Rise of the Tomb Raider boasts a highly compelling narrative, abounding in mature themes, discussing such matters as dedication to the self, to family, to society. At the center of the narrative is the fabled Divine Source, said to contain the secrets of immortality, and thusly heavily desired, sought by those with altruistic motivations, and those with more sordid, selfish intentions. Lara Croft, metamorphosed into the titular Tomb Raider in the previous title, belongs to the former camp, seeking the Divine Source for mostly selfless reasons, initially hoping to better mankind, to end or lessen the sting which accompanies death, that great inevitability. But she is also guided by and ulterior motivation: to vindicate her father, obsessed with locating the Divine Source while still living. Suffering disgrace because of that obsession, he is prompted to take his own life while Lara was still a precocious, innocent child; he was ultimately consumed by his obsession, destroyed by the societal hostility that obsession won him, the relative ostracism he faced, the tarnishing of his once-respectable reputation. Lara, realizing her father to be a just, gifted, and diligent individual, takes up the call to finish his work and locate the Divine Source; it is a highly compelling, grounded framework for the narrative proper, a narrative characterized by repeated successes. Consulting his documents, she departs from England and Croft Manor, determined and resolute, completely committed to the cause, despite the inevitable perils attached to that search. Jonah, a boon companion introduced in the prior game, accompanies her on her search, and, following that promising lead, the pair find themselves countless miles removed from the safety and stability of England; they quickly find themselves situated in a totally hostile environment, eventually settling down in Siberia. The pair are then separated, and the narrative begins in earnest – it is a masterful, cinematic opening, and the game clings to these cinematic attributes all throughout its often sprawling play time.
Initially, the game is a matter of mere survival, Lara forced to orient herself in that hostile environment, peopled both by ravenous, predatory animals and an even more dangerous beast: man. After a very brief span of time in the region, Lara comes into direct combat with the title’s central antagonists, the shady organization Trinity, led by Konstantin, a gruff individual also determined to seize upon the Divine Source, though for more selfish reasons. Largely, he is lacking in personality and depth, though he does anchor the narrative, providing it with stability and focus – here is no faceless organization. Relative depth does arise as the narrative progresses, however, namely with the introduction of Ana, an ailing women once intimately intertwined with Lara, that former woman engaged in a romantic relationship with Lara’s father sometime before his suicide. It is fast communicated that she is deathly ill, her body gradually failing her, as she grows weaker, ever weaker, and is thusly desperate to locate the Divine Source, seeking in that object a return to healthiness, stability – time is finite, death is near. Employing Trinity’s vast resources and knowledge, she finds herself in those vast Siberian wastes, oppressed by the hostile environs, though still eagerly forging ahead, engaging in discourse with Konstantin, her brother and greatest confidant. Their relationship is rather profound, various discoverable documents communicating Ana’s exploitation of her sibling. Collectively, the pair further boost narrative resonances, and Ana is a sympathetic character, despite her great villainy and selfishness – almost impossibly, she is likable and endearing, even as the reasons for her relationship with Lara’s father were again self-serving; he possessed knowledge of the Divine Source, and she desired that knowledge, perhaps feigning affection to obtain that knowledge. But questions arise: was any aspect of that affection genuine? Does Ana possess a compassionate, beating heart after all? This ambiguity further morphs her into a highly compelling character and villain, with excellent voice acting and character modelling.
The narrative is further complicated with the introduction of another secondary character, who fast grows to become Lara’s greatest ally and guide – Jacob. Early in the narrative, Lara is tossed into a Siberian prison, seized by Konstantin and tossed therein, likely to be tortured or interrogated at a later date. While trapped in those four walls, she first encounters Jacob, himself a prisoner. Ever resourceful, Lara extricates herself, and despite her skepticism, hesitancy, and general mistrust of all strangers, liberates also Jacob; brimming with kindness, he shows considerable gratitude, and then grows to occupy a crucial role within the narrative proper; immensely likable, like Ana he is endearing, though for vastly different reasons, displaying also considerable character growth – he is not static. Initially, he reciprocates Lara’s hesitancy, though by the narrative’s conclusion, they are intimately connected, though surprisingly the game does not force some romantic dimension upon the pair – they are friends and allies, nothing more. Jacob is a revered individual in Siberia, leader to a band of people long dwelling therein, a people rejecting much of society, though still surviving and even thriving despite that rejection; theirs is a relatively tranquil existence, until Trinity’s selfish encroachment, they bringing with them violence and devastation, all in search of that mythical object. The tribe is indeed large, though tragically it is mostly underdeveloped, the only other named character being Sofia, daughter to Jacob. Also a profound character, she duplicates Lara’s characteristic hesitancy, almost firing upon the tomb raider in their first encounter. But as was the case with Jacob, Sofia and Lara gradually forge an intense bond; with fiery red hair, resolve, and tenacity, she, too, is a remarkable character. But an expansion of the tribe, more thorough development of its members, would elevate the narrative further; it is not to be. After Lara rescues Jacob and endears herself to the tribe, the narrative winds ever onwards, sometimes losing focus and player agency, as the ultimate motivation is potentially postponed, as happens when Jonah is reintroduced. Just as soon as he is reintroduced, he is captured, nearly killed. The diversion which accompanies it is unwelcome, in that it detracts from the central narrative. Indeed, the greatest narrative failing is attached to this lack of focus, the narrative suffering from its overambitious nature. Still, the narrative’s conclusion, when it is finally reached, is mostly satisfying, featuring a number of surprising deaths and tragic occurrences. The narrative generally is perpetually engaging, though suffering from a needlessly protracted length.
