere!

I don't know who is in charge of the Temple of the Cat, but they really need a damn keychain, cause this level is filled to the brim with key pickups for its first half. In the initial outdoor area, we're first tasked with hunting down two keys to gain formal access to the temple. I particularly enjoy this outdoor portion. It presents the player with a fun, open-ended setting to pick off mummies and cats, steal pickups from boulder-guarded areas, and climb a step-pyramid.

One of the relative weaknesses of Temple of the Cat is its in-between sections. After opening the door via the two keys, we travel down a series of hallways to eventually open a timed door, but there's so much jumping over holes in the floor (and potentially more if you don't realize that the door is timed the first time) that it becomes a bit tedious for the player. This occurs again after we find the next 5 keys, open a door, and get another series of modular challenge rooms to find our next precious switch. I think there's a lack of focus once we reach the interior of the temple, and a little more breathing room in some of these chambers could have helped alleviate that.



The room depicted in the above screenshot is the most centralized room of the entire level, and it's certainly a beauty to behold. I'm a big fan of the calm greenery mixed with the crisp Egyptian bricks and rocks, and even more so with a fresh pool nearby. This room also has running cat textures on its edges - to be honest, I'm not sure what this is supposed to be considering it looks as though the mural itself is actually changing... but I'm not in a position to complain about it since it's visually exciting and makes the room stand out.

There are a couple more chambers before the final segment of Temple of the Cat, but in all honesty, they're a bit too forgettable for me to even describe. For what it's worth, I do think that I would remember this level a bit more fondly if it wasn't so gruelingly long, but the good news is that the final quarter is pretty excellent...

Sticking Out the Cat Tongue...? (yes, that's the goal of this level)

Remember that trapped hut in Tomb Raider III's Coastal Village? You know, the one where you walk in to grab a medipack and instantly get sucked into a quicksand mire? That's one of the series' absolute cheapest deaths, and one that I would instantly point to in a "This is Not How You Design Levels" handbook. Yes, I know that I haven't developed a single video game in my life, but losing the player's trust by sucking them into a trap so unbelievably nonsensical isn't a great way to keep their interest in the game...

On the other hand, Temple of the Cat presents one of the more ingenious trap rooms in the series. As we near the final portion of the stage, we wind up in a fairly bleak-looking hallway with three doorways branching off of it. They all look more or less the same, with the exception of one difference: the middle doorway has skulls flanking it. This is one of the few times in the Tomb Raider games where examining the textures is actually quite vital in helping you live. That still won't stop the curiosity of the player, however; indeed, I couldn't help myself upon first playthrough even though I was damned sure that something was off about that. And sure enough, I was right! I love that trap room. More stuff like that, please!


Unfinished Business: making skulll-flanked doorways cool before the Reboot trilogy overkilled it!

After surviving death-by-instakill-floor, we make our way outdoors one more time to start an ascension up the golden cat statue. I really enjoy this ending, largely because it removes us from the stuffiness of various chambers beforehand and gives us some breathing room to take out the various cats and mummies on the way up. We also end this climbing session by literally pulling a switch to extend the cat's red tongue, which brings us to the level end! Except... there's no artifact? Yeah, I was expecting something a little more extravagant than a final Bastet statue and an open desert, but after how long this level was, I feel like I've accomplished something just by surviving it. So that's a great feeling at least.


You know what they say: like shooting cats in a cat's mouth. In a cat temple. Wait, what?

Conclusion

As I mentioned a few times, Temple of the Cat's big issue is its lack of focus during the middle portion. Had the design team stuck to a few big rooms with only a couple of branching side areas and challenges, this level would have lost much of the tediousness that sets in as the player progresses.

That being said, I have to hand it to this level for exercising some really awesome design choices and gameplay practices when it wasn't distracting us with pesky side rooms. I like how the outdoor areas put a new spin on the Egyptian levelset that we came to know in TR1, and both of these areas in particular give the player a lot of freedom to fight and explore as they wish. There's also many great combat encounters throughout, with a special mention going to the hallway of mummies. There's nothing like loading up on a ton of Uzi ammo and then unleashing it all in a hellish destruction of undead creatures.

All in all, my reservations on this level's length don't impact the rating too much. Temple of the Cat is still mostly excellent in its design, presentation, and variety of gameplay, which is more than enough to satisfy me.

