Tomb Raider is, for me, a very special title. It succeeds both narratively and in its multiple, varied gameplay systems. Beyond these two things, its greatest achievement is the crafting of our protagonist, Lara Croft, who undergoes throughout her journey a notable shift, a maturation, and maybe even a phase of disillusionment; the Lara at the start, who narrowly escapes death by drowning in a sinking ship, is in no ways the Lara at the conclusion to the tale. Resolute and gifted, she still shows a certain endearing hesitancy, fully aware of her humanity, knowing she is not super-human; she is just a woman who tragically enters into a scenario which demands these growths, if survival and escape are ever to be achieved; hers is a steady, believable march of progress, learning of survival, and the sometimes overwhelming violence necessary to ensure that survival; she never glorifies in violence, like some sadist; rather, she accepts this violence if it results in the preservation of friends, all of whom are well developed as the narrative winds and winds. Even still, despite these characters, with a diversity of motivations and individual complexities, it is largely Lara who steals the show; beyond her resolve and patience, she is further likable on account of brilliant, charming character design and excellent voice acting. One member of the supporting cast, speaking in anger and bitterness, casts the blame of their predicament squarely on Lara’s shoulders – this was her choice and her expedition which brought them there. Lara shrugs it off, though, and continues her altruistic efforts at escape from this cursed place; if she did make an error, she is damned determined to resolve it. All of these things coincide with one another to result in a compelling character, who goes a long way to increasing narrative complexity and player engagement; we can all identify with Lara, even as her acrobatic feats and combat prowess are far beyond our reach.
Besides Lara, there are six or so other crew members aboard the Endurance, the ship used to explore the dangerous, enigmatic Dragon’s Triangle. Some of the more notable characters include Sam, a gregarious girl who acts as a cameraman of sorts and exists as Lara’s greatest friend and companion. More critically, though, there is the figure of Roth, who is not so much Lara’s friend, but her mentor; he expresses an excess of interest for her, and it is apparent that there is much love between them, as he consistently reassures her, reminding her of her actual father and his supposed feats. In his stead, he becomes as a father figure for plucky Lara, lecturing her on the nature of loss and sacrifice, and the strength of instinct, which Lara is said to possess in abundance. His voice acting is similarly impressive, as is his character design; he looks old, but not too old, sounds gruff but friendly and wise. The mentioned Sam, even as she is absent for much of the narrative, plays perhaps the most critical role, right alongside Lara. The searched-for island of Yamati resides in Asian waters. There is a very bizarre group of cultists infesting the island, bringing about twisted havoc with their barbarism. Sam having Asian blood, they soon latch on to her, seeing in her figure a new vessel for a long-lost Queen. She is charming from the first, and even whilst imprisoned with the cultists, desperately anticipating Lara’s rescue, she never devolves into a weak, waifish character. I like her vey much for this, and her portrayal is spot on. Also, existing as rival to Lara on the Endurance, there is a fellow archaeologist, Whitman, who seems to have lost passion for his craft, focusing instead on the acquisition of wealth and status. He is a pretty despicable character, even as his poor decision making could be attributed to an ironic idiocy. In some ways, he serves as a minor antagonist, even if unintentionally. The real antagonist, though, is far fiercer, ruthless, dangerous, and totally warped in terms of morality or regard for others.
