Which Tomb Raider Game to Play First

Image credit: Crystal Dynamics

Tomb Raider is the action-adventure franchise that follows the iconic Lara Croft on thrilling adventures through lost cities and cursed crypts. The series has stood the test of time thanks to a compelling mix of clever puzzles, complex platforming, and acrobatic combat.

It also hasn’t hurt that its leading lady is the world’s first cyberbabe.

Despite her outrageous proportions, Lara’s always been more than a pretty face and a pair of oversized polygons. Fierce, witty, and exceedingly capable, Lara has gone on to transcend her thirst trap beginnings, becoming a modern symbol of female empowerment.

That evolution is reflected in the games, too. Since the franchise debuted in 1996, we’ve seen four distinct Tomb Raider trilogies—including two full reboots. Lara’s grown with each press of the reset button, from that pistol-wielding babe in booty shorts to the gritty and resourceful heroine we see in the latest titles.

With so many games and reboots, series newcomers find themselves asking the same question: which Tomb Raider should I play first?

Luckily, having multiple reboots means the franchise is divided into three distinct universes: Original Era, Legend Era, and Survivor Era. That means you only need to consider the first game of each arc: the original 1996 Tomb Raider (Original Era), Tomb Raider: Legend (Legend Era), or the 2013 reboot (Survivor Era).

This guide compares the three games, covering graphics, story, and gameplay. Armed with the information found here, you’ll be able to make an informed decision for yourself.

Quick Overview

As mentioned above, the Tomb Raider franchise is divided into three separate “eras.” None of the eras are canonically connected, though the Original and Legend eras both have similar backstories for Lara Croft. These are the eras and their titles:

Original EraLegend EraSurvivor Era
Tomb Raider (1996)LegendTomb Raider (2013)
Tomb Raider IIAnniversaryRise of the Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider IIIUnderworldShadow of the Tomb Raider
The Last Revelation
The Angel of Darkness
All the mainline Tomb Raider games by Era.

The era you start with depends on what you’re looking for in an action-adventure game. Whichever era you end up picking to start your Tomb Raider adventure, we recommend starting with the first game of that era.

Here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of each era. Down below, we go into detail about which games you should start with and why.

Original Era (OE)Craziest stories
Biggest legacy
Outdated visuals and controls
Clunky camera
Inconsistent quality
Legend Era (LE)Improved combat over the OE
Improved visuals over the OE
Bigger and more varied levels
Still puzzle-focused (unlike the SE)
Framerate issues
Survivor Era (SE)Best graphics
Most modern gaming experience
Best combat
Simplistic platforming and puzzles

Why You Should Start With Tomb Raider (2013)

For someone coming into the series blind, you’ll want to start with something modern and familiar. The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot begins what is known as the Survivor Trilogy and takes cues from Uncharted to make it the most cinematic and visually impressive Tomb Raider arc to date. It’s also one of the best action-adventure games of modern times.

Tomb Raider depicts a fresh-faced and vulnerable version of Lara Croft. Just out of school and eager to kickstart a career in archeology, she sets off to uncover the lost kingdom of Yamatai. Things start badly when a freak storm destroys her ship, and Lara awakens later on a mysterious island with no way home.

If you played and loved the Uncharted games, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot should be right up your alley. It’s grittier and more grounded than any Tomb Raider game before it, with harsh environments, powerful bad guys, and violent animations that you would never find in previous Tomb Raiders.

This second reboot is also quite different gameplay-wise from other Tomb Raider games. Previous titles focused on acrobatics and puzzle solving, with combat playing a smaller, though still important, role. In contrast, the reboot is combat-heavy, platforming is greatly reduced, and the puzzles are less demanding.

In fact, that’s one of the Survivor Era’s greatest critiques—there’s too big a departure from the puzzle solving and platforming of previous Tomb Raider games. If you prefer taking your time to breathe in the world around you, Tomb Raider and the rest of the Survivor Era games might not be the right place to start.

A big part of the modern reboot’s appeal comes from its story, which is richer and more character-driven than previous titles. Its depiction of a young Lara Croft is particularly fascinating. She’s inexperienced and out of her depth, and you can see the fear and apprehension in her face at every turn.

