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Old 17-10-21, 17:59   #1
sheepman23
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Default Why The Lost Artifact is the BEST TR Game

10 years ago, I was 16 years old and had grown attached to the classic games throughout my childhood. I reveled in their style of freedom that let me, as a player, explore the world presented. Rarely was there an out-of-reach ledge that was placed arbitrarily, or an invisible wall that prevented me from fully being immersed in the environment. The abilities of our heroine worked consistently - this meant that if a ledge was 15 feet away and grabbable by a running jump, it always would be on subsequent attempts with different gaps. But most importantly, I got to explore the world with Lara at my side. As a young gay guy who didn't quite understand that at the time, this was a big deal, as Lara became a sort of relatable avatar for me to express my love for adventuring with a bold, badass, and heroic figure.

Enter The Lost Artifact. Here I am, thinking that I've squeezed out and enjoyed every ounce of the classic TR series that I could... only to realize that I've been missing out on some PC-exclusive adventures this whole time! It didn't take long to purchase TR2 Gold and enjoy that. Shortly after, I took to eBay looking for the esteemed TR3 expansion - and was lucky enough to find one. When I received the disc, I was absolutely ecstatic, and remember sitting down for the next two days to revel in what I would ultimately identify as the best Tomb Raider game of the entire series.

That's a bold claim, and especially bold for one that's only 6 levels long. It's easy to bottle great design into a small package, right? What could be so special about that compared to the iconic Tomb Raider II, or the expansion's own big brother game? Well, it's all in the details, and I'm ready to take you down that journey for me.



A Masterpiece of Design

In the opening moments of The Lost Artifact, the game intentionally doesn't reveal its expansiveness. The player goes through a short couple of chambers that involve basic climbing, monkey swinging, and swimming to navigate their way to the meat and potatoes of Level 1 - the Scottish castle overlooking the sea. As the camera pans back while Lara is getting carried downstream, the designers slowly reveal their hand as the banks get wider, the ruins get more prominent, and a couple of bridges come into view. It isn't until the player finds their way to the top of the main bridge that they suddenly are walloped in the face with the amount of options presented to explore this environment.

As a starter level, Highland Fling is not just great - it's excellent. It immediately sets the precedent that The Lost Artifact is going to give its player the freedom to breathe, explore at their own pace, and look for hidden treasures. Some of those treasures are immediately obvious to the player with a keen eye; a quick scan of nearby rocks reveals the Uzis on a seemingly unreachable bank of the river, and another pile of ammo closer to the area where we entered. And that's just what's visible right off the bat. Because the game already has told us that the reddish vines are climbable, the player can look over at the side of the castle and understand that more lies up above.

Not every level contains a hub-like area such as this, but all of them do offer choices and other means of straying from the beaten path to discover more goodies. In Willard's Lair, the second Scottish level, there is a detour about midway through the descent into the catacombs where the player can opt to go through a gauntlet with a telling sign: "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE." And in Sleeping With the Fishes, it's probably possible to run through this level in like 5 minutes or so, IF the player is only interested in beating feat to the exit. But the number of underwater caverns that are teeming with alcoves, scuba diver encounters, and dolphins is impressive. We'll touch on the spirit of secrets and rewards later on in this review, but for the purposes of understanding why The Lost Artifact contains such masterful design, it's important to note that it actively entices the player to go off the beaten path.

The most iconic "hub area" of the game, other than Highland Fling, is definitely the catastrophic train pit in Shakespeare Cliff. While the level entrance artwork hints at this place, a series of quad bike leaps over yawning chasms cleverly sets the player up to peer down into the chasm upon entering a much larger subterranean cavern. The eerie music kicks in as you step on to the edge of a partially-hanging train car and look down into a pit to have stomach butterflies that rival St. Francis Folly's tower! It's a really cool moment, and a great setup to the journey down into this pit.



Speaking of St. Francis Folly... the concept of hubs isn't new to the Tomb Raider series, and it's not really fair to say that Phil Campbell is the first designer to truly excel at this concept. Tomb Raider III itself has a few iconic levels like Crash Site, Aldwych, and Nevada Desert that take on similar tasks to great effect. But I suppose what really separates The Lost Artifact in this case is the incredible payoff of exploring every nook and cranny. Whether it's a hidden glen in the Scottish castles, a sunken U-boat, or even something as simple as an old locomotive car right next to a rocket launcher, there are RARELY times where you don't feel satisfied after going out of your way to collect items and look around as much as possible.

