From the early adventures in the jungles and ruins of Peru, to the post-mortem-discovered incursions in Russian secret facilities, Lara Croft has always been a symbol. A messy, confusing and at times misunderstood symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. For many, she was the embodiment of girl power, an assertion of somebody whose female features and femininity are obvious, but is still able to cope with harsher obstacles than any other person. For many others, it was just the opposite, a reinforcement of the detrimental position of women in society, with the shape of their bodies as the main focus. However, outside of this nigh-endless debate, there’s always been a parallel analysis which instead of asking why Lara was such an icon – or whether she was at all –, it set out to find why being Lara was so awesome. In other words, why the Tomb Raider games were so good. And of course, within this wholly different debate, there seemed to be a much larger consensus than in the other one. At least, until recently. 2013’s Tomb Raider emerged in the midst of a myriad of discussions about narrative, representation of women in media and videogames, and trends in game design, and it doesn’t take much to notice all these elements in the game. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, all of this shows up once again. But it’s not always for the better.
I have previously mentioned how little a fan I am of this latest reboot, and much of it comes from comparing it to its predecessors. The success of Lara was in who she was as much as in the format of the games she starred in. The original Tomb Raider games were slow-paced, with little to no help when solving puzzles. Each enemy was a threat and the awkward tank controls made platforming difficult, but at the same time, incredibly rewarding. The bareness of the environment and the lack of details created a hostile environment; a painting that was difficult to comprehend and make sense of, and that required a new approach to how we conceive platforming and level design. Only 90s games were able to capture this antipathy and desperation so eloquently, with their long periods of silence, the reiteration of your presence with the sound of your footsteps, and the isolation that an undecorated and low-texture mansion provides. And as everything does, videogames evolved, most of them adding details, and new ways of stimulating the player.
Perhaps one of the main aspects holding back Rise of the Tomb Raider from being a faithful and enjoyable homage to the early games is how it tries to be too many things at the same time. Rise brings excellent ideas and mechanics, and with organic and original content. Sadly, the implementation of some can be frustrating. Rise is not a very consistent game. Exploration, puzzle-solving, levelling-up and gathering resources are all poorly developed, and not even the platforming sections or the high-octane combat is always able to make up for it. The story tries to live up to its legacy, stringing many of these components together, but as we will see further down, stumbles with a very crucial element.
Playing a level in Rise of the Tomb Raider can be incredibly idyllic. Its landscape design and the use of lighting and the colour palette are sublimely elegant. Lara’s blue chemical light contrasts with the sandy, apricot cavern rocks of Syria; the sunlight leaks through the crevices and reflects on the rusty beryl-and-gold medieval shields amalgamated on top of lifeless skeletons; it all adds up to create the most exhilaratingly beautiful landscape to look at. When in Siberia, Lara’s light is orange, and the juxtaposition with the turquoise and white of the icy grottos create a mix of colour sensibilities with no match in any other game. The landscape is much less messy and more organised than in the prequel; it provides a sense of blending with nature, as Lara wanders in the Siberian forests and squirrels slip in between her legs, and all sorts of birds fly above her head. Lara suddenly notices and entrance of a cave, where a hind is grazing at the few green leaves she could find. With her swift resolution, Lara reaches for her SMG in her back holster, and starts mowing down rabbits and buzzards alike. All for the sake of experience points.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a very good example of an over-cluttered game. Its semi-open-world design is not something that we haven’t seen before. Some levels in the earliest Tomb Raiders had Lara trotting from one end of the map to the other, activating switches, collecting keys and pulling levers; and it was great. It made the level feel as a one interconnected and cohesive whole. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has become a master of the arts and crafts, and the equivalent open areas are utilised as a place where Lara can gather resources, hunt helpless animals, activate side missions and search for treasures. Tons of treasures, in fact, coming in many colours and sizes: buried coin caches, hidden artefacts, secret tombs, stored resources, etc. You will soon find yourself collecting feathers, wood, mushrooms, and hunting rabbits, with no notion of their purpose, or the quantity you carry at that moment. You end up sweeping the map collecting everything you see, digging these treasures and resources out as a way to get experience and declutter the map, rather than being actually interested in them. There is so much nonsense to do that it loses any kind of significance. Hunting dangerous animals, like bears and wolves, is the most and only enjoyable activity. Perhaps, dare I say it, even more fun than in 1996.
What we have in this game is a levelling up system that encourages you to go and kill as many innocent rodents and pick up as many treasures as you can. Like a counter of free samples in the supermarket, Lara starts collecting and hunting with no discern. In order to get even more new abilities and weapons, Lara will have the chance to do ‘optional tomb challenges’, which contain what’s basically been the traditional platforming and puzzle-solving of the old games. 2013’s prequel tended to confine most puzzles in these sections, which is something that is now mildly improved. Unfortunately, these enhancements in gameplay are again thwarted by a clear segmentation between each gameplay element, clearly triggered by these horribly tedious ‘survival’ parts in which you have to actively search for treasures, gather wood, and hunt animals. The ‘survival instinct’, which I recommend to turn off even though many of the unlockable skills improve it, make obvious that searching for stuff is a chore to gain experience and new weapons.
