Spooky Season is upon us once more! And to celebrate it, I’d like to talk about the most terrifying levels and places from the Tomb Raider Survivor Trilogy.** From heart-stopping jump scares to supernatural demons, from rancid pools of blood to claustrophobic underwater passageways, the Tomb Raider games have always found creative ways to scare the living daylights out of us and this trilogy was no exception.
Here are my picks for the 10 most terrifying levels from Tomb Raider (2013), Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, listed in the approximate order of their appearance!
1) Mountain Temple
Escaping the scavenger’s den and fending off ravenous wolves was tough enough. But in my opinion, the first really horrifying section of Tomb Raider (2013) was the Mountain Temple, where a bound and unarmed Lara needs to evade her captors or risk being shot on sight. Staying hidden is nerve-wracking enough but being spotted and assaulted by a Solarii cult member makes this part of the game all the more harrowing, especially for female gamers.
Granted, failure to fend off the man will only lead to Lara being choked to death or shot in the head, but this wasn’t immediately clear to those who watched the game’s “Crossroads” trailer back in 2012. Fans were justifiably alarmed when this early trailer focused on what looked like an attempted sexual assault. The backlash was so severe that Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher had to reassure fans that “sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme” that would be covered in the game.
2) Mountain Descent
Perhaps less terrifying than it is stressful, Lara’s descent from the mountain is guaranteed to get your adrenaline churning. Lara almost makes it across the raging river only to be swept away into the whitewater rapids, where she must dodge deadly debris and trees and eventually parachute to safety.
Failure to dodge the many obstacles in her path will result in some of the most gruesome death sequences this game series has to offer. And I don’t know about you but I think there’s something deeply unsettling about watching Lara claw away at the metal pole that’s pierced through her neck.
3) Geothermal Caverns
Rivers of blood, piles upon piles of decaying body parts, toxic gas, cackling cannibals running loose, and an overwhelming sense of dread and despair. Yes, the Geothermal Caverns are quite possibly the inner circles of Hell and easily one of the most terrifying levels of any Tomb Raider game. It’s not hard to see why many of those trapped within this fetid pit are driven to insanity.
And if the dismembered limbs and cannibalism aren’t enough to chill you to your core, just wait till you hear what the prisoners have to say about their experiences on the island. If you linger near the cages, one of the prisoners will recount how he and his wife and two daughters had been shipwrecked on the island one night. He goes on to say that the three women were killed while he was tossed into the pit and left to rot in there, though he takes solace in the thought of joining his loved ones in Heaven very soon. Lara would later find some of this poor family’s personal belongings on Shipwreck Beach.
4) Chamber of Exorcism
Perhaps one of the more obscure entries on this list, the Chamber of Exorcism is a challenge tomb guarded by a large bear living among the ruins of Kitezh. The chamber can be reached via a geothermal cavern deep under the Lost City, one rocked by tremors and dotted with vents spewing noxious, flammable gases.
The chamber itself is rather unwelcoming but the real fear factor lies in the murals and documents found within the chamber. These explain how the priests of Kitezh would use this subterranean gas-filled chamber to perform exorcisms on those suffering from mental illness. The afflicted would be locked up in hanging cages as the priests attempted to “drive out the demons”. This treatment was less than successful and some of these “poor wretches” would end up dying in the process. In fact, you can see one of the less fortunate patients still trapped inside their cage centuries later.
5) The Wicked Vale
One of the eeriest places seen in recent Tomb Raider history is the Wicked Vale, which featured prominently in the DLC story Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch. The Vale is home to flowers with hallucinogenic pollen and Lara quickly succumbs to the pollen’s effects. The walls begin to move, sounds become disorienting echoes, and Lara begins to have visions of her dead father as the witch goads her on. There’s even a jump scare or two for good measure.
The game’s core storyline had less of an overt horror tone than the 2013 game did, so writer and narrative designer Cameron Suey tried to find creative ways to incorporate his love for horror and the supernatural into the game’s DLC expansions. And his love for the genre certainly shows; Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch turned out to be an intoxicating blend of Slavic folklore and Lovecraftian horror with a Tomb Raider twist.
6) Lara’s Nightmare
Croft Manor looked a little worse for wear in Rise of the Tomb Raider but the stately home looked extra sinister in the expedition mode Lara’s Nightmare. What’s more, Lara’s unlikeable uncle Atlas de Mornay put a curse on the manor, sending waves of undead creatures after Lara in a last-ditch effort to drive her out. His rage ends up manifesting as a giant Master Skull floating in the lobby.
