Diving into Lara’s darkest time yet.
In 2013’s iteration of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft was driven by urgency, and most of her decisions were reactive. She responded to drama, or conflict, or struggle only because she had to, not because she was driven to by her ambitions. Five real-world years later, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft has evolved into someone who’s narcissistic, and destructive, and obsessed with finding the next treasure, or the next artifact that defines her importance. She’ll go far enough to ignore her allies, even if it means starting a war – even an apocalypse – all by herself, because the race to win is more important than anything else.
With that, I think the title of 2018’s addition to the Tomb Raider franchise makes a lot more sense than it did to me initially. This is seemingly intended to be Lara Croft’s darkest story, with the beloved protagonist realizing there’s a human cost to what she previously thought just involved ‘raiding tombs’, and that destruction follows her for a reason. According to the Narrative Director at Eidos Montreal, an increase in drama and tension with her allies was a huge focus of the game, too. This is the Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the dive into the darker parts of her personality, and the confrontation of how her flippant attitude toward messing with historically, culturally significant artifacts can influence everyone, not just her alone.
That dive is represented in Lara’s impulses and obsession with the game’s ‘bad guy’, Dominguez. In the hour-long demo I played, he only ever seemed to be compassionate to those around him, even if Lara presented him as an apocalyptic monster (and the group he leads may be responsible for killing her father, which, you know, seems like a pretty big deal). The two are, of course, on the hunt for some particularly special historical items that have the power to change the world and in that race Lara’s knowledge is her biggest asset. Her understanding of the clues laid out before her, and those written in age-old constellations, are what give her the edge in a fight she doesn’t necessarily understand. That lack of understanding might be her biggest weakness, outside of the reboot’s almost predictably brutal deaths (I got impaled twice during my time playing), but it’s also what makes her more compelling than possibly ever before.
The gameplay compliments this new psychological state she’s in, too, with two new mechanics being introduced. These days, Lara can rappel downward from a lot of the environments she’s able to climb on with her pickaxes, and use her rope to swing across to different environments when she loses her footing. She can swim amongst the watery depths of temples, too. Both of these mechanics are centered around descension, and that’s entirely intentional – it’s supposed to feel like, while Lara herself is descending into a darker place, the gameplay takes her there, too. One thing the gameplay designer assured me of is that Lara’s rarely alone, either, and that even the newfound comfort of a tomb might be taken away from her in the jungle.
These days, Lara can rappel downward and swim underwater.
Two of the struggles I encountered while swimming were the terrifying appearance of an aggressive eel, and the concern that I might run out of air at any moment. There are pockets of air you can identify either by their appearance above you, or by the bubbles leading up to them, and then you can ascend to take a breath and replenish your lungs. Every stroke that lead me further away from the air pushed me further into tension, though. Lara’s carefully animated panic as I tried to get out of a large body of water might honestly be one of the most tense gaming moments I’ve had in 2018 so far, and I appreciate that it didn’t rely too much on QTEs.
Prior to all of that, the segment I played was based in Mexico, starting off with a festival resembling Day of the Dead, which was delightfully colourful, dense, and detailed. Considering the amount of sources of light (fireworks included), of fully animated NPC’s and of objects colouring environments, it seemed a feat that the frame rate remained so steady. Lara donned a skull mask and a hooded jacket, and the two of us ventured into the mix of mourning and celebration the night presented, cautiously stalking Dominguez and his men.
It didn’t take long for the setting to completely shift, even if the transition felt very natural. I walked out of the town setting and almost straight into a tomb, which presented me with some series-standard platforming, weight-based puzzles, and rope-based puzzles. One of them did stump me for longer than previous Tomb Raider games might’ve on average, but those particular challenges will likely feel familiar to anyone who’s played other games in the series. The ease at which you can use your bow to swap between interacting with environments or attacking enemies remains impressive, and every step forward felt easy and obvious, largely thanks to a smartly designed visual language.
It’s the darkness that has this addition to the franchise feeling fresh, and has me eager to learn more.
I should mention that I encountered a bug while entering the tomb that halted my progress – a location where I was supposed to rappel to another rock allowed me to simply jump to it, and when I did, for whatever reason, Lara wouldn’t pull out her pickaxes, so I was unable to move. My only option was to ‘let go’ and die, leading me to try the same thing again, wondering what I was doing wrong. The developers assured me I had encountered the only bug in the demo, one of them even ‘congratulating’ me for finding it, so I assume this is an issue they’re well aware of. Still, the ability to rappel changes the level design in a significant way, and I hope there’s clear distinction between what you’re supposed to jump towards and what you’re supposed to rappel and swing towards going forward.
Upon making a rash decision (Lara made it, not me personally), I escaped the decaying tomb, feeling like the world really was reacting to my presence as rocks and platforms fell down around me. I made it out into the world and was met with a series of stealth challenges, where Lara covered herself in mud to blend into the trees around her, and took out enemies one by one. There was an instance where I confronted Dominguez’ guards with an assault rifle rather than with my bow or my pickaxe, too, and while that felt significantly messier than the stealth moments, I never felt like I had an absence of options.
If you’ve played the two most recent Tomb Raider games you’ll know what to expect here and it doesn’t hugely innovate on anything we’ve seen before, but the developers from Eidos Montreal assured us that you don’t need to play the others to enjoy this one, either.
Beyond that, Shadow of the Tomb Raider took me through a haunting, flooded city, made me watch a young boy fall to the depths as he tried to cling to a dry building, and saw Lara directly called a narcissist by one of her closest friends, Jonah. It is a genuinely gorgeous game (maybe aside from Lara’s weirdly disproportionate arms), with some of the largest hub areas in the entire series, and the gameplay has some significant and satisfying refinements, but it’s the darkness that has this addition to the franchise feeling fresh, and has me eager to learn more.
Alanah Pearce is a writer/producer at IGN, and one time she even cosplayed as Lara Croft.