A Survivor is Born: Retrospective of the Tomb Raider Reboot Series
Funnily enough, shortly before sitting down to write this review, I saw the announcement of Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Definitive edition. Serendipitous timing, to say the least. It seems as though the developer is offering this upgrade free of charge to players who already have the Season Pass. To those that don't, the purchase of the season pass will get you the upgrade.
Enough shop talk.
I have just finished up Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third installment in the Tomb Raider reboot franchise aptly called the "Survivor Timeline". So, I figure it's a perfect time to do a bit of an analysis of the series. My goal here is not to necessarily delve into the critiques of game play, graphics, or the typical game reviewer stuff (although I will surely mention it). What I really want to do is reflect on aspects that make the game appealing to me and that have inevitably influenced my work.
Here goes nothing.
I will readily admit that I have no real experience with the "Classic" Tomb Raider series, although I have played a couple of the remakes. As a kid, I had a Nintendo 64 and Lara Croft typically adventured around PlayStation territory. It wasn't until the 2012 reboot that I got excited about the series. I was deeply enamored with the Uncharted franchise, with it's Indiana Jones style antics and cast of lovable rogues (More on Uncharted another time). I got a real sense of adventure from playing those games, something that I couldn't really find anywhere else. Then, Tomb Raider 2013 was announced.
In the past, Lara Croft was something of a sex symbol for video games. She wore short shorts, a tight shirt, and was quite gifted in a number of areas. Her games also centered around complex puzzle solving, with short bursts of acrobatic combat. The reboot series was seeking to get away from the overly sexualized heroine, and also move toward more action/set piece oriented game play like the super successful Uncharted series. It was due to this last, highly publicized part, that I was both intrigued and initially disappointed.
If you haven't played an Uncharted game, you need to understand that at it's heart, Uncharted is fun. Sure, Nate Drake and crew get into some tough scrapes, and there are definitely some nail biting moments, but overall it exudes a sense of fun. The characters are written realistically and more often than not, are humorous, all with their own personality quirks and story arcs that make you love them. They are genuinely people you would want to hang out with.
The new Lara Croft?
Not so much.
The mood of the Tomb Raider series is not fun. The game makes that perfectly clear in the first five minutes of the game when Lara nearly impales herself. There is little joy to be had in Lara's adventures. Her adventures are hard, brutal, and often horrifying. In fact, the story arc presented with the three games sees Lara battling her growing obsession with her father, ancient mysteries, and the religions paramilitary sect, Trinity. This is a stark contrast to the plucky shenanigans of Nate, Elena and Sully. At first, this was super off putting to me. Indiana Jones, the quintessential adventure hero, has fun on his adventures. There are even smiles and laughs to be had in Temple of Doom, the most notoriously dark Indy film.
Tomb Raider axes all of that.
The first harrowing adventure begins upon the shipwreck strewn shores of Yamatai, a
mythical island east of Japan. This Lara, similar to the first Lara, is following in her deceased father's footsteps as she follows a trails of mysterious artifacts across the globe. I have to admit here, that in comparison to the artifacts at the center of both Indiana Jones and Uncharted, Lara's fall a little flat. This was another bummer for me, as these McGuffin's are are typically a driving force behind an adventuring treasure hunter plot. I think my initial reaction is based upon the evident "fake-ness" of the artifacts. Indy encounters real mythological items, as does Nathan Drake. These made up artifacts can, and have been pulled off before, specifically thinking J. J. Arbams movies, they just aren't in Tomb Raider. While the locations that Lara visits are from world mythology, the artifacts they hide are paper thin copies of better, more familiar, and interesting ones. Hell, they aren't even ever explained, and two of them are super samey and that sucks. In the end, two of the artifacts basically just create zombies.
Note really. Zombie samurai are cool enough for a second enemy faction, as are zombie Romans, but they aren't really exciting as a recurring archetype. While the third installment does have "zombie" enemies, they are done far better, are far more interesting, and are not really zombies, just a mix up from the usual game play loop. I also feel like they are genuinely terrifying.