In areas that aren't as hub-oriented - such as the gauntlet halls of Willard's Lair or the claustrophobic tunnels of Sleeping With the Fishes - the design is still tight and concise and lends itself well to not throwing "gotcha!" moments at the player, a common criticism I have with Tomb Raider III. Willard's Lair is perhaps the best example of this. With the exception of the boulder cave, which is probably the weakest moment of the entire game for me - sorry, I just don't like proximity traps that have no rhyme or reason - the level design allows us to zone in on the tasks at hand and focus on, well, not dying. Through use of foreshadowing and camera angles, the game rarely springs danger on us that feels cheap and unexpected. In Willard's Lair, we escape a spiked wall, a boulder, and a spike pit all within the first 15 seconds, and every piece of this trap is telegraphed for us at least a few seconds before we HAVE to do something to avoid it. Moments later, we can potentially get skewered by a wall trap, but at this point, it's arguable that the player SHOULD be on high alert anyway, as they know they're in a death trap. Willard's Lair gets progressively tougher as we journey on, and contains one of the hardest sequences in any classic TR game inside of the deadly dungeon area. But it all feels earned and never sprung on us unexpectedly, which goes a LONG way to gaining the trust of your player.

The game also does an exceptional job of telling us a story and foreshadowing bad things through its use of textures, camera angles, and musical cues, but all three of these topics will be covered later on in their own dedicated pieces of this review, because it's all that good.



I can't possibly finish boasting about The Lost Artifact's design without mentioning It's a Madhouse!, however. The classic TR engine's graphic capabilities have never been the star of the show, but despite this, Phil Campbell and his team prove that aesthetic beauty is entirely possible through low-pixel environments. The French inspiration of this level's architecture is incredibly obvious and not lost at all in graphical translation; from the textures that are custom created for this game to spell out the names of French exhibits and shops to the AMAZING color palette throughout, it's really hard not to just stand and look around at the beautiful views of this level. When we talk about design, It's a Madhouse! is one of the levels of the game that actually goes much lighter on the player in terms of extensive puzzles, maddening traps, or expansive hubs. But it still thoughtfully and convincingly weaves together a zoo, and constantly wets the player's tongue with views of future areas. And with scenery as gorgeous as this level's, how can players NOT want to explore?

By the way - pretty much every level in this game has multiple moments where it gives a view of a future location, future enemy, or future trap, and pulls a Palace Midas where we eventually wind up in that area. Both Willard's Lair and Sleeping With the Fishes start with a random shot of a future level secret, and then immediately cut back to the situation Lara is in. Then when you run into said area later on, you get that "aha!" moment from the earlier vision.

Five levels in, The Lost Artifact has proven time and time again that it's going to reward its explorers for checking every nook and cranny, and that's one of the reasons why it's so brilliantly successful in being a Tomb Raider game.

ACTUAL Secrets Galore

In Sleeping With the Fishes, a random side trek through an underwater passage leads to a pickup of shotgun shells in the middle of a passage. Moments later, a tumultuous camera angle and musical cue show us that a submarine is charging down the tunnel, headed right for us. Should Lara get out of the way before she can become submerged toast, looking at the area where the submarine ran into reveals a newly-emerged cavern. Inside of this cavern is a sunken U-boat; a relic of World War II, lost down here in a completely unrelated area teeming with Sophia Leigh's experiments and that mysterious green goo. From a purely mechanic point of view, the secret here is the Desert Eagle and ammo; from an experience point of view, the real secret is the find of this U-boat.





While the title for "Best Tomb Raider Game" is probably up for debate, I genuinely think that The Lost Artifact objectively has the best secrets in the series. And to be honest, it's not even close. In fact, the only game that actually could hold a candle to it is TR2's The Golden Mask expansion, which already hinted at the Gold team's knack for secrets that are really off the beaten path. TR3's expansion kicks this into overdrive with what are some of my absolute favorite moments of the series.

Throughout Highland Fling, the designers give us several distance shots of Nessie, scrolling by the 2-D landscape wall in her pixelated fashion. It honestly gave me a huge laugh the first time I saw it, as it looked PRETTY unconvincing against the rest of the 3D environment. But it still served the purpose of foreshadowing and telling us a story, and I love that kind of stuff. Furthermore, the payoff of all of these Loch Ness Monster shots is encapsulated in the third and final secret of the level, which starts off with a chime as you enter an unsuspecting underground cave. At this point, the player expects "Okay cool, I'll swim around in the water here to pick up some goodies and find my way out of here." What they instead get is the reveal that Nessie is being mechanically operated by Willard's crew! And a quick brush with death against the fire-breathing monstrosity of her mechanical self. Lol.

