You know, it’s games like this which remind me why I like my job, which I’m sure is an opening statement that’ll endear me to nobody. I know that getting paid to play games and write about them sounds about as gruelling as licking the back of your teeth, but anything can lose appeal given time and a sense of obligation. Getting hired to perform creative and passionate lovemaking with the finalists of a Miss America contest on a daily basis would probably be pretty sweet to begin with too, but after six months you’ll have an unavoidable sense of ennui that can only be matched in intensity by the third-degree friction burns on your genitals. Such is life.
But it’s little moments of delighted surprise like this one that help remind me that games are still supposed to be fun, which is easy to forget when you’re only thinking about publishing schedules and what jokes might put you in court for libel. And sure, there’s occasionally a cruel, vengeful glee that can come from writing poison at a game that wasted your brain cells, but that’s still dependent on you playing something crappy beforehand. Remember, you still have to get bitten by the dog before you can enjoy kicking it up the arse in return.
But this here is a really good game that I just want to rant about, partly because it has personal significance to me and partly because it’s pretty damn good. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb was a PS2 game from 2003 that actually manages to trump the first three Uncharted games in terms of quality. It might trump Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure as well, but I haven’t played that one yet, and I ain’t going to comment on the standards of games I haven’t played, not until IGN are happy to send me a monthly paycheck.
See, I played The Emperor’s Tomb back when it came out, when I was just a nine-year old kid with a big love for Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. I had all the films on VHS, I had toys based around excavating worthless plastic trinkets from blocks of clay, and I even got my own bullwhip, which I was very dismayed to learn could NOT be used to wrap around protrusions like a makeshift grappling hook. But my love for all things Indy hung around, so when I saw a few days ago that IJATET was available on Good Old Games and for less money than the average pair of underpants, I double-checked that my threadbare Y-fronts were in no danger of turning into O-fronts during the next week and promptly snapped up this classic, curious to see if it still held up after nearly a decade and a half.
To go into more detail, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is an action-adventure game by LucasArts for the PS2, one that was basically trying take back everything that Lara Croft had co-opted. A world-trekking, swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, Nazi-punching, whip-cracking adventure, in which Indiana Jones is tasked by the Chinese government to find the “Heart of the Dragon,” a mythical black pearl from the Qin dynasty that has the same kind of ancient, vaguely nebulous magic that the Ark of the Covenant would approve of. Needless to say that the Third Reich have also got an interest in having a power level of over nine thousand, so now it’s a race against time as Indy must find the key that’ll open the tomb and allow him to take the pearl himself, either before either Hitler’s goons or a villainous Chinese Triad leader can get their hands on it.
On the surface it certainly sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, and that’s probably the greatest strength of The Emperor’s Tomb – it feels like we’re playing through a hypothetical fifth movie of the franchise, a film that just never made it to the silver screen.
Oh sorry, am I supposed to say it’s the hypothetical fourth movie? I forgot, it’s impossible to refer to this series without making some silly token reference to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being crap. Yeah, welcome to Nerd Culture 101, people. Do you also want me to mention how Aquaman has useless powers, which he doesn’t, or how “Vader” is German for father, which it isn’t?
But that’s boring to dwell on when there’s tasty, tasty violence to be discussed. One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that The Emperor’s Tomb is superior to anything Uncharted could throw at you is that the combat engine is far better than the cover-based tedium that Nathan Drake seems to believe passes as a genuine gunfight. Instead, there’s something wonderfully scrappy and brutal about the way the fighting works here. The world is full of objects that can be picked up and used to clobber your way out of a situation, from a sturdy table leg to a ceremonial spear, and the always-accessible whip allows you to yank the enemy’s weapon out of their own hands for you to pinch, a technique that never fails to be impishly satisfying. And if there’s nothing solid to hit the villains with, you could always just draw your revolver or settle it with your own two fists.