I have to say that the stories present in all three of the Tomb Raider reboot series are all really mediocre. And most often, the characters are just not that interesting, especially when compared to the Uncharted series. I will admit, that Shadow (the third game), did much better in this department than the others, although the villains still fall flat. Lara is often an unlikable machine, driven by a singular purpose. I get it, she's obsessed and driven by that obsession, but that alone in not that interesting. I think the standout character is Jonah, a recurring friend in each installment. He acts as a human anchor to Lara's "otherness" in the second and third games. He brings a lot of emotional weight to an otherwise dry outing.
As of right now, it probably seems like I don't really like these games. That is dead wrong. I actually love them. There are a few things that the series has absolutely nailed.
First, I need to talk about atmosphere. From the first scene in Yamatai, you quickly understand that this knew Tomb Raider borders on horror at times. The ruins, both modern and ancient, are grimy, and often littered with mysterious remains. Yamatai is overrun with a cult of shipwreck survivors that worship a sun goddess and the whole place exudes a air of filthiness that makes you more and more uncomfortable the longer you take in the details. While trapped in Siberia in the second game, you are treated to grisly scenes of ancient persecutions by religious fanatics, and in Shadow (my personal favorite), the player is treated to gruesome Mayan tombs complete with sacrifices and mummies.
That's friggin' cool.
While often having a horror bent, much of the scenery is still breathtakingly beautiful and awe inspiring. Not even in Uncharted or the Elder Scrolls games have I seen vistas to rival the ruined coastline of Yamatai, the lost city of Kitesh, or the towering temples of Paititi. Even in smaller, more intimate locales, the visual world building is excellent. I have to say, the highlight of the series for me was exploring the small Spanish mission in the third act of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Being able to talk to the citizens, learn the history of the church, and also discover that something dark lurks beneath the village was a fantastic moment.
This leads me to the exploration. Uncharted feels like a movie, it plays like a movie too. The games are fast paced and a non stop thrill ride. This is what I initially expected from Tomb Raider, and what first caused a sense of disappointment. Upon repeat bplaythroughs and reflection, I was so wrong. Tomb Raider is often about thoughtful and thorough exploration. This is really hammered home by the sheer number of hidden items to be found on the maps. As a kid, I grew up with Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie (one of my all-time faves), so collect-a-thons are right up my alley. To add icing to the cake is the incredible amount of care and love that went into crafting these collectible notes and artifacts. All of them have fully voiced descriptions that often tell stories about not only Lara's world, but the history of our own. Each treasure and bauble are fully rendered and many hold extra secrets if you take the time to look. You want to explore every nook and cranny, you want to see what stories are hidden in these ancient and forgotten places. I absolutely adore finding the skeletal corpse of a previous explorer and then hearing about what they discovered and how they died.
Jolly good, sir!
I would also be remiss if I didn't talk about the special Crypts and Tombs. When the developers decided to move towards a more scripted affair, they knew well that they were deviating from the formula that made the original games so popular, the puzzle elements. The original series was more about complex puzzle solving than combat and scripted sequences. To compensate and attempt to find a middle ground, the large explorable areas often hid these Challenge Tombs that were filled with outlandish ancient machinery and abstract puzzles. Ask my best friend, and he will tell you I am not a puzzle guy, so I have no shame in admitting that many of these were difficult for me. That being said, solving them on your own is super satisfying and many of the environments of these Tombs are lush and creative. I will say that the Tombs and Crypts get more numerous and grow in quality as the series progresses, but overall, I really enjoy that aspect of the game.
If you have read "Existence", or any of my other works of adventure, you may notice that I
do my best to strike a solid middle ground in how I described the atmosphere of both Tomb Raider and Uncharted. I want to have fun and humor and sometimes plucky protagonists, but I also want to give you chills and maybe even gross you out a time or two. My writing background started with horror in the Lovecraftian sense, and then developed into Sword and Sorcery which incorporates a mix of swashbuckling adventure and cosmic terror. When I started writing my adventures with Ada and Penny (and soon to be Bryce), as well as other short stories, I knew that I wanted chilling elements. I tend to view the Tomb Raider series as one pole of my influence, while Uncharted is the other. The main body of my writing seeks to be somewhere right in between.
Unfortunately for me, it appears that Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be the last in the series. There is some glimmer of hope, but it was never supposed to be more than three games. This bums me out, as both Lara and developers really seemed to be growing into what they wanted to become. Some part of me has hope that this isn't then of Lara the Survivor. But even if it is, her grim adventures can live on in my imagination and in my writing.
So there's that.