However, as much as I like complaining about this game, Rise of the Tomb Raider has really good moments. Shooting any weapon in Lara’s arsenal at the same time she dodges Molotov cocktails and machete-wielding fanatics, is as just as fun and challenging as it sounds. The stealth system, as basic as it is, provides a new range of possibilities too. Nailing a couple of silent head-shots with your pistol to seamlessly move onto a triple bow shot, can be exhilarating if done properly. Unlocking new weapons and tweaking them by adding silencers or under-barrel grenade launchers becomes a way to personalise your arsenal. Not that it makes much of a difference, but it still works. Lara’s unlockable range of dandy outfits enhance the aesthetic polish of the game, and give the player a chance to take an active part in shaping it. If only the game were able to blend these segments with puzzle-solving and platforming in a natural way.
Moreover, Rise of the Tomb Raider is able to step up its tomb game, as well as take the architectural puzzles to the open, in a more organic and integrated manner. Some parts genuinely feel like a remodelling of the old approach to puzzle-solving, like the ones at the main gate to the old city of Kitezh, halfway through the game. At these instances, it feels like an actual Tomb Raider game, rather than a spoon-fed corridor shooter. It is so relieving to see parts in which the game challenges you more acerbically and the approach required to complete tombs carries over to some segments throughout the story. All this makes it even more evident that the ‘optional tombs’ should have been part of the game itself, rather than an afterthought. What’s more, I think treasures should be treated in a similar way – placed sparingly across the map as a way to incentivise exploration and turn up a notch the difficulty of platforming. Sadly, as I’ve mentioned, the map is littered with treasures, which get diluted in the sea of items to find across the map.
The narrative running throughout the game is one that honours the original Tomb Raiders by bringing up many of their elements. In this sequel, Lara comes across some clues in Syria that locates the ancient city of Kitezh in Siberia. Lara’s following her father’s footsteps, as she’s always been, in search of an artefact with otherworldly power by the name of the Divine Source. Her interests clash with Trinity’s, a corporative and secret organisation seeking the same artefact, although with more destructive ends. The story follows the classic formula along ruins and harsh environments, adding a twist to the villains, sometimes even blurring the lines. It isn’t complicated or profound, but rather, a loose context in which to explore Lara’s resolution. There are some plotholes, but, meh, I’m happy as it is. However, unlike the previous Tomb Raiders, there is one element that feels very off, and shadows any fun you can find in the story: Lara herself.
Our Lara of yore was not old, but she always seemed mature, seasoned and candid. Her relentlessness was accompanied by a steady hand, a snarky one-liner and an incomparable arrogance. The kind of arrogance that evokes security and admiration, and is followed by her putting on a pair of round metal, orange-tinted sunglasses. More importantly, an arrogance that’s inconceivable in a real scenario, that only works in 90s popcorn-cinema action and that’s self-aware and unpretentious. That’s where Lara’s essence resided: an over-the-top setting for an over-the-top character that defied all conventions. In 2013, Lara was knocked down from her pedestal, and she became a sufferer in her own adventures. Lara was attempted to be transformed into something real and with it, she became a mix of psychopathy and victimhood.
Rise of the Tomb Raider, when it was first announced, it was clear that it was not going to stray far from this path. On the one side, she attended therapy. She seemed unable to cope with the horrendous events in the island of Yamatai; everybody saw her as this traumatised, broken girl, who was forced to commit horrible actions. That she is not. We soon realise that Lara has a bit of a double life. When in England, she’s a distressed goody-two-shoes, who’s to be taken care of. When she’s abroad and nobody can see her, she’s a skilled and ruthless killer, a serial murderer who enjoys blood on her hands. And here’s where the biggest problem with this reboot lies, and something that Rise of the Tomb Raider is unable to fix. Her looks, voice and outwards story attempts to convey something that she isn’t; a very young, frail and vulnerable girl who’s lost everything. For some reason, Lara is continuously panting, no matter the situation. Her whining, self-reassuring and over-expositional monologues, and her infantilism in spite of the contrived attempts of making her a woman inured to hardships, turn Lara into the most annoying, antithetical and unnecessarily apologetic version of herself.
There’s a lot to love in Rise of the Tomb Raider. In many ways, it goes back to the origins, and improves a lot in these aspects. Perhaps I’m a bit of a purist, but anybody can soon spot that there’s something off in the game. It’s easy to realise how many levels and elements in this game have been developed separately and pasted together. However, above all, you notice how the role is too big for this new version of Lara. Unlike 2013’s Tomb Raider, I will gladly come back to this game in the future, even though I will be cringing every time she talks. But hey, give her a few years. Then she will be ready.
Oh yeah, and Jonah. Jonah is bit dim, and I think Lara knows it.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
With an aggravating protagonist and a messy structure, Rise of the Tomb Raider does not manage to bring Lara back to her full glory. Nevertheless, this game improves a lot in comparison to the prequel, and provides with uncountable moments of thrill and awe, particularly when in terms of puzzles and architecture.