I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until earlier this year that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. This post was intended to have been published a week ago, however my job had me putting in ten to thirteen-hour days last week, so I simply wasn’t able to finish the game and write this commentary in time for that. But, on the plus side, I can say that I eventually got it done. I guess this is a case of better late than never.
Tomb Raider is yet another game series that I had never touched up until this point, despite the Tomb Raider games having been around since 1996. In 2013, however, the Tomb Raider series was completely rebooted with a new entry in the series, simply titled Tomb Raider, which wiped the slate clean and told a new origin story of the series’ protagonist, Lara Croft. Debuting on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, the game was well received by the games media, and a year later the Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider was released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Having read good things about Tomb Raider, and given that the game was a reboot, meaning I didn’t have to concern myself with knowing anything about the preceding games, I decided that Tomb Raider had at last earned a space on my list of games to eventually play. Since I now had a PlayStation 4, I opted for the Definitive Edition, which is the same game as the original PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 one, but with some improvements to visuals and performance, and an extra tomb for Lara to raid. Before going any further, I’ll warn the reader that since the original version of Tomb Raider came out three years ago, I don’t see any issue with dropping story spoilers in this commentary.
Escape and survival
Resetting the game’s universe, Tomb Raider tells the story of a young Lara Croft’s first archeological expedition and how she transformed into a badass survivor. Lara is part of a crew searching for the mythical Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, said to be on an island somewhere in the Dragon’s Triangle, which is like the Bermuda Triangle of the Pacific Ocean. Predictably, Lara’s ship is caught in a sudden, catastrophic storm that shipwrecks her and several other members of the crew on an unknown island, which of course turns out to be the land of Yamatai. Lara and her friends are not alone, however. They soon realize that the island is populated by other survivors who are extremely hostile and led by a cultic leader named Matthias who worships the fabled Queen Himiko—the ancient ruler of Yamatai who is said to control the storms around the island. Scared and isolated, Lara must learn to fight and fend for herself in order to survive and regroup with her crew, one of whom, her friend Sam, has been kidnapped by Matthias. After a failed attempt to get help from the outside world, it becomes clear that the storms surrounding the island are not natural, and as if Lara didn’t have enough on her plate with the island’s hazards and Matthias’ followers, the situation is further complicated by the Oni—mysterious warriors dressed in samurai attire that kill anyone they encounter. Exploring and fighting her way through the island, Lara eventually rescues Sam, but a second attempt to escape the island fails and results in the death of Roth, the expedition’s leader. Lara’s friends begin planning for a third attempt to escape, but Lara knows that it won’t work as long as the supernatural storms continue to rage, so she sets out to discover the source of the storms. In the tomb of the general of Queen Himiko’s army, Lara learns that Himiko’s soul is still trapped within her decaying body, and the reason Matthias wants Sam is so that Himiko’s soul can be transferred to Sam, thus taking over Sam’s body and reincarnating Himiko. Hurrying back to her friends, Lara finds that Sam has again been kidnapped, with the help of a traitor amongst her team. In a desperate attempt to rescue Sam, Lara and her friends assault the mountain monastery where Matthias is performing the soul transfer ritual, and after battling through both Matthias and his followers, and the Oni, Lara interrupts the ritual by destroying the remains of Himiko’s body. The storms around Yamatai subside, and Lara and her surviving companions finally escape the island, but after being picked up by a container ship, Lara realizes that all the stories her father had told her as a child have much more truth to them than she originally believed, and she’s not ready to go home just yet.
Exploring a village and killing some wildlife
As an origin story, Tomb Raider works quite well, and as someone who had never played a Tomb Raider game before I had no issues getting into it, though the story does have two notable drawbacks. Lara starts off as a history nerd who doesn’t like to get her hands dirty, and through the trials and tribulations of the island we get to see her morph into a confident and battle-hardened explorer and combatant. Camilla Luddington, the actress behind Lara’s voice and performance does an excellent job of portraying Lara through each stage of the game, from the terrified young woman in the opening chapters to the tough survivor of the game’s latter half. In fact, it’s such a good performance that all the other characters in the game pale in comparison, and this leads me to the story’s first drawback. Everyone else besides Lara is very forgettable, with the lone exception of Roth, who acts as something of a father figure to Lara. Granted, this is Lara’s story, so a weak supporting cast isn’t the worst of offenses, but better supporting characters would have turned a good story into a great one. The second drawback of the story is the disconnect between the game’s narrative and the gameplay in the first few hours. Lara’s first time killing an animal and her first time killing a human are rather dramatic events, with the latter leaving her briefly traumatized. The tone is fitting considering how afraid Lara is at first and that she’s never killed before, but after her first human kill the gameplay outpaces the narrative, with Lara choking out and headshotting enemies freely. It’s quite a jolt to quickly go from Lara crying over killing a person to her becoming a mass-murderer, especially because in the game’s storyline we see a slower transition. If the game’s structure had been adjusted slightly to let Lara have at least one or two more character moments where she gets used to taking lives then this issue might have been negated. One final thing I want to say about the story, which isn’t a criticism but just an aside, is that I was taken aback by how often Lara gets brutalized in Tomb Raider. At many points in the game Lara gets wounded, roughed up, and/or all-around gets the snot kicked out of her. I realize these moments all feed into the narrative of Lara getting beat down but getting up each time and emerging stronger from them, but I still found it kind of disturbing (also disturbing are all the times I accidentally got Lara impaled or dying other horrific deaths from environmental hazards).