The primary enemies in the game are the mentioned cultists, known as the Solarii, who worship and fanatically admire the Sun Queen, long deceased. It is implied that they have been stranded on the island for a great many years and may have degraded into full insanity. There is a supernatural component at work here, with Ancient Japanese rituals, the resurrection of shogun, while even the very weather of the island is tied directly in with the fate of the Sun Queen. Despite these inclusions, though, the game is largely grounded in reality, especially with regards to the environments. Very picturesque technically and creatively, they are universally spectacular, with great diversity. From the snowy norths, dank caverns, dilapidated shantytowns, and the plethora of explorable tombs, the island of Yamatai becomes a character in its own right. It is a pure joy to explore, each new environment divergently different from the last. Quickly, another motivation arises for Lara as tomb raider: the dispelling of the mysteries of this desolate, hidden island, where all transports tragically, inevitably wreck, destroyed by the mentioned supernatural, hostile weather. Some of these complexities are developed in the cutscenes; we quickly meet the primary antagonist, Matthias, though from his introduction his sinister nature is not quite apparent; initially, he seems a friendly eccentric man, nothing more. As the plot progresses, we gain information as to a fire ritual, the ceremony being prepared for the captured Sam, likely bringing with it death. Beyond these immediate inklings, though, much of the island’s history is further fleshed out by various letters scattered across the island. There is quite a collection of these, with several different authors, some ancient, others decidedly recent. Matthias speaks often here, and the text is accompanied by voice acting, which is, as expected, very well done. I have never really liked this form of storytelling, though I can’t really explain why. Things like the audio logs in the Bioshock games have always kind of bored me, but for some reason here, I find it works better as a narrative device; easily missable, they are still fun to seek out because of the explanations and unraveling of the intrigues contained therein. This island is old, we learn, with many sinister goings-on for centuries. Other collectibles further this sense of time, like old shogun helmets, or ancient coinage. Alongside the world – with its impressive environments – these seemingly insignificant items go along way to establishing a sense of place and grandeur.
Those are the three key objectives, then: rescue Sam, unravel the mysteries of the island, and, finally, flee from that place. The narrative is long and winding, and while some of these objectives might seem fairly straightforward, in actuality they grow to become quite involved. If the history of the island is optional, then these other two objectives represent the core of the game’s narrative. Early on, Lara is separated from Sam, knowing at the time nothing about her intended fate and the vessel she is to become. Assuming, perhaps, that she is safe with the others, Lara initially seeks out a means of transportation and escape, still ignorant of the horrors of the island, and desperately clinging to her optimism, perhaps naively. First, she arms herself, finding a bow, torch, and axe. Very hesitant here, still inexperienced, the gameplay is relatively simplistic; the diversity of tools introduced later are here lacking, though the bow, the first acquirable weapon, is strong in terms of strength, and remains useful through to the end of the game. At any rate, Lara equips herself, betters herself to some degree, and then sets out on her quest proper for reunion of the crew members. Quickly, she comes across Roth, who further reassures her, offering guidance and hope. From here, these main objectives gradually increase in terms of complexity, with cinematic set-piece moment followed almost immediately afterward by another instance of such moment. The camera angles are very cinematic, being fixed at just the right time and angle, creating an epic feeling, as Lara scales some tall structure, or slides at rapid pace down a steep hill, avoiding deadly obstacles. Universally, these moments are fantastic, with dozens imprinted on my mind. From a parachute jump through a ravine, through to the ascension of radio tower in the snowy north, or the maneuvering across a bridge, protected by suppressive sniper fire; they are all interesting. Beyond this, though, there is the mentioned exploration – there is downtime, a break and respite from the intense. While the game is in no ways open-world, some of the environments are rather large, encouraging exploration through tangible rewards, such as the revealing letters discussed. There are optional tombs, many of which pose a pretty intricate challenge, providing solid examples of puzzle-solving – logical, never truly veering over towards the frustrating. Additionally, there are the more minor collectibles, like GPS’s scattered around the world. All of these activities do, in some way, award experience points. Rather than having the mere satisfaction of completing a tomb, they expectantly provide these points to further the incentive. My greatest gripe with the game is related to the skill selection.