Rating - 8/10
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Old 07-03-19, 04:15   #234
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Awesome as always.
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Old 07-03-19, 23:54   #235
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Thanks Justin

Hoping to do one (or both) of the last two levels this weekend.
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Old 08-03-19, 19:08   #236
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I will say something to Return of Egypt first:

I like these levels very much. You nailed it with this sentence:
Quote:
They often contain quirky design choices that don't find their way into the main TR titles. This gives each expansion its own breath of fresh air while still maintaining the engine and grid system to properly tie it to its respective game.
One of this quirky choices is it to return to a flooded Khamoon. I have only one problem with this section. It confuses me deeply when I play the original City of Khamoon, because of the placement of some pickups. Right now I tried to play the first Tomb Raider without saving and reloading, all kills and all pickups and pistols only. The first tries (I'm now at attempt number 22) I always thought I had forgotten something, because it is in Return to Egypt.
The overabundance of pickups is also a salient significance of all Gold levels, but it is understandable when you start against enemies that are of medium difficulty and not like bats.

On this first level I like very much some of the small choices like cat statues that turn into panthers, fighting a panther in a field of spikes, the crocodile pit and especially the ending section. But in my opinion something of the middle section isn't so great like the boulder room or the bridge room. It doesn't stand out like the obelisk or the huge sphinx. It doesn't make the majority of this level very memorable. You also hinted at that in your review.

Then there is the end section. The only thing I think is wasted here is that you can end the level to quickly at this point. It is such great fun to find a way over the fence and to the uzis and fighting various enemies in the "open" desert like a random panther that cannot even harm Lara if you play this level normally. And the death zone is a grat concept to mess with the player's expectations. You are now the first time in Tomb Raider history in a free area and you found a way outside of all fences and boundaries and what happens: You die when you stray too far. Maybe so you can't go to the game boundary. A clever way of the designers to give you the feeling to explore more of this level, but to stop you immediately.
I never really understood the end of the level. A mummy is activated and falls down a hole and when you try to follow it, the level is over and it doesn't even start with this mummy fight. What were they thinking at this point?
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Old 10-03-19, 18:47   #237
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Quote:
Originally Posted by GRaider View Post
The overabundance of pickups is also a salient significance of all Gold levels, but it is understandable when you start against enemies that are of medium difficulty and not like bats.
Interesting point that I've never really considered before. I suppose that actually subconsciously makes me enjoy the Gold levels a little more, largely because I enjoy pickup rewards whenever I can find them, and these levels are absolutely littered with rewards for exploring more and/or taking out enemies that you don't necessarily have to.

Quote:
On this first level I like very much some of the small choices like cat statues that turn into panthers, fighting a panther in a field of spikes, the crocodile pit and especially the ending section. But in my opinion something of the middle section isn't so great like the boulder room or the bridge room. It doesn't stand out like the obelisk or the huge sphinx. It doesn't make the majority of this level very memorable. You also hinted at that in your review.
Regarding the bolded part: I have never realized that this actually happens! What a fun and quirky design choice. This is the type of stuff that separates the Gold installments from their respective games.

But yeah, the middle part is very forgettable. Not bad, just not memorable.

Quote:
I never really understood the end of the level. A mummy is activated and falls down a hole and when you try to follow it, the level is over and it doesn't even start with this mummy fight. What were they thinking at this point?
Haha same, that seemed a little odd and random.
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Old 10-03-19, 20:01   #238
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ATLANTIS
UB Level 3 - Atlantean Stronghold




Atlantean Stronghold... where do I even begin?

Well, I'll start by saying this: I really enjoyed this level.

Of course, if you've already read the reviews for UB's first two levels, then that statement could easily apply to them as well. I've had a lot of fun revisiting this expansion pack after 8 years, and I'm all-around very happy with my decision to go for it after finishing TR1.

But Atlantean Stronghold is different. This is the type of level that, had it been in the main game instead of the expansion pack, would have probably been considered an instant classic of the series. TR1's Atlantis (the level, not the location) is the most comparable stage to this entry, and the huge difference between the two is that Atlantean Stronghold boasts a more exploration-oriented environment (rather than a hallway-after-hallway ascension up the pyramid). While the two levels exercise the same fundamental gameplay ideas - fiendish traps and even more devilish enemies - I think the UB version handles these concepts even better. I'll get into that later in the review, but at a high-level, Atlantean Stronghold is the non-linear twin of Atlantis.




Sorry to bother you Lara, but it looks like you've got a boulder on your head.

The Screaming Dead

Did the red, fleshy, zombie-ish, mutant enemies creep you the hell out in the original Tomb Raider? Well strap in, because Atlantean Stronghold cranks that fear of our favorite bacon friends up to an 11 and produces some perfectly sound nightmare fodder if you're paying attention to what the Gold designers do throughout the level.