Of course, the "reveal" of Nessie is already likely spoiled by this point, as it's possible to actual see her ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING form in the quicksand mire right before the cavern. However, telling the story of why The Loch Ness Monster is a fake is the real secret here, and it's incredibly satisfying.

Every level of the game - with the exception of Reunion - does this with either its 2nd or 3rd secret. In Shakespeare Cliff, a conspicuous card labeled "Pump Access Disk" encourages you to venture back up to the top of the chasm and flood the entire damn thing. While that feat in and of itself is PRETTY COOL, the real meat and potatoes of this secret comes when you instead find yourself battling prehistoric pterodactyls inside of a time capsule of a subterranean chamber. It's quirky, it's weird, and it's fantastically memorable. It's a Madhouse's first secret is a street where a red car moves quickly down the lane; upon investigation, there's no one in the car or outside of it, and looking down to the beach below reveals a number of malformed lizard-like creatures, which you won't get to until the level's third secret.





But my absolute favorite secret has to be the hidden glen of Willard's Lair. It's not easy to gain access to - the Cairn Key's receptacle is EXTREMELY difficult to spot - but the reward of finding this beautiful valley, hearing the "No Waiting Around" track begin playing, and laying waste to a bunch of vicious highlanders while picking up loads of Uzi ammo lying around is satisfying in a way that I can't articulate enough. Something about that damn music piece makes me want to absolutely go murder some fools, and the combination of scenery, threats, music, and rewards combines together to create an amazing conclusion to the Scottish levels.

Even the secrets of the game that aren't "big" per se are still head-and-shoulders above the experience we usually get with secrets in the main games. The very first one of Sleeping With the Fishes lets us play with dolphins for a few moments, and bypass an entire ocean set piece. Shakespeare Cliff, as previously mentioned, has an entire locomotive just sitting in a cavern with the rocket launcher. (My research has found that this is the historic Stephenson's Rocket, one of the first steam locomotives ever built. What a cool easter egg!)

The Lost Artifact expertly utilizes the secret mechanic to help tell side stories in the midst of your adventure, all without the use of cutscenes or anything beyond the cues we get in the environment.

An Understandable Story in 6 Levels?!

To be honest, it's not surprising to me after TR1 Gold and TR2 Gold that Phil Campbell's team is able to create a well-designed game with satisfying secrets and gameplay, because they've already done that. What IS surprising to me is that The Lost Artifact goes above and beyond the call of duty by creating a very tangible story without the use of cutscenes, FMVs, or even voice overs, and it does it through a few different avenues.



Without access to resources for cutscenes, the Gold team resorts to the level loading screens as a means of conveying information. For the most part, this is done quite expertly throughout the first three levels of the game. The introduction to Highland Fling shows that Lara is searching for the mysterious 5th artifact - the Hand of Rathmore - and has pieced through Willard's personal effects to find its resting place, which is apparently in an old Scottish castle. Likewise, the Willard's Lair entrance sets the precedent that this artifact should be located in a secret vault deep within the recesses of the castle, so when Lara actually uncovers an empty chamber later on, it raises a massive red flag that SOMEONE stole it! Finally, Shakespeare Cliff, shows Lara comparing the sample of mutagen goo from Willard's Lair to the weird stuff that she's already found in Scotland, which prompts a visit to the Chunnel.

But loading screens aren't the only thing helping here. As mentioned, the goo that we find spread across every level of the game is connected to the overarching returning baddie, Miss Sophia Leigh. She's using this mutagen goo to create undead foot soldiers in the form of crocodilian mutants, lizard mutants, and heartless brutes that serve her in the French catacombs. While the bits and pieces of why she needs this army is unclear, it's REALLY hard to ask for more when the game does such a great job of creating a bread crumb trail of hints here. My favorite moment of the story is undoubtedly the final laboratory of Sleeping With the Fishes, where it's revealed that the crocodilian creatures we fought are actually humans! "The Puzzle Element" track kicks in as we see the tanks containing partially-human-partially-fish abominations, and then countless dead bodies in the cage chamber. It's a well-earned moment that makes the future monstrosities of the remaining two levels all the more reasonable.