So, virtually every action in the game rewards those mentioned points; killing enemies, completing challenges, acquiring collectibles, raiding tombs – they all provide experience. This would be a good thing, were the unlockable skills not so lackluster. One tree is relegated for the most part to increasing resources obtained from various items in the game world; searching a fallen foe, one might find on the corpse greater ammunition in the appropriate skill is taken. In a similar vein, animals can offer more resources, Lara impossibly extracting more from them solely because of a skill. Such animals can also be tracked through one skill. None of these things change the game in any significant way; they are boring. True, some do have satisfaction attached to them, though these are a rarity – Lara can climb faster, for instance, or keep an arrow notched in the bow for a greater length of time. The only skills which have a fundamental impact are related to takedowns. This skill tree, Brawler, I believe, has a strong focus on dodging and maneuverability. An initial skill gives Lara a melee attack, while towards the end of the tree, she can deftly dodge most attacks, initiating a takedown which can defeat almost all enemies; it gives further flexibility in combat, as in the opening of the game, once rushed by an axe-wielding, frantic foe, defeat and violent death are quite probable. Beyond these few skills, again, the majority are uninteresting and maybe even useless. In a further flaw, the abilities which are actually desirable are gated by a tier system. A tier can only be unlocked once a set number of skill points have been expended. What this ultimately results in is the purchasing of the useless skills to obtain the ones with actual value. If they had made all skills unlockable from the start, attaching a greater number of points to the stronger skills, I think the game would have benefited greatly. I get they were trying to show Lara’s immense progress as a person and adventurer, but if they had scrapped this flawed system entirely, I don’t think the game would be impacted in any noticeable way. Besides, her growth can be wonderfully seen in the narrative. This whole inclusion really irks me. Luckily, there is a second progression system which is far more compelling.
Alongside the generous distribution of experience points, there is a fair amount of salvage to be found in the environment, either in chests, hanging in burnable netting, recoverable from animal corpses, and on the person of fallen foes. The mentioned tombs, too, provide a fair amount. This salvage is used to upgrade the various weapons on offer; a pistol can be fitted with a larger magazine or altered to fire in three round bursts. A shotgun can blast out incendiary rounds or be fired in a narrower cone to hit distant enemies. It is a very rewarding progression system, seeing the weapons visually morph in response to the upgrades. Also, there are more dramatic upgrades to be had; similar to the experience system, there are tiers of sorts. Randomly scattered about the environment or on the person of foes, weapon components can be found. Once a sufficient number of these are collected, a marked shift occurs; a traditional bow can be transformed into a recurve bow, for instance, or a WWII smg altered to become a modern assault rifle. Weapons are of course very important in this game, with a great deal of intense shootouts spread throughout the campaign. Because of this focus, one of my greatest joys was to walk over to an enemy and eagerly search his corpse, hopeful it would contain a coveted, infinitely useful weapon part. It seems a trivial thing to say, but I loved this salvage system. My affection here only contrasts my disinterest in the skill menu. Better, upgraded weapons are absolutely necessary towards the ending of the game. The enemies can be quite ruthless, and the A.I. overall is impressive. Some might be huddled in cover, popping up to unload a few rounds, then retreating back to safety. Others, though, will flush Lara out of her own cover, throwing dynamite or Molotov’s, while others blindly rushing Lara, machete in hand. Movement becomes essential here, as a fair bit of cover is destructible. In the larger encounters, there is some strategy at work, choosing which foe to dispatch first, all the while maintaining gaze on nearer, similarly threatening enemies. It can be very tense, and while I was initially unimpressed, over time the combat really won me over. Swapping from bow, to shotgun, to pistol, all on the fly – it was seamless and intuitive. Some larger boss type enemies are introduced at intervals, and they act as a solid change of pace. Many of them wield heavy, impenetrable shields, success possible only through dodging and scampering. They are satisfying to fight and defeat. Also, there is a stealth system in place, which is rather basic. While an upgraded pistol can be fitted with a suppressor, Lara’s only silent weapon is her bow. True, she has varied stealth takedown animations, but stealth is never truly viable. It can be fun to soften up a group before proceeding in loudly, but gunfights are inevitable. Luckily, stealth is never truly forced, save for one encounters at the beginning, when Lara is stripped of her weapons. Overall, while the combat is not quite as impressive as the deft movement and platforming, it is still notable for its consistent challenge, with diverse enemy types – bolstered in strength by solid A.I. – and a relative need for tactics on the part of the player; it is vaguely a combination of action with the cerebral, and the weapons wonderfully escalate in terms of power right alongside the enemies.