It really is a testament to what a bit of careful character animation can offer to an experience. Indy fights exactly like how he should – like the underdog, using every means possible to overcome whatever forces are stacked against him, and consequently the game is all too happy for you to punch enemies in the balls or kick them when they’re lying down. Another wonderful little detail is that your hat can be knocked off your head if you’re struck in the right way, and you have to manually retrieve it yourself if you don’t want to keep looking at Doctor Jones’ PS2-era Lego man hair. There’s no mechanical reason why you need to get it and you can go on without it just fine, but the trope of retrieving his Fedora after a dangerous escape or fight sequence is such a staple of the series that it’s wonderful to see it become an organic part of the world.
The whole game is careful to keep the movies’ jubilant tone throughout, right to the point where you could understandably accuse it of perhaps not being as creative as it could’ve been. Every level practically has an equivalent moment in the films that you can draw a direct link to, and not just because the game is doing the classic scene transition of drawing red lines on a sepia-tone atlas. You start the story off in a trap-filled jungle temple a la Raiders, then there’s a scene with a rain-soaked Nazi castle straight from The Last Crusade, followed swiftly by some more Raiders when Herr Jackboot brings us to a bustling market city in the desert, then we go stealing from the Temple of Doom for a skirmish in a Chinese city, before we finally bounce back to Raiders one more time for an assault on the secret island base in a Nazi uniform, and we’re not even in act three of the story yet.
I’ll also say that the voice acting is a little dubious. Late actor David Esch has the unenviably tricky task of trying to recreate Harrison Ford’s dry monotone, and I’ll confess that he did a good enough job to make me wonder at first whether it really might be Han Solo in the driver’s seat. But the big problem is that he can’t keep the tone convincing whenever he has to show genuine panic or surprise. Indy’s disinterested cry of “whoa” when a giant crocodile shows up is about as convincing as two children in a tall coat, and the other voice actors can only aspire to that level. The chap playing Von Beck (the one-eyed, blonde-haired, scar-faced, monologuing leader of the Nazis, totes serious) is clearly putting more ham in his performance than the average ploughman’s lunch, a fact made all the more startling by the knowledge that the fella has been in cultural landmarks like Frozen, 24, Lost, and one of my favourite animated shows, The Critic. Though considering he played a European stereotype in that show too, maybe it’s not too hard to see the connection.
But I can’t stay pissy at the voice acting for too long, because I’m still riding the high that comes with hearing a faithful adaptation of the original John Williams Raiders’ March over the top of some daring action sequence. I’d leap out of cover, gunning down goons before bringing out the bullwhip and knocking back an enemy with a vicious sting of woven leather. Then before you could say “it belongs in a museum,” I’d snare Fritz’s back-up goon with a swing of said whip and yank him in close for a solid punch to the jaw, cutting off his yells of “schnell, schell, die amerikaner,” and all the while grinning as the theme music bombastically pays tribute. It’s so enthralling that you want to punch the air and just shout out the words “hell, yeah!”
But those are moments for combat, and smacking around the Hitler Youth is only half the game, and the other half is puzzles, traps and platforming. And I’ll even give credit to some of the puzzle design, it does have clever elements involved – at least when it’s not cartoonishly easy to decipher. The early stages of the game really do treat you like an idiot, going into a cutscene whenever you enter a new location and having the camera carefully pan over to the solution before you even know that a puzzle is coming up in the first place. With retrospect I’m a little disappointed not see some equivalent of the third movie’s Grail Diary popping up to play around with (another thing that Uncharted and Tomb Raider pinched from the series), but instead we do have competent, though generally unremarkable puzzles that don’t stick with you for very long, connected by climbing around and the occasional secret item hidden behind a waterfall, because there is ALWAYS a secret item hidden behind a waterfall in video games.
I actually managed to beat The Emperor’s Tomb within a couple of days, and this surprised me, eventually coming across as both longer and shorter than I thought. Like I said, the game is choc-a-block-full of colourful locations and backdrops, taking every opportunity it can to yank us to a new location halfway across the globe, but I’ll confess that you’ve had all your A-Grade material once you get past the section at Nazi headquarters. That’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s still twenty-five percent of the campaign to go. It’s not bad, by any means, it’s just… Lesser.