I think I've mentioned this already in the thread, but one of the things I've noticed about Gold entries is how much their design team makes use of the camera. This can take many forms: giving us a hint about a door we opened, showing us the activation of an enemy, or pulling away from Lara when she steps on a significant spot. The first point is not uncommon for any of the TR games, but the 2nd and 3rd bits are a little less so. In Atlantean Stronghold, there are a few times where picking up an item or throwing a switch results in triggering a new fleshy fiend, such as a mutant which literally falls out of a hole in the hive-like structure that this stage is centered around. That's a particularly creepy visual that I forgot to grab a screenshot of.

Also, the level's lone centaur is revealed in a similar manner, and we get to spend a lot of the level hearing the clumping hooves running around at the lower level... until we finally gain access to his abode at the very end, and remember that he's just been chilling out here the whole time.


When you catch someone eating your leftovers out of the fridge.


The Atlantean zoo has a strict "No Feeding" policy.

The above two screenshots capture some of the creepy phenomenons that make this level so damn cool and memorable. In TR1's Atlantis, a lot of the focus on creep-factor came from the "churning" sound that you could hear before a giant egg busted open to reveal the mutant within. And while that was awesome, Atlantean Stronghold goes in a different direction to help differentiate it. Here, you might be walking along and happen to catch one of the ground mutants literally just standing straight up and gazing around. It's a weird-as-hell visual, and particularly unnerving if it starts looking straight at Lara. This happens at multiple points in the level (or atleast it did to me).

Secondly, there's an even greater number of moments where the player actively anticipates the activation of frozen enemies and/or inevitable confrontation against these mutants. For instance, we walk into a room midway through the level and see 5 switches in various locations. We know that 3 of them are mostly likely used to trigger the still-as-a-statue mutants within this room, but we have no idea which ones do it! It's wonderfully nerve-wrecking in a way that we don't always see with these games. It is worth pointing out that the main title also employs this tactic a few times throughout its Atlantean venue.

As if the creepiness factor wasn't enough, Atlantean Stronghold is genuinely challenging in how it often times forces Lara into confrontations where she has little to no chance of plinking away from a "safe spot" - no, head-on encounters are fully encouraged here, and I LOVE it. There's a particularly intense bit late in the level where the activation of a switch releases 4 mutants at once, and while there is a no-harm zone that we can use to shoot at them, reaching that point before the mutants reach you is not so easy.


I'd like to think that the mutant on the right side of this screenshot is having an existential moment about the fact that, it too, is just a pile of flesh and bones.

I've talked for quite a long time about this level's enemies, but in all honesty? Atlantean Stronghold is all about its combat. And it does it quite effectively, too. It's weird, because for as many times as I felt frustrated with Temple of the Cat's length and difficulty, I never felt that once with Atlantean Stronghold - even though it's arguably just as hard. I think that has a lot to do with the presentation and pacing here. No part of the level feels pointless or unnecessary, and there's always some type of thrill to be had around the corner. Which brings me to the next part...

A Honeycomb of Trouble

Whereas TR1's Atlantis was a vertical ascension up the pyramid, UB's Atlantean Stronghold is rather... down the honeycomb, slogging up through the honeycomb again, climbing again, and then waaaaaaaaaay down the honeycomb one last time. If all of that sounded like nonsense, it's because the level's structure is quite nonsensical as well... and I love it for that.

Also, to be completely honest: I ACCIDENTALLY discovered this level's massive shortcut on my first run through today. Wanna know how I figured out it was a shortcut? I was grabbing some shotgun shells behind the honeycomb structure when I realized that I could catapult off of the slope back there to get up on the face of it. I fell down the hole to the poolroom at the bottom of the level, climbed out, ran over to the switch, and pulled it. Flash the "final stats" screen, and just like that, I had missed 90% of the level. It hadn't even dawned on me that the upper hole of the honeycomb structure was not supposed to be accessible until the end; like I've mentioned already, it's been over 8 years since I played TRUB, so that made me laugh when I realized I had discovered a big shortcut.




The zoo's bubbler fountains are not very kid-friendly, unfortunately.

Once I got on the correct path through the stage, I remembered just how impressive the design is. I've already talked about the previews of Atlantean mutants that we get throughout, but I also find the usage of glass windows to be particularly effective here in giving us glimpses of what lies ahead. I just have to give the design team props any time that they try to make the entire place feel connected, and that certainly happens a lot here.

Also, this is kind of a weird gameplay shoutout, but I'm really a big fan of this level's underwater sections. Almost all of them have non-essential pickup grabs that you can reach if Lara goes exploring for levers/switches, and some of them are timed to boot to give an extra spice of challenge. Great stuff.