Running around the abandoned manor at night time is hair-raising enough without having to fend off hordes of zombies and floating skulls. Not to mention the challenges of melee and weapons combat in the manor’s narrow corridors and cellar. To make things even more taxing, you only have one life. So if you die, you can’t just pick up where you left off or rely on checkpoints to save your progress. You’ll need to go back to the beginning and try again.
7) Cold Darkness Awakened
Rise of the Tomb Raider may lack some of the horror elements that made the 2013 game and Shadow of the Tomb Raider popular with the horror-survival crowd but as this list shows, its DLC offerings more than made up for it. In Cold Darkness Awakened, Lara must work together with Nadia and Sofia to infiltrate an abandoned weapons research facility and stop a gas cloud that can transform men into bloodthirsty killers from reaching the Remnants’ base.
The night-time setting helps set the mood, with Lara relying mostly on the light from her flashlight to get her bearings. The real tension, however, comes from the gameplay itself. Lara must sneak around to avoid being detected by the infected Trinity soldiers. The gas has affected their eyesight but heightened their senses of hearing, so make a sound and you risk being mobbed by a wave of crazed killers. And if you’re as allergic to stealth missions as I am, this DLC will be a nightmare to get through!
8) The Flooded Ruins
Remember those pesky piranhas from Tomb Raider III? Well, these carnivorous fish are back and they can be found patrolling certain underwater spaces in and around Paititi. Your first encounter with them in Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be in the Flooded Ruins of Kuwaq Yaku.
This section of Kuwaq Yaku offers a double whammy of fear: the fear of drowning if you fail to locate an air pocket in time and the fear of being detected and eaten by a school of piranhas. Granted, this section isn’t particularly hard to navigate and you can learn to time your movements to perfection, but that doesn’t make the first visit to these ruins any less intimidating.
9) The Cenote
Would you like a dimly-lit level that’s claustrophobic as hell and decorated with skeletal remains and creepy effigies? How about some head-scratching puzzles, underwater passageways, green mist, explosive orbs, and jump scares at every turn? You’ve got it! That’s the Cenote, one of Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s most memorable and hellish locations. This is the lair of the Yaaxil, whose hideous visages and bloodcurdling screeches are the stuff of nightmares.
A Tomb Raider setting that’s not for the faint-hearted, the Cenote has rightfully earned its reputation as one of the franchise’s most anxiety-inducing levels. Lara eventually teams up with the Yaaxil and their leader Crimson Fire to end the Cleansing and restore the sun, but you don’t quickly forget how these supernatural guardians made you jump out of your skin.
10) The Nightmare
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Lara’s nightmares play out on our screens (see entry #6) but her hallucinogen-induced vision quest is full of fun Easter eggs and call-backs for fans of the Survivor Trilogy games. Lara’s own “Path of Fear” is paved with familiar faces and worn out places that try to help her come to terms with some uncomfortable truths. The ghosts of Lara’s past return to haunt her in a sinister facsimile of Croft Manor. Her mother admonishes her, the White Queen and knights taunt her, and she watches her family fall apart.
Lara’s nightmare continues underwater, where she must push past dozens, possibly hundreds, of corpses, to reach the surface and she is almost drowned by her treacherous stepmother Ana. This is followed by an intense shootout, a tour of the aftermath of the Cozumel tsunami, and a frantic search for Jonah, who has been buried alive in the Croft Manor cemetery. Finally, Lara comes face to face with a shadowy version of herself who blames her for the death and destruction of everyone and everything around her. Talk about a trippy way to wrestle with your inner demons.
There were two hair-raising encounters that almost made the list. The first was the wolf attack from Tomb Raider (2013). The masterful sound design – the rustling bushes, the cawing crows, Lara’s panicked breathing – heightens the tension while you wait for three hungry wolves to lunge at your jugular.
And the second is the Tree of Life challenge tomb from Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The toxic gas vents, the eerie ambient music, and the screeching Yaaxil that ambush you as you climb up the tree are more than enough to set your pulse racing.
So, those were my picks for the most terrifying levels from the Tomb Raider Survivor Trilogy. Which sections made you recoil in horror? Are there any challenge tombs or explorable areas that chill you to your core?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!
**The Survivor Trilogy games don’t have linear levels per se, so for the sake of this list, I have treated each area of those games as a separate level. The same goes for the games’ DLC content and challenge tombs.