ANTISUN GREY Presents | A Brian Franklin Review
1Into the Past

I’ve always been a Tomb Raider fan, playing most if not all of the games through the Core Design era to the current Crystal Dynamics iterations. I can’t say I disliked any of them – even Angel of Darkness – they allowed me to explore settings and worlds I’d never likely visit in real-life, and gave me a grand sense of adventure.

When I played The Last Revelation and encountered a 16 year-old Lara, I thought it would be great to learn more about Lara’s origins, to find out, in depth, why she decided to commit her life to these endeavours. So when this reboot was released I was very interested, as this is its primary aim.

I believe it was a resounding success.

The entire game follows Lara’s developmental arc – from a relatively naïve girl to tough (both mentally and physically) survivor. Like most of the other reviewers at the time, I balked at the idea of a Tomb Raider without much tomb raiding, but as I played it and got into the story I began to appreciate this design decision. This is very much Lara versus the environment, Lara sans the wealth of knowledge she’d come to have, Lara becoming the Tomb Raider.

It’s the most story-focussed Tomb Raider I’ve played and I’m impressed with the tale Rhianna Pratchett and her team spun. We have the setup of a mystery, interesting characters with reasonable motivations, a riveting plot and a wonderful setting that makes great use of its verticality. Kudos to the environment design team – the mixing of a scavenger society with World War 2 era and ancient Japanese architecture gave a unique flavour to the story. The world felt lived in and filled with touches of environmental storytelling. It felt like a place one could go to in real life. One of my favourite moments was scampering across a fallen B20 bomber suspended in the trees before a waterfall – it captured a bit of what I felt in the original Tomb Raider; interacting with elements that were there untouched for years.

Adding to this was Jason Graves’ sweeping score, which ties the games themes with a sense of adventure, mystery and lurking horror. It’s quite a bit like his work on Dead Space, which is an album you do not want to listen to at home alone in the dark with something wraith-like tap-tapping at your window. The voice-work is top-drawer stuff, as are the auxiliary sounds – the howling breeze, the tolling bells, creaking wood, and those quiet sounds of the forest – they all add to the tapestry of the experience.

The supporting characters are, generally, decently fleshed-out. You could boil them all down to basic tropes – the nerd, the aggressive, the tough, the asshole, the father-figure, the damsel-in-distress, the psycho – but that would be unnecessarily reductive.

While Lara’s crewmates do take a backseat to her own character development, they weren’t entirely overlooked. We see how Lara’s actions affect them, whether it be their self-esteem, their future, or their security.

The villain, Matthias, feels like a villain, and not in a comic-book sense either. I grew to understand his reasoning for doing what he did, and found myself wondering: had I been in the same situation, wouldn’t I have done the same? Yet on the other hand, like all good villains he’s a variation on the protagonist’s character. Both have killed to survive, both have lost people close to them, both would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. What separates them? Just a moral compass, it seems.

There are some touching moments during the game, some points at which I felt the characters connecting. I cared more about some characters than others, and to be honest that’s to be expected.

The major thing is that I cared at all. Not every game (or book, or movie) can manage even that. Lara takes the cake, of course, as she developed into a protagonist that I liked and rooted for.

I was pleased with the gameplay overall. The combat is a large departure from previous Tomb Raiders, what with the weapon upgrade system and RPG-lite skill based advancement, but it held my interest for a great portion of the game. The way the progression was implemented is a good example of the gameplay mirroring the story – every weapon felt earned, and as Lara grew from strength to strength in the narrative, encountering tougher and smarter enemies, I was able to grow her proficiencies in the weapons and skills of my choice.

The bow was surprisingly and appropriately useful. I prefer pistols in any game – and for sure in a Tomb Raider title where dual pistols is a trademark – but found myself turning to the bow for many segments. It’s a great utility tool, and almost becomes a character in its own right through the upgrades you can apply to it and the sheer number of situations it must be used in. It’s a good thing Lara never loses it!

"They are waiting for us, hundreds of them." - Solider

I liked that each area on the fairly large map had a unique personality. From the wide open and staggeringly vertical Mountain Village to the labyrinthine Shantytown, I never got bored. Hidden collectibles add to the aura of discovery. I enjoyed piecing together the stories of desperate soldiers, journal-keeping castaways, and doomed priestesses.

Using rope-arrows fired from her trusty bow Lara can zip around like a bird of prey, revealing the majesty of the environments. And when the game throws scores of slightly crazed castaways or undead samurais at Lara the environments can take on another dimension – becoming real tense real quick.

Away from all the action are the out-of-the-way tombs, which are little more than a single puzzle and a loot chest at the end. But again this is being far too reductive. Each tomb drips atmosphere, and the puzzle/platforming, as light as it is, is a welcome change of pace from the rest of the game.

I’m embarrassed to say this is the first Tomb Raider I’ve ever completed. I’ve pondered on why that could have been. It’s not like I have more free time now as a working man than when I was at school or university. The game certainly wasn’t a casual experience, either. And I’ve shot and fireballed and stabbed so many mooks across so many genres nothing really surprises me anymore. So I have to say it was the game’s ability to pull me in, to give me a good story, and to make me care about Lara that pushed me towards the end.

"There are no heroes here, only survivors."

And that end was solid and memorable, if only a little predictable. At the climax we really see Lara come into her own. Matthias says that “There are no heroes here, only survivors”, but in truth Lara shows that through survival she becomes a hero. The Lara we started the game with is changed, tempered by her experiences and ready to become the Tomb Raider.

A well-written, well-designed tour de force of a game. Crystal Dynamics has shown that they can create a compelling, story-focussed action adventure that keeps Lara Croft relevant. One of my favourite Tomb Raiders, and one of my favourite titles. Highly recommended.

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