Hardware limitations aside, this couldn't have turned out any better.
Tomb Raider was having a rough time until a few years back when Crystal Dynamics (best known for their Legacy of Kain series) took over and rebooted the entire franchise with Tomb Raider: Legend. Although it had its faults, Legend was the start of something great—a rebirth of the traditional platformer in which you didn’t hop around the environment as much as clamber around on it, all the while solving wonderfully thought-out puzzles based on a realistic physics system. The series has continued with Anniversary and, now, Underworld. If you haven’t at least tried these games yet, you should, because they’re awesome. And I can’t recommend Underworld highly enough, no matter which system you have—and that includes the DS!
On the DS, Underworld is a 2D side-scroller, but it features all the environmental challenges you’d find on its bigger cousins. In fact, Lara’s move set is almost as vast, and allows her to tackle a wide range of difficulties. She can shimmy across ledges; vault up from a hanging position; grapple across gaps; climb ropes, ladders, and rocky walls; and look good while wielding a wide range of guns. All of these movements are beautifully animated and easy to pull off. There will rarely be a time when you don’t know what to do next.
Although Underworld is a side-scroller, the entire game is rendered in 3D. All of the character models and environments run on a surprisingly powerful engine. Even most of the pickup items are polygonal models. And there is never any slowdown! But what really flabbergasts me are the wonderfully smooth animations. Lara herself looks just as agile and flowing as her console counterpart. She struggles to find handholds, quickly moves across ledges as her legs dangle back and forth, and uses a breaststroke kick underwater. This is really first-rate 3D on the DS. There is a cost here, however. Unlike the console games, Lara does not traverse enormous, uninterrupted worlds. Rather, the game is broken into levels, each level is broken up into many stages, and each stage has a considerable load time. The loading screens have load screens. It’s nothing game-breaking, but it quickly becomes noticeable. However, this DS game features almost all of the cinematic sequences from the console games, which is awesome. They are lower resolution, sure, and the voice quality is a bit compromised, but fitting them onto a DS card is an achievement in itself.
The developers even figured out a way to use the DS system's unique features without them feeling shoehorned. In almost every stage you can find a treasure chest. To open the chest, you must slide Tetris-shaped blocks around to fit an empty space. This puzzle is a welcome change from the jumping and shimmying of the main game, and gives your brain a little workout in the process. Opening a chest successfully nets you a piece of concept art. Additionally, certain tasks require the use of the touch screen and microphone to blow dust off an ancient rune, chisel away hardened rock, or configure a Mayan calendar. While you're working on the touch screen, the top screen shows what Lara is doing. When you blow into the mic, she bends over and blows onto the rune. This attention to detail is fantastic, and helps make Underworld on the DS a must-try. There’s even Rumble Pak support, recommended for those who have the peripheral.
My only complaints are minor. First off, the game is really dark. I mean, really dark. For best results, I recommend turning the DS Lite’s brightness to its highest, and most battery-draining, setting. Second, the mini-game instructions don’t always tell you when you must drag something away with the stylus after blowing off the dust. When in doubt, drag something. Third, and this is a problem I have with the console games, too, the combat is fairly mindless. Winning is just a matter of locking on to the enemy and holding down the fire button while jumping to avoid being eaten or shot. Even when Lara is wielding her supposedly best weapon, combat is still unwelcome. Happily, combat is not an enormous component of the game. It probably boils down to 80% platforming, 10% puzzle solving (not including treasure chests), and 10% combat.
The game does not last very long. In fact, I was able to play through the entire thing and find all the treasure chests and relics (which unlock more concept art) hidden in each stage during a six-hour plane ride. I only had difficulties with a single treasure puzzle, and only one relic escaped my immediate grasp. Of course, you can replay a stage at any time, so that relic was found mere minutes later.
I wish there were other unlockables besides concept art (another problem shared with the console games), but at the end of the day, Tomb Raider: Underworld on the DS is a great game that any DS owner would be silly not to at least try.