Lara Croft is gifted with indomitable spirit in Tomb Raider. The heroine is met with utter disbelief through her tenacity by cult members seeking asylum from an island that has ensnared them in its mythical trap. Croft is searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai when her charter boat crashes ashore in a freakish storm. Turns out the storm, like Lara, does not quit.
At odds with nature, implausible shanty towns, and ferocious minions of a determined (and deranged) cult leader, Croft’s journey is one of growth. The design is such that her first kill is apologetic, a deer that becomes needed food. Her first assault on a human brings about shock and grief. She knows turning back on her actions is impossible. As she nears the secret to this expansive and sprawling island, Croft has become agitated. She is not a one-liner type of girl, but a genuinely fearsome combatant who has had enough of this resistance.
Often, Croft will stop and admire a video camera’s warm glow, a glimpse into her trip to the island before she was met with heartache. That was also before she was impaled on a spike which grazed her internal organs, yet still bothers her well into the closing moments. Rarely do scenes go by where she is not clutching her side in agony. Her visions of pain are grueling, with a steely sound and scattered screen making the player delirious from the injury. Asking someone to jam on the X button to remove an impaled object is arduous, a button action reserved for basic interactions such as opening a door flipped against the player.
So much of Tomb Raider is perfect. It takes the genre tropes founded by the likes of current generation predecessor Uncharted – things such as climbing, shimmying thin ledges, and running through collapsing buildings – and does something else with it. Nathan Drake always felt invincible, a Hollywood hero who despite taking his lumps, stood back up and joined the fight. With Lara, the ending is not as clear.
Shaken from a heavy fall that knocks her unconscious, she awakens and shambles forward. The screen splits into a dizzying cycle of grays and double images. Croft cannot jump, those ledges which were simple acrobatic maneuvers before are now insurmountable obstacles as blood pours from her wounds. She needs first aid and rest, both of which she does not have time for. Her party is expecting rescue, split up and captured, so she forges ahead with only half of her skill set. This is a tough Lara Croft, maybe too much so given the level of extreme punishment, but never one that dons an evening gown or celebrates her past success. She is young, recollecting her first find at age five, and still carrying excitement for found relics if she is not mourning those lost.
Tomb Raider is often shockingly dark. One-off deaths find Lara speared through her throat, or crumbling under the pressure from the freak fall. They are designed to be harrowing and hard to watch, and they should be. Lara’s companions are under equal duress and without her skill set. Not all of them will make it, so seeing those shocks makes the experience of losing someone all the more powerful. Knowing what Lara went through to try and save them makes it emotional.
Until the closing act which becomes a gun-happy shooting festival, developer Crystal Dynamics spares the title routine combat. Spacious environments are used for travel, exploration, and mystery. Spurts of action are rarely outright, typically caused by clumsy play in the midst of alerted guards. Animation makes it easy to mistake Lara’s capabilities. She rarely feels surefooted, somewhat unstable as she creaks along stealthily. Guns are held without assurance when she takes her stance, and frequently loses her grip during climbing traversals. This is certainly an imperfect interpretation of Lara Croft, but an undeniably human one.
Pacing splits the title between bouts of intense scale where bridges and hanging objects crumble or explode around desperate escape attempts, and quieter moments of staring at the sights. The elation of climbing a rusty communication tower to send an S.O.S. is heightened by the generosity of the visuals at its peak. Up high, the island seems quaint, a paradise set in the midst of the Bermuda Triangle, now sadly left to rot amongst the remnants of World War II and ancient Japanese religions.
Picking and choosing its shots within the realm of fantasy allows the island to carry its own thematic characteristics. What begins as a chilly beach transforms into a humid jungle, and then snowy mountaintops. This place has seen many before Lara and her crew, pieces and memories of past lives dating back to the 15th century. It would seem no one has lived to speak of its breakdown against nature’s laws.
What all of this amounts to is a brilliant, perfectionist type of design that flows from one location to the next seamlessly. Tomb Raider never stalls to indicate it is loading, the entire experience a singular journey without breaks and frequent freedom to explore. This vision of Lara Croft may not be “tomb” raider, but it certainly jumps to success with the same adventure sensibilities. These are genuine thrills, and raw tension is everywhere. The pressure is on the player to not find themselves looking at one of the grisly, gruesome death scenes. Controlling Lara as she pushes through an entire river of blood is plenty enough, and the game guides with an invisible hand. The use of subtle camera shifts is perfect as to not feel invasive or break momentum during those heightened set pieces.
Tomb Raider loves this medium, a story made for video games and their own internal logic. Even Lara seems surprised with the realization of what she has survived, and her friends are shocked by her will. Like so many others, a slowly evolving skill set builds on what this heroine can accomplish, furthering her ability to work over caverns and through caves. The illogical number of ropes stretched across these valleys are to the point of absurdity, yet even with the straight-faced seriousness, there is a sense that Tomb Raider needs a break. It can be a video game, celebrate what they do right, and never feel sorry for these basic design ideals. Yes, this is often repetitious and only to a fault; few games will get players from point A to point B any smoother.
Within all of this, Crystal Dynamics still works in an effective combat engine that generously doles out impact and violence. Gunplay is fluid, and smatterings of blood are painful as enemies wince from the hit. People actively avoid being shot and cower in fear. They never seem to be taking cover with the idea that they can win, but are hyped on adrenaline and fueled by fear. Lara establishes herself quickly as an imposing and dominating figure. Conversations scattered about the island have foes turning her into legend as her spirit overpowers their numbers.
A simple dodge system will see Lara scattering between cover in desperation, and her utilization of tools is tactical. Nothing goes to waste in her arsenal; if it can kill, she will make it so. Spearing her adversaries with arrows directly in hand-to-hand melees, piercing knees with a climbing tool, or ramming faces with a butt of a shotgun are methods never allowed to grow weary. Despite this combative methodology, the tacked on and utterly forgettable multiplayer is a jittery mess that seems to be culled from a different engine. Despite having some of the spirit, ideals, and design philosophies of the campaign, it crushes itself with ungainly movement. It’s a shame some will hold the (supposed) market-necessitated multiplayer against the title as a negative since it does not need to be there in the first place.
Instead, spend more time on the island, searching and scrounging for collectibles. Or, better yet, just enjoy the design that one-ups some of the assumed to be impenetrable classics of this generation. Tomb Raider earns its crown.