Reaching the radio tower
With my experience playing the Uncharted games and similar action titles, I was right at home when playing Tomb Raider. Running, leaping, sliding, rope climbing, cliff scaling, and ledge grabbing her way around the environment in a manner that would make Nathan Drake proud, Lara deftly navigates whatever terrain she finds herself in, and a handy Survival Instinct mechanic shows the player where she needs to go to progress the story, and highlights important objects on screen. The various regions of the island are all well designed and the pacing between them is solid, changing up Lara’s surroundings at a steady pace and delivering a good dosage of the epic set-pieces one would expect from a game like this. Moving the story forward also nets Lara new gear that opens up previously inaccessible areas, incentivizing you to backtrack to old locales to find more loot, though I would advise waiting to backtrack until you have acquired all of Lara’s tools (also be aware that enemies respawn in certain locations, but in fewer numbers than when you first passed through). Fittingly for a game called Tomb Raider, there are a number of tombs scattered about that serve as the game’s only true environmental puzzles. They are generally as thoughtful as the other parts of the island, but at the same time I do think they should have been bigger and/or more complex, as most can be completed in just a few minutes.
Note to self: next time try not to burn down priceless historical sites
Trying to stay alive and rescue her friends, Lara regularly does battle with the island’s inhabitants, and aside from the occasional stealth opportunity, Lara engages her enemies in predominantly cover-based combat. Tomb Raider’s combat mechanics are strong, with Lara moving freely into and out of cover, which meets her simultaneously needs of getting into cover whenever possible, given that it doesn’t take many enemy bullets to kill her, and quickly scrambling to new firing positions, both to flank her foes and avoid the Molotovs and explosives that Matthias’ henchmen likes to throw her way. Lara’s arsenal is based around four primary weapons—a bow, a pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle—which along with her equipment and skills can be steadily upgraded throughout the game by finding pieces of salvage and collectibles, as well as hunting wildlife and killing enemies. Increasing Lara’s skills is especially important as some very important abilities, such as being able to melee enemies with her climbing axe and dodging and countering enemy melees, have to be unlocked. To fully level up Lara you’ll need to return to old areas of the island after you’ve gotten your final piece of gear, and though you don’t need to nab every last item to get Lara’s skills and weapons to their maximum level, you will need to acquire the vast majority of them, so be ready for a small time commitment if you want to see Lara at her most badass. If you do reach that level, or are even mostly leveled-up, combat becomes fairly easy, with Lara handing out swift deaths to anyone who crosses her path. While it can be gratifying to see Lara go full-Rambo on her former tormentors, it does cause a small story problem near the end of the game when you fight the Oni. The Oni are built up to be these fearsome warriors, so to finally face them and just blow them all away with my shotgun and assault rifle had me wondering why everyone was so scared of them. Also I should note that Tomb Raider comes with a few tacked-on multiplayer modes, none of which I tried out, and from what I’ve read online are not worth anyone’s time.
Raiding a tomb
The Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider is a two year-old version of a three year-old game, and it’s not going to turn many heads with its graphics these days, but it still looks pretty good. Each locale of the island is beautifully rendered and I also appreciated the effort Tomb Raider’s developers put into the design and appearance of the island’s architecture, which ranges from ancient to modern, and sometimes is an amalgamation of both. Being a remastered version of a game, one of the interesting things about it is that you can watch videos online juxtaposing the two versions of the game next to each other. Some improvements to textures and the environment were made, but it is Lara’s character model that has undergone the most visible changes, with notable enhancements to her skin, clothes, face, and hair. As a side note, Lara also has some nice bonus outfits, with my favorite perhaps being the commando one, which works really well during full-Rambo moments. Performance-wise, I had a smooth experience with Tomb Raider, hardly encountering any framerate dips and not coming across prominent glitches.
Descending the mountain in style (and dying twice)
When I got to the end of Tomb Raider I had a feeling akin to deja vu, like I had already played this game even though it was my first time. This was no doubt because of the similarities between Tomb Raider to Uncharted, but given my love for the Uncharted games, and the high bar of quality they are known for, this familiar feeling was a good thing. Like Uncharted, Tomb Raider is an outstanding game, and is a promising start to a new series of adventures for one the most iconic characters in all of video games. Its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, will definitely get a slot in Season 2 of Late to the Party.
With Tomb Raider now in the books, Season 1 of Late to the Party is nearly over. There’s only one game left, and it’s a doozy. Since my job robbing me of so much time, I’m going to have to go all-out to finish this last game and have a writing piece published on or before December 30th. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I attempt to summit this final, daunting mountain.