Frankly, it’s hard to say why it loses steam after that point. Perhaps it’s because Indy gets a weird spinning blade weapon that makes combat less interesting than just slugging dudes. Perhaps it’s because the environments become more enclosed and claustrophobic after that, consequently losing all the wanderlust and majesty you’d hope for in a world-trekking game. Actually, it might just be that the checkpoint system and camera controls are both clearly in league with the Krauts and out to get you, and the last act of the game won’t let you forget it.
I’m not kidding here when I say that this might be the biggest failing of the game overall, something that takes The Emperor’s Tomb down from true greatness to just being really solid. I’d punch my way through a horde of Chinese ghost zombies, swing across a ravine full of hungry crocodiles, duck and weave between the jets of fire shooting out of the walls, at which point the camera would suddenly lurch awkwardly as I tried to do a precision jump between pillars, leaving me suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. One stream of profanity and a respawn screen later, and I’d find myself back at the entrance of the dungeon with the last fifteen minutes of progress lost to time.
But I suppose it is good for building tension and the desperate urge not to get killed. Trying to out-swim giant crocodiles has honestly never been so nerve-wracking when any of them could appear at any time to go all Lake Placid on your ass, coming with the terrifying knowledge that a couple of errors on your behalf could lose you progress equal to an episode of Frasier. And speaking of which, that Kraken in Istanbul can go and shove a trident up its bum (or whatever else it’s got instead), what with the way it constantly shoots jellyfish minions at you and scores an instant kill if you get in the same postcode as one of its tendrils, but you still need to get close to plant explosives that’ll turn him into calamari, yet the explosives always have more of a range on them than you’d think and can kill you weirdly easily and RAAAAAAAAAAAARRGH DAMN IT.
The more I think about this game, the more I wonder why I like it so much. It certainly has things that are wrong with it – I haven’t even gone into the rail-shooter sequence on the rickshaw – but I think the errors only gall me so much because they distract from the core gameplay, which certainly kicks ass and does so in a series of attractive settings, all backed up by a rocking soundtrack. I guess if I was pushed for one more comment I’d admit that the graphics weren’t especially impressive, even back for 2003, but if you’re willing to shell out on a game that’s nearly fifteen years old then you’re probably not expecting something that’ll tax your computer hardware for that perfect photorealism.
But the other thing that I like about Indiana Jones is that the titular character is still pretty unique, even to this day. Yeah, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake stole the basic idea of looting artefacts for themselves, leaning harder on tiger-fighting and nineties snark respectively, but Indy was always something a bit different than that: a lovable grouch with understandable motives. He’s a little bit cynical and a little bit sceptical, rolling his eyes at every amateur who passes his way and that inevitably gets killed by their own ignorance. Yet at the same time he’s always filled with childish glee at every new discovery and piece of history that unfurls before him, exactly the kind of contradictory character you’d expect from a man who spends half his time in a University library and the other half trying to disable ancient Aztec home security systems.
It’s obvious that I’m going to finish by recommending this game, but I’ll also make an impassioned plea to whatever Disney-brand Overlords that now keep LucasArts as one of their many hoarded trophies, displayed on some mahogany plaque just before Marvel movies and the Muppets. You guys like money, right? Of course you do, that’s why you keep making live-action adaptions of your old movies that do the fashionable post-modern thing of pissing all over the originals. Well, if you want money, make a new Indiana Jones game, a really good one. Not an adaptation of the old films, we’ve seen those before and they already exist via the Lego games. No, make a bouncy, rollicking jamboree of an adventure that could fit anywhere in the original trilogy, where Indy has to punch villains, escape traps, grab treasure and make an exciting escape at the end of it all. The name brand will get you a whole heap of sales to begin with, and the formula does work on both a narrative and gameplay level.
Think about, is all I’m saying. Iron Man has to run out of marketable new suit designs eventually, right?
A legitimate lost treasure whose strengths have held up very well over time, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is a curious time capsule that pushes past its flaws by doing exactly what you’d want it to do – feel like an Indiana Jones film. Combat is punchy (pun not intended), puzzles are decent and hearing the whip-crack echo out over the Raider’s March is still a nostalgia trip to rival any globe-trotting adventurer.