(Disclaimer: I have never reviewed a video game before despite being a lifelong gamer, and I’m going to approach this more as I would a film, as a means for telling a story. For reference, I played the Xbox 360 version of the game.)
Lara Croft, wealthy young archeologist, is off on her first expedition, to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, along with a shipful of assorted characters. They’re heading into the Dragon’s Triangle, a dangerous area of the ocean that’s the source of many strange rumors, when a violent storm appears and causes their ship to sink. Lara plunges into the sea, scrambling to shore, pulling herself up on the sand. She spots the other survivors further down the beach, but as she calls for them an unseen attacker strikes her head, knocking her out. She awakes hanging in a cave by her ankles, bound and unable to move. She swings herself back and forth, knocking things over and causing a fire. As she prepares to set her bindings aflame in order to free herself she mutters, “This is going to hurt,” and as the fire cuts through her ropes she plunges into a pit, where she is impaled through the side by a piece of rebar. She pulls it from her, and she staggers deeper into the cave, trying to find a way out. She eventually does, but not before struggling with her attacker, creating an explosion that causes the cave to collapse, and crawling on her hands and knees up through the falling rocks towards a point of light that means escape.
It’s an intense way to start a story, and that intensity is mostly carried throughout the dozen or so hours of the game. The Tomb Raider franchise, of course, is one of the most famous in video game history, as is Lara Croft. She’s been everything from sex symbol to badass female role model in its 17 year history, and has been held up as both a positive example of women in video games and the epitome of everything that’s wrong and sexist with the industry. But never before has she seemed so real. Gone are her pyramid boobs and the ridiculous anatomical proportions. In this reboot of the series, Lara is much more a girl next door, who, while still designed as a gorgeous young woman, is presented for the first time as someone to care about instead of just ogle.
As this is a reboot, Lara is also not yet a badass. Her opening narration, played as her ship is sinking and she’s struggling to escape, says, “In our darkest moments, when life flashes before us, we find something. Something that keeps us going. Something that pushes us. When all seemed lost, I found a truth. And I knew what I must become.” That narration sets up the theme of the piece nicely. Lara starts her adventure with basically none of the skills that we’ve come to expect from her based on her other games. She’s certainly bold and enterprising from the start, unafraid to stand up to the more experienced members of the crew, but she’s neither a survivor nor a fighter.
The best moments in the game happen as Lara grows into a stronger and more capable woman. We watch as she goes from struggling to start a fire to killing her first deer for food (she apologizes to the deer before she delivers the final blow). The game’s most talked about moment, even before it was released, comes early in the game after she is captured by members of the crazed cult that live on the island. One of the men takes a fancy to her, and during an attempt by her group to escapes, he uses the opportunity to attempt to molest her. She fights back, biting him and kneeing him in the groin, before they wrestle in the dirt for his gun, with Lara finally winning the upper hand and killing him. It’s the first time she’s taken a life, and she’s almost overwhelmed by the experience, collapsing to her knees and dry heaving in repulsion and fear. This new Tomb Raider is at her best when it takes a page out of the Die Hard storytelling book, giving us a vulnerable hero, who feels the same fear we would in the situation, but finds a way to carry on when her only other choice is to give up. It’s the story of the potential strength we all have in ourselves that might never show itself unless we’re confronted with the right situation. Lara’s life, and those of her friends, is at stake, and she’s not about to surrender.
Unfortunately, as is the case with most games, the story suffers a bit as the amount of gameplay increases. No one wants the game to just become a movie, but the need for action occasionally undermines the character growth. Lara goes from struggling with taking her first life to becoming a killing machine in the amount of time that makes sense for gameplay but not for character development. The gameplay itself, particularly the combat and exploration, is extremely polished. It’s immensely satisfying to send a flaming arrow into a gas tank, sending the bad guys flying as Lara calls out to them in anger over what they’re doing to her friends. The island itself brings up memories of Lost, scattered with mysteries from a variety of time periods, and it’s fun exploring its nooks and crannies. Much of the backstory and mythology is told through the scraps of information and collectables that Lara finds throughout the island, and it weaves a story of a queen, Himiko, who might have had magical powers, of human sacrifices, and of the many people who have become trapped on the island through the plethora of wrecked ships and aircraft that Lara finds in her adventures.
My one complaint from a gameplay standpoint is that the puzzles, and the tombs they’re found in, are ridiculously simple and uninspired. Tomb Raider, as a franchise, has featured some very tricky puzzles in the past, but that has been abandoned here. I would imagine/hope we’ll see more creative puzzles and a lesser emphasis on combat in the inevitable sequel. Given that this story is supposed to be about the formation of Lara Croft, and especially given the stakes of the action, it makes sense to de-emphasize everything on the sides.
The artistry that went into the game is truly first rate. Everything from sound effects and musical score, to writing and direction are top notch. Especially notable is Camilla Luddington‘s performance as Lara Croft; her voice acting and motion capture performance does the most work in making Lara feel like a real person. The plot becomes fairly predictable in the second half of the story, but it’s still well told and entertaining throughout, successfully balancing realism and drama with the bigger action set pieces and supernatural elements.
There has been a larger debate about the portrayal of women as victims, and I’m not going to delve into that in much depth. I feel like Tomb Raider gives us a realistic vision of some horrific events, without fetishizing the things that happen to Lara. She became a character I genuinely cared about, and wanted to see succeed and survive. The handling of the “attempted rape” as it was called in the media, is handled carefully, and is an appropriate story moment for the growth of the character. It’s supposed to be repulsive, in order to drive Lara to kill for the first time, and it never comes off as voyeuristic victimization. The only moment that struck me as somewhat tasteless was one of the death animations that features in the recurring sections where Lara is sliding down something (usually a waterfall/river). Make a wrong turn and Lara will be impaled upon a spike, that forces its way through her chin and up out of her head. Many of the death animations are horrific in that way, all the more so when you’ve grown to care about the character, but the somewhat penetrative aspect of that particular animation felt mildly wrong. But if you’re a more skilled player than I am, you could go the entire game without seeing it, and if that’s the only complaint about the portrayal of women in this Tomb Raider then we’ve most definitely come a long way.
Tomb Raider is definitely inspired by the Uncharted series, which can only be a good thing, given that series’ success. What sets it apart, however, is the emotional attachment the player has with the main character, a true accomplishment considering Lara Croft’s gaming roots. Outside of long RPGs, the only time I’ve been more invested in a game character was Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, to whom I imagine no character will ever measure up. Tomb Raider is exciting to play, thought-provoking, and emotionally investing, and one of the best cases yet for the “games are art” debate.