I love how Lara is kind of like, "Meh, there could either be water or a cement ****ing ground at the bottom of this... a girl's gotta explore right? *shrug*

Conclusion

Guys, this is a really great level. Like so great that I feel bad about the countless TR fans who've never experienced the Gold expansions. (Of course, if you think that my enthusiasm for Atlantean Stronghold is super strong, then you've never seen me play The Lost Artifact, which is a whole new tier of impressive gameplay in my opinion.)

Atlantean Stronghold works so eloquently because it doesn't ever divert with bits of gameplay that feel out-of-place or unnecessary. Compare this to our previous entry, Temple of the Cat, which had an entire middle section that often felt aimless or plain boring... the Stronghold has none of that. Part of this is due to how well-intertwined the level's structure is. The player is constantly curious about how they're going to reach that centaur in the poolroom, or, at a high-level, just how they're going to get down that seemingly unreachable shaft in the honeycomb. We can guess that it probably has something to do with those high ledges in the main chamber, or the two golden doors in the corner, which makes it all the more satisfying when you actually do stumble upon said locations.

I'd also like to just mention that diving the entire way down the honeycomb and seeing all of the previously-explored rooms flash by is satisfying in a way that few other things in this series are. So kudos to whoever decided to add that little touch, because it's awesome.

Rating - 9/10


(Interestingly, this level feels significantly better than Return to Egypt or Temple of the Cat, yet I'm only giving it one score higher. I'm thinking that my rating scale is slightly askew, but oh well, too late to fix it after 18 reviews. )
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Old 12-03-19, 02:18   #239
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Brilliantly written review! But if you did not found any flaws, why did you give it a nine?

Philip Campbell, the designer of the gold levels, said this about Atlantean Stronghold:
The central "pyramid" area of the Atlantian city I built has two additional design requirements (additional to the basic necessity of providing good gameplay, and being interesting visually). These additional requirements were maximum visibility of what lay ahead, and a logical sequence of built architecture. The player could see the exact structure through many levels of building, and through many layers of gameplay. This gave the player a chance to feel clever (always a good thing), by understanding the structure and exactly where they had to go. I canít stress enough my dislike for hidden switches placed randomly in structureless, and meaningless architecture. Donít do it! Unless you mean to do it! Here, in Atlantis, the players could make intelligent decisions about the direction she had to go, and get a hint of what she might face - the placement of another Centaur in the depths of the structure provide an early view of an enemy who "Couldnít wait to meet you", the question was "When?!".
Source: Campbell, P. (2000). Designing Tomb Raider. In Tomb Raider Level Editor: Manual & Tutorial (pp. 56-60).

See also this answer that Philip Campbell gave to Theresa Jenne, owner of the site (now dead) tombraiders.com:
Why is it possible to end the game too early by jumping into the black hole from the cliff or jumping into the hole from the small pyramid? Is this an expert player curve ball?

Well.....At the time I designed this there was a web site called Tomb Racer, in which people sent in finishing times for various levels - we knew the persistent player could get into the hole, so we wanted to create some SHOCK times for the racers amongst you! Doesn't make the level much fun, but certainly gets you an amazing time!!!
Source: Jenne, T. Philip Campbell: Creator of Unfinished Business. Tomb Raider I Gold: Unfinished Business Walkthrough. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/200106060...ipCampbell.htm.
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Old 12-03-19, 02:52   #240
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Hi ChocolateFan! Thanks for the comments. It's been ages since I've read that Phil Campbell interview in the TRLE manual... great stuff What a talented designer. And I love his little tidbits on the TR1 Gold installment. This guy and his team put their hearts and souls into these games, and it shows.

Regarding why this level isn't a 10/10: to be honest, it's hard for me to give out perfect 10's because I feel like it should be reserved for the most absolute special gems of the series. A couple of Lost Artifact levels would fit that criteria, actually. I think Atlantean Stronghold comes extremely close, but doesn't quite hit that high mark for me personally. It's always kind of bothered me that the TRUB levels have no music triggers - of course, this makes perfect sense since TR1 PC originally didn't have them either, but it's tough for someone who grew up on the PS version to not even hear the beautiful soundtrack at any point over the four levels. Yes, it's definitely an unfair criticism since it was literally impossible for the designers to do that, but I think it has to be taken into account when assessing my absolute favorites of this series.

I also think that Atlantean Stronghold could have benefit slightly from some type of puzzle or non-conventional bit of gameplay thrown into the mix. There's a great deal of variety here and I truly appreciate that, but if I'm being SUPER nit-picky then I have to mention that there isn't anything like that here. Even Temple of the Cat satisfies this to a certain extent with its use of the "death room" midway through - that's certainly unconventional and a complete "gotcha!" moment from the designers.

But thank you for asking me about the rating, because it was very tough to not give it a 10... and I do believe it makes my Top 25 levels of the series at the very least.
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