While Sophia Leigh's end goals aren't entirely clear, the journey we go on towards discovering what she's doing with The Hand of Rathmore - which presumably produces this green goo - is very fun, and culminates in a memorable boss battle in Reunion. As far as the game's levels go, Reunion is actually probably the weakest of the bunch by nature of being a boss battle, but the level of quality is still incredibly high in the attention to detail of this environment and the definitively creepy vibe we get from the place. The ascent up the catacombs as Sophia shoots bolts from her Hand of Rathmore staff, all while dodging various traps and ambushes from the heartless minions is intense.



Of course, the expert telling of the story extends to the various side plots that were mentioned earlier when we talked about secrets. In Willard's Lair, the gauntlet of spiked ceilings is accompanied by textures containing several check marks on a wall, which seem to point to the grim fate of several adventurers - or, perhaps prisoners - who were trapped in this area. In It's a Madhouse!, the moving red car at the beginning of the level indicates that someone (presumably Sophia) is moving around here and letting animals loose, which intensifies the idea of a chase sequence as we get closer and closer to the adventure's end. Shakespeare Cliff and Sleeping With the Fishes also do some pretty awesome foreshadowing of the overarching baddie through references to "SLinc", the company who is doing some excavating down here. I love little touches like this, and they go a ridiculously long way in enhancing the story with what minimal tools the game has to tell it.

Of course, telling the story through use of textures, loading screens, and combat encounters is only one part of why The Lost Artifact is so successful. The other side of this coin is the phenomenal music track placement and cinematography...

A Camera Angle Worth a Thousand Words

Let's imagine for a moment that Tomb Raider games consisted of only Lara's POV with no music tracks - just the ambiance and our own perceptive abilities. At first, this doesn't seem like a big deal, as it still tells the story and shows the brilliant environments in the way that we would absorb them as Lara. But the problem with this is that video games are inherently designed to be a cross between virtual reality and movie aesthetic. You're in control of the character, but you're ultimately playing the game to have a rich experience, and to hopefully squeeze every drop of info and lore out of the main plots that you can.

In Sanctuary of the Scion from Tomb Raider, the sheer scale of the subterranean sphinx isn't immediately felt, but is hinted at through the mysterious and discovery-oriented music piece that begins playing. As you walk around the side of the sphinx and get in front of it, the music swells, and the camera angle pulls back to the wide shot to show the little blip of Lara right next to this gargantuan structure. This wallops the player with the scale of this thing, and the expanses of the chamber. It's an iconic TR moment.

The Lost Artifact's team takes the tools in its box, and recognizes that movie-esque moments can be created with what they have. If something is supposed to evoke fear for the player, there is almost always a camera angle showing the source of the danger and an accompanying tense sound effect to spell that out for us. If mystery or awe is in order, we usually get a longer piece of music to soak in as we continue exploration - and sometimes a wider camera shot to show the expanse of an area, if needed. And if foreshadowing is needed, there are TONS of times where the designers will just place a camera angle giving us the information we need with few qualms about it. This is done very blatantly with the aforementioned Pump Access Disk of Shakespeare's Cliff; the level exit is literally right down the hallway from it, but the designers dangle the carrot in front of your nose by showing a shot of the upstairs bathrooms. Hmm, clearly there's no reason they'd want us to go there, right?





One of my favorite combat encounters of the entire game is in Reunion, the final level. Halfway up the catacombs while dodging Sophia's bolts of energy, we run into a room of relative safety - only to immediately get one of TR3's more thrilling music tracks thrown at us, and a view from the opposite side of the room showing four heartless brutes running away from the camera, right towards Lara. Without these two elements, this bit wouldn't have packed the same punch - we've already fought lots of these guys and know that they're mostly pushovers, but the image of seeing four appear at once while ray bolts are shot through the doors behind you creates a sense of insecurity and genuine fear upon entry.

Other random cinematography moments that I loved:
  • In Highland Fling, there is a moment where you're ascending a quiet set of steps behind the castle, and a camera angle suddenly pans in the POV of a dog statue further up the path. When you step a few tiles in front if it, the "smoke" from the statue stops. The dog animates one tile later in spectacular fashion as the music kicks in. It's a YIKES moment for sure.
  • In Sleeping With the Fishes, there is a wide shot of the entire subterranean cavern as Lara steps up to a window inside of an air pocket. Have always loved this view.
  • In It's a Madhouse!, entry into the aviary prompts the India music theme from TR3.
  • Entering the maze with the white tigers (in the same level) prompts a wide shot of the top of the maze with the giant moon in the background as "No Waiting Around" triggers. Yep, it's about to be Uzi time.
  • In yet another It's a Madhouse moment - a level that nails the cinematography the best - standing in front of the monkey play area shows some of them rolling around with medipacks in their mouth. A very cute touch.
  • Pretty much any of the reveals of the "big" secrets have cool music moments and camera work (see: the hidden glen of Willard's Lair or the sunken U-boat of SWTF).
  • In Willard's Lair, that random tense music and shot of the highlander at the level's beginning NEVER fails to make me laugh a little bit, while also being pretty cool.