The game’s world building and presentation are both masterful achievements, the environments oftentimes singular in their beauty, displaying a certain majesty, gracefulness. The draw distance is traditionally massive, fully communicating the largeness of those environments; towering mountains have a very prominent presence, while snow overtakes all, clinging to trees, accumulating on the ground into massive piles, as flakes blow about fiercely in the wind, some latching onto Lara’s apparel, settling in her brunette, delicate hair, brown complimented by white. Weather effects broadly are excellently done, helping to establish atmosphere, moodiness, drizzles of rain being another common occurrence, particularly in the lower regions, rain displacing snow; everything is wonderfully stylized, even as the designers embraced realism; a true sense of place is achieved here. The intense heat and humidity found in the lower valleys are observable in the thick, steamy air extending upwards to the heaven from the greenish grounds below, this clever flourish helping to distinguish the valley from the mountainside; environmental diversity is also immense, resulting in a preservation in the joys of exploration, one of the game’s greatest strengths; merely navigating the environments, marveling at their majesty, is a rich, rewarding experience. And despite the fact that the steamy geothermal valley is a radical departure from the snowy, glacier filled regions, somehow one cohesive, believable whole has been achieved here, not an easy feat, as many games can feel at times disjointed; this failing is totally avoided here. Showing further ambitions for creativity, there exist various hidden tombs, which are themselves drastic departures from the larger, more central environments. Massive mining complexes may be explored in one such tomb, derelict mining equipment scattered to and fro, while in another tomb more cavernous regions are navigated, stalagmites and stalactites having a prominent, breathtaking appearance. The existence of these environments, their great beauty, furthers the overall sense of diversity and depth, while they also develop that world as being lived in, with a very rich history stemming back hundreds and hundreds of years; real people lived here, engaging in very real struggles and oppressions, all the while fighting back in search of happiness and stability; it is difficult to overstate the beauty and impactfulness of these locations, with their wonderful world building purpose. Everything seems steeped in tragedy, the entire region affected in some ways by the existence of the Divine Source, that object being a source of periodic and intense conflict; the people further suffer merely because of their close proximity to this object; their innocence matters not. It is quite a feat that the designers can endear the player to these nameless, faceless individuals, but in detailing their sorrows, inevitably the player feels sorrowful, affected in some deeper capacity.
The gameplay is largely a vacillation between the loud and the quiet, and thusly a large imbalance of enjoyability is in place, the quiet moments oftentimes trumping the louder, more bombastic moments; in the tranquil moments of exploration, in the moments of resource gathering the game truly excels, discovers its uniqueness. Resources are immensely important to the core gameplay loop, owing to the titles rather robust crafting systems, which must be discussed. An abundance of different resources are scattered about the environment, ranging from woods, skins harvestable from animals, through towards more general salvage and weapon components lootable from fallen foes or located in specific predetermined locations. Each of these objects has a distinct purpose, used to craft such and such an item, such and such a weapon upgrade. Certain craftable objects are mundane – useful, but rather unexciting, as is the case with toxic arrows, which can be constructed from discoverable mushrooms. Other upgrades have more dramatic effects, like increasing ammunition carrying capacity, or expanding upon the total number of carriable resources. The gameplay loop here is rather engrossing, and a sense is achieved that Lara is constantly growing as individual and tomb raider – she avoids being static, showing her own character depth. This thought is furthered still by the changes to her character modelling which accompany equipment crafting; a larger arrow quiver is visible on her back whenever the bow is equipped, for instance. Cleverly, the developers gated certain of these upgrades, some locked behind specific upgradable tools; without these objects, available crafting is limited, preventing the player from griding for resources near the beginning of the game in attempts to make easier the overall experience. Continuing this, certain resources are discoverable only in distinct regions, furthering environmental diversity. A certain excitement arises, meanwhile, whenever “exotic” components are discovered, owing to their scarcity and the vital role they play in the crafting of more advanced objects or weapon upgrades. None of this crafting content is absolutely necessary – a massive quiver is not a prerequisite to success – instead being optional, though the quest for materials is immensely enjoyable, and the developers generally embraced a more open-ended design philosophy, though avoiding a potential overreaching – the environments and freedoms afforded the player are large without being overwhelming or dizzying in unneeded complexity; with its organicness, the game manages to avoid the flaws which many open-world games commit frequently and severely.
