Version Played: Xbox One
Let the records show that I’m incredibly late to the party on this one. I was never really a fan of Tomb Raider; though the very first game was very impressive from a technical point of view way back in the mid-90s, the series never really grabbed me – and I found the ubiquity of Lara Croft as a cultural icon more irritating than appealing.
That said, I thought the two Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies in the early 00s were big, dumb, cheesy fun. As time wore on, however, it felt to me that the developers in charge of the games really struggled to move forward with the series and they began to feel increasingly dated and dull to me.
However, a chance encounter with an enormous Tomb Raider lightgun game at an arcade stoked my interest in trying out Square Enix’s gritty reboot (on which it’s based), which – almost unbelievably to me – originally released in 2013 (with the Definitive Edition releasing on Xbox One and PS4 in 2014). It’s super weird how this kind of cross media promotion affects the kinds of things that grab my interest – a similar thing happened with Jurassic World: Evolution, sparking a renewed interest in the Jurassic Park/World franchise that led to my first complete set of reviews of an entire film series.
So, after working my way through the first game in what is already a well established new series of Tomb Raider games (thanks lockdown!), was it worth checking out?
Undoubtedly. An origin story, giving us an insight into what led to Lara becoming the hardened, no-nonsense explorer we were used to seeing in action, the reboot kicks off with a younger Lara’s first expedition, accompanied by a crew of nicely fleshed out characters. It doesn’t take long for things to go very wrong, with the ship they’re travelling on being struck by lightning and Lara – along with her companions – washing up on the island they were trying to reach. Things soon get even more dangerous than surviving a shipwreck; the island itself is inhabited by a dangerously devoted cult, looking to resurrect the mythical Sun Queen – whose trapped soul may be responsible for the lethal storms surrounding the island that ensure it remains isolated. Along the way, Lara’s resilience and strength is tested and proven; her journey to becoming the Tomb Raider we know begins here.
The story is very solid and well told; the script – by Rhianna Pratchett – is superb and really does a great job of giving us a bunch of people to care about, along with some truly hateful antagonists to pit them against. The shifting motivation of a few characters we meet (Whitman, for example) is well set up and followed through nicely, and – what we’re all here for, of course – Lara’s development is believably handled too. One particular line of dialogue has quickly become one of my favourite in any game, ever: following his throat being cut (albeit not fatally), one character remarks “That’s nothing pal – I grew up in Glasgow!”
Right from the start, the game has a surprisingly intense feel – and there’s a graphic, sometimes even horrific, slant to the subject matter that took me aback. It’s not uncommon to be making your way past decomposing human corpses, skulls or gorily depicted body parts, for example. There’s a few jump scares too, which again wasn’t something I was expecting.
Though there’s a lot of exploration and some well implemented environmental puzzles, the story is compelling enough to drag you back to wanting to proceed without too much sidetracking. There’s an awful lot to discover though, should you want to – along with an absolutely ridiculous number of collectables in every environment, there’s optional, well designed tombs to find and beat as well.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between what we’re shown in story – with Lara understandably and appropriately distraught at having to kill to survive at the beginning of the game – with what the game asks of you and rewards you for, as you’ll be engaging in brutally graphic takedowns of enemies with no further crisis of conscience on a massive scale (ludonarrative dissonance is, I believe, the correct term here).
It’s a game not really built for large scale combat, with a major battle scene featuring a ton of enemies – towards the end of the game – being a pain to progress through mostly because of the camera and the way that the game caters for mostly one-on-one struggles when up close with an antagonist. Smaller scale combat and stealth set ups fare a lot better, however, and are the norm for the vast majority of the game’s running time. As mentioned – ludonarrative dissonance aside – the combat feels solid and weighty, with options for close quarter encounters opening up as you progress.
On that, a light RPG-esque experience and skill-purchasing system is in place, allowing you to focus on improving Lara’s abilities in areas you choose to as you progress through the game. The customisation is welcome and – along with a system that sees you collecting and using salvage to improve your equipment – adds a layer or two of personalisation to ‘your’ Lara.
The game plays very well too, with traversal of the various environments being particularly compelling; controls are very well implemented and button prompts are frequent, which helps a lot. It’s presented very cinematically and the visuals are still impressive even now, several years after release. There’s a lot of variety in the various areas of the island and the draw distances, along with the general level of detail, are pretty awe-inspiring – and really show the care and attention that’s gone into crafting the game.
What’s far from successful, however, are the quick time events and on-rails sections that can be inconsistent when it comes to the timing of button presses, not to mention the issues where scenery can deliver instant kills, yet isn’t particularly consistent or clear with collision detection or even with what should – or shouldn’t – be considered lethal when playing. Thankfully, these sections are few and far between.
On the whole, however, Tomb Raider does a great job of giving Lara a fresh, more gritty and realistic adventure to work through. Though supernatural elements are present – and heighten towards the end of the narrative – the more grounded threats and sense of danger still remain. The voice acting, character design and animation work well with the aforementioned script to give us a real sense of investment in Lara’s journey and the fate of her companions; though the violent brutality enacted by Lara may be at odds with the story, it does work very well in gameplay terms.
There’s a multiplayer mode, but I’m not able to comment on this, given that I was so focused on playing through the single player campaign – I must admit that I have no interest in playing the multiplayer modes at all (and their inclusion in a Tomb Raider game baffles me quite a bit – I’m not sure how popular they are, but it seems that it’s development time wasted, in my opinion).
The luxury of being a few years late to this Tomb Raider means that I already have a trilogy to work through; upon finishing the main campaign of the Definitive Edition, I immediately began playing the sequel – Rise of the Tomb Raider. Though my thoughts on that game will follow in time, it speaks volumes about my feelings for the first game that I did this – I was very eager to continue my adventures with Lara Croft, which is really saying something for someone who has never been a fan of the Tomb Raider games over the last two decades. It’s a wonderful action adventure game and one that I’d highly recommend trying if you haven’t already.
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