If there is a steady progression in terms of weaponry, steady, too, is the rate of acquisition for environmental tools. Initially lacking in ways of manipulating the environment, Lara soon finds her trusty pickaxe, this being upgraded to a climbing axe, useful for scaling craggy surfaces. Rope arrows are introduced, which have a major impact on exploration; with these in hand, Lara can manipulate certain distant objects, though, more critically, she can create ziplines to cross great distances. Later, fire can be created at will, whilst an alternate arrow for the bow is similarly enflamed. Shotgun blasts can destroy certain barricades, while grenades fired from an assault rifle attachment can destroy the sturdier impediments. This all lends itself to the creation of a Metroid-Vania feeling, and I can imagine revisiting earlier areas with these new tools would bring with it access to previously inaccessible items and collectibles. For me, though, I never went out of my way for such things. Opening a map, then promptly highlighting some item on the screen would, I think, make the game like any other, like a soulless open-world game with collectibles that are largely meaningless. No. While I do enjoy seeking out achievements, such an act would destroy what makes the game great – the sense of discovery and the wonder accompanying it. Throughout my playthrough, I opened the map three or four times. The environments, being cleverly, logically designed, I never found myself totally lost, even in the more sprawling areas. This sense of wonder and immersion is furthered still by the overall absence of a HUD. There is no mini-map, nor is there some health bar to break immersion. It is engrossing, and there are no distractions on screen. The expected notifiers of low health are here, the screen draining of color when Lara is weak, and I find this system to be less intrusive than some bar. Being wonderfully barren in terms of icons, the graphical grandeur of the world is only furthered. There is a brief sensory ability, which highlights certain objects in the environment which might be useful, but its duration is short, and the puzzles being straightforward as they are, I never really relied on this at all. Still, I can understand it as a nice feature should one wander too far off the beaten trail. Similarly, to increase accessibility, there is a fast travel system in place, though I never used it. The wonderful animations – be they through climbing, leaping, swimming – reflect a certain level of polish and affection on the part of the developers. I love Lara as a character very much; but I love equally this mysterious world, with its intrigues, and the manifold ways of interacting with it. Secrets abound, and while not everything is compelling, the core gameplay systems, with the freedom of movement, make exploration satisfying and rewarding.
Some final thoughts on the narrative. I won’t say the conclusion was totally predictable. True, it’s difficult to imagine Lara as not escaping the island and continuing her adventuring, but I couldn’t have anticipated all of the deaths which surround her, from Roth her mentor through to Alex her admirer. They all had a vague sense of optimism about them, sure they could find some sort of escape from the island. Lara, too, was in this camp, desperately scaling a towering radio tower to broadcast a distress signal. As the plot progresses, a certain cynicism can be observed. Lara is doubtful of their escape, even as she discovers it is not an impossibility. She is beaten by Yamatai. This further connects to her character arc. But despite the deaths, relative success is achieved. Sam is rescued, the mysteries of the island largely dispelled, while the Solarii – and Matthias – are finally vanquished. There is peace, perhaps, and everything is wrapped up into a nice bow. It seems odd, the conclusion. In a game filled with death and at times excessive violence, a happy ending seems illogical. But the pain of those events will always have their mark on Lara, whose story is to be continued in a pair of other titles. Her instinct guided her; Roth was avenged; and she was sure of her nature and lineage as a Croft. While I am excited to play Rise of The Tomb Raider, I see myself as waiting a bit before proceeding. While not necessarily a bad thing, this title was a lot longer than I was expecting, especially considering the genre. I enjoyed myself throughout, but it seemed to go on a little too long. Still, the diversity of environments and introduction of new tools and mechanics – even while approaching the end – prevented the game from ever becoming stale. Concluding in a series of shootouts which much be stretched across an hour or so, capped off my a lengthy, somewhat challenging boss fight, I felt the ending to be tense and satisfying. Indeed, the whole game was satisfying for me. While there are a few missteps in terms of skill development and allocation, Tomb Raider tells a moving, mature story with measured, effective violence, incredible gameplay, and an intriguing narrative. I think it will always have a special place in my heart.