The mentioned imbalance arises when this novel approach to gameplay is discarded, when the game embraces the loud – when it embraces the painfully conventional. The combat systems are in no ways shallow, and indeed boast many compelling attributes, but in combat the game does relatively little which is totally novel or innovative. With the emphasis on crafting, though, a litany of weapon upgrades are present, furthering the sense of progression, and combat towards the narrative’s conclusion is indeed more enjoyable and complex than at the narrative’s opening, while the largeness of the arsenal seemingly encourages experimentation, each weapon being viable, mostly enjoyable to wield and fire. Still, for almost unexplainable reasons, these various components which would point towards combat greatness do not result in combat greatness. Faring somewhat better, though, are the stealth mechanics, which are a direct extension of the quieter approaches to gameplay. Everything expected is included here, line-of-sight and sound production being the greatest determiners of whether or not Lara will remain undetected. Reflecting this importance of visibility, verticality becomes central to success – if Lara is above the opposition, she cannot be detected by that opposition. With the great freedom of movement and overall wonderful approach to level design, it is easy and seamless to achieve and maintain this elevation; world design and gameplay are intimately linked. Furthering strengths in combat and stealth and various alternate ammunition types; fiery shotgun shells can be crafted to decimate enemies in close proximity, and toxic arrows can be employed to silently dispatch enemies. With the expandable effective radius of these and other arrow types, they grow increasingly useful as the narrative progresses, and the bow generally is immensely powerful, effective in almost all combat situations, whether in an all out gunfight or in a position where stealth is heavily prioritized, incentivized. Gameplay generally is empowering, even as these louder moments, or the quieter moments of stealth, are still eclipsed by moments of exploration, puzzle-solving, and resource gathering. The gameplay freneticism present at the narrative’s conclusion can indeed be exhilarating, as Lara switches between various weapons and alternate ammunition varieties, but not every game needs to be frenetic; were the quieter moments more dominant, were the loudness spurned or at least minimized, the title’s uniqueness would only be amplified, and the overall experience would benefit; the game is at its best when it is more contemplative and moody, at its worst when it becomes a conventional third person shooter.
Very few are the mistakes committed here, perhaps the greatest offense being the narrative overambition which characterizes the title, the plot being unnecessarily protracted, lengthy. The ending, meanwhile, is rather divisive, in that some satisfaction is achieved – Lara triumphs over the opposition – and in that the player is left with more questions than answers, the developers setting up for the sequel in the series; this incompleteness could perhaps be reckoned a secondary flaw. Without spoiling the more emotional moments and occurrences of the conclusion, it is appropriate to say that Trinity has not been vanquished, even while deprived of its figurehead, and Lara was to disembark to silence forever corrupt, ravenous organization, the rescued, revived Jonah by her side. The character growth Lara experiences throughout the narrative is a further success, and admittedly, were the narrative shorter, opportunities for such character development would be lessened, so the sprawling length is paradoxically good and bad, though ultimately the bad seems to triumph – greater narrative focus should be sought. Owing to this lack of narrative focus, the allure which would seemingly be attached to Shadow of The Tomb Raider is somehow lessened, the exhausting thought that dozens of hours can be spent in order merely to reach the conclusion being overwhelming. Still, the overall experience here is a remarkable one, the narrative perpetually engaging, abounding with compelling characters, both friend and foe – Sofia and Jacob greatest members of that former group, Konstantin and Ana the latter; with its consistent maturity, the narrative soars, despite its sometimes unnecessary plot threads. World design marks a further strength, Siberia portrayed accurately and realistically, even as the developers frequently flex their creative impulses, manifest most strongly in the design of the optional tombs, many fantastical and arresting in construction, much technical excellency present to support that creative whimsicality. The Divine Source, the questions of immortality (is it wrong to seek for such a state, to defy some Creator, who endowed within man a finite span of time on the Earth?) ground the narrative, creating very human, almost psychological dramas; many are the instances of poignancy, the effectiveness of that poignancy bolstered by excellent voice acting, Lara being especially endearing, multi-faceted. Combat is enjoyable but unremarkable and iterative, while the skill trees included also seem inserted out of expectation, many – though not all – being lackluster, far from revolutionary, though this failing is compensated for by the other robust progression systems, those centering around equipment and weapon upgrades. Rise of The Tomb Raider, then, excels most strongly when it breaks from genre convention, when it embraces its uniqueness and distinctness of identity. The displays of originality, fortunately, are frequent and intense, and Rise of The Tomb Raider remains an engrossing, albeit overwrought, experience.