It’s cathartic to watch Lara overcome the violence and hardships she faces on her road to becoming the famed fortune hunter we know her to be. When the fear gives way to her determination—when she realizes that she’s smarter and stronger than she ever imagined—well, that’s the type of fantasy fulfillment that no fan of action games or movies can say no to.

Once you’ve wrapped up Tomb Raider (2013), it’s time to play the rest of the Survivor Era. Afterwards, give the Legend Era a shot before trying out the Original Era games.

Why You Should Start With Tomb Raider (1996)

Those who want to experience the franchise from start to finish should begin at, well, the beginning. That means kicking things off with the first game of the Original Era, the 1996 PlayStation hit, Tomb Raider.

If the modern Tomb Raiders are the Chris Pine Star Trek movies, the original Tomb Raider arc is the Star Trek: The Original Series of the franchise—campy, clunky, and with terrible visual effects. Still, there’s a charm to its simplicity, and you can see why so many consider the franchise among the best PS1 games of all time.

Lara Croft’s appeal shines, despite the basic graphics and simplistic writing. It’s the most “action hero” version of her out of all the Tomb Raider arcs. She’s witty and completely self-assured, always ready to pull out a clever quip or her trusty dual pistols.

She’ll need those pistols, too, because the original Tomb Raider has Lara facing off against an array of weird and wild enemies. Besides the occasional wolf, Lara also finds herself toe to toe with centaurs and dinosaurs for reasons the story doesn’t really bother to explain.

Speaking of the story, the plot in the original Tomb Raider‘s is absolutely bonkers.

Lara’s been hired by a collector named Natla to recover a lost Peruvian artifact. After finding the relic, she discovers her employer wants to use it to unlock the powers of Atlantis and force the evolution of the human race. Lara then sets off to exotic locations around the world to stop Natla from turning mankind into mutants.

The original Tomb Raider lacks the quality-of-life features that we’re accustomed to as modern gamers, but what else can you expect from a game that predates DualShock and rumble? Combat is frustrating and difficult, the camera loves getting stuck in the scenery, and the platforming sections often feel like pulling teeth.

Fortunately, the games get a whole lot better pretty quickly.

The rest of the Original Era features a more agile Lara Croft, with level designs that are bigger and more interesting. We don’t lose out on any of the supernatural nonsense of the first game, either. So, if you’re a fan of mythology and conspiracy theories, Tomb Raider and the other Original Era games will scratch your itch.

When you’re finished with Tomb Raider, it’s time to tackle the rest of the Original Era games. After that, you should play the Legend Era games (starting with Tomb Raider: Legend), followed by the Survivor Era games. Here’s our recommended playlist:

Why You Should Start With Tomb Raider: Legend

The first reboot began in 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend and occupies a sort of middle ground between the OG trilogy and the modern reboot. This arc offers slicker visuals and is more combat-oriented than the Original Era without losing the mind-bending puzzles and challenging platforming.

The first reboot arc, also known as the Legend Era, explores the origins of Lara Croft for the first time. Rather than a hard reset, the Legend Era incorporates elements from the Original Era’s story, adding in a new supporting cast and a new backstory to flesh out its world.

Set before the events of Tomb Raider: Anniversary (the 2007 remake of the original Tomb Raider), Tomb Raider: Legend reimagines Lara as a renowned archeologist haunted by the mystery of her parents’ disappearances. On a tip from a friend, she sets off to Bolivia to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death.

Legend Era Lara Croft is the most acrobatic version of the franchise heroine. The new “fluid movement” system freed her from the grids of the Original Era, making navigating the bigger, more varied levels of Legend a lot easier. This also made the platforming and sneaking sections less frustrating than in the Original Era.

Combat, too, was totally revamped. Handcrafted animations and a renewed emphasis on Lara’s acrobatic prowess made it much easier to pull off the rolls and flips that she’s known for.

Unlike the Original Era, Tomb Raider: Legend and the rest of the Legend Era are still largely playable by modern standards. The graphics certainly show their age, but they’re a massive improvement over the blurry textures and basic models in the OG series.

Crucially, Tomb Raider: Legend still retains the mythology-focused narrative elements that made the Original Era games so fun and fresh. And while combat is more important than before, it’s still second fiddle to the thrilling exploration and clever puzzle designs.

After Tomb Raider: Legend, you should play through the rest of the Legend Era. Then, we recommend playing the Original Era games before taking on the series’ modern reboot trilogy.