The music and camera work of The Lost Artifact is incredibly generous, and I wish we could've seen this level of cinematography and sound editing in every classic game, because I truly do think this is the only one that fully utilizes those features to the best of its ability.





In Conclusion

It was truly a joy to sit down for 4 hours and replay this game. This is the most quintessential TR experience that one can find - it expertly combines quality design, a simple yet engaging story, beautiful and varied environments, satisfying secrets, and truly outstanding cinematography and music moments into a total package. It ticks all of the boxes that I wanted out of a TR expansion, and somehow manages to do even more than I ever would have come to expect for a PC-exclusive 6-level title.

I didn't even go into the replay with the expectation that I was going to write this review... but sometimes you've got feelings about a thing, and you've got to sit down and share them with others!

What are your favorite moments of The Lost Artifact? Is there anything I'm forgetting in this review?

Thanks so much for reading!
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Old 17-10-21, 18:32   #2
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Thank you for another awesome post sheepman23. I really enjoyed The Lost Artifact too.
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Old 17-10-21, 21:31   #3
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I completely agree with everything youíve said. Phil Campbell is the best, and the secrets in LA are one of the best things ever about TR.
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Old 17-10-21, 22:20   #4
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Gotta say my personal favourite fact about TLA is that, many a sneaky players try to download the games files and use TR3s base.

This renders sophia leigh, completely immortal and the game inconpletable. The amount of streams for Reunion lasting hours, screaming "core design game breaking bug" is rather hilarious.
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Old 17-10-21, 22:54   #5
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@mizuno_suisei

I've come across ones where the SFX are all messed up since they're using the wrong files.

As for the game itself, I'd like to replay it properly but I always find myself stopping at the bridge in Highland Fling for one reason or another. I don't remember if I've ever beaten it or just skipped it because I know I've played through a couple of the other levels.
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Old 17-10-21, 23:44   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kirishima View Post
@mizuno_suisei

I've come across ones where the SFX are all messed up since they're using the wrong files.

As for the game itself, I'd like to replay it properly but I always find myself stopping at the bridge in Highland Fling for one reason or another. I don't remember if I've ever beaten it or just skipped it because I know I've played through a couple of the other levels.
Yeah this is relating to the same issue actually - people using the Main.sfx file (sound effexts) file from tr3, on TLA. all the sound slots are one or two ahead so its immediately noticable

By the way Sheepman your post is brilliant! Didnt mean to sway off topic!
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Old 18-10-21, 15:00   #7
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While I still have to actually sit and play it all from start to finish, I can already understand and agree with the majority of points listed here; in fact, I even think Phil Campbell unique way of designing Tomb Raider really got to inspire other LDs in the core classic games; he always was tried to think outside of the box, but just enough for it to feel like TR, but many times achieving better results. Of course this is also due to the fact that the main games are more "watered down", as much as I love them, many multi-leveled location expecially can suffer from that.
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Old 18-10-21, 17:31   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mizuno_suisei View Post
Gotta say my personal favourite fact about TLA is that, many a sneaky players try to download the games files and use TR3s base.

This renders sophia leigh, completely immortal and the game inconpletable. The amount of streams for Reunion lasting hours, screaming "core design game breaking bug" is rather hilarious.
To be fair, it's hard to find a copy nowadays and Square aren't exactly rushing to put it on Steam.
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Old 18-10-21, 20:32   #9
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This is such a brilliant write up of the game, thank you for sharing it sheepman The Lost Artifact is one of my personal favourite TRs and itís definitely one of the best in the series. Itís a shame we never got an expansion for TR4 because these gold editions of the games allowed the developers so much creative freedom and room to experiment with new ideas.
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Old 18-10-21, 21:23   #10
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While I wouldn't classify the game as the best, it is certainly up there. Especially Highland fling. The atmosphere in that level is unmatched.
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