Review: Tomb Raider (PC/Steam)

I picked up Tomb Raider recently, intrigued to see the modern take on the venerable puzzle-platform game from years ago. However, I very quickly found out that this game was, indeed, cursed.

My first impressions were almost encouraging – a glossy opening cinematic that transitioned into a peculiar scene of the “new” Lara Croft hanging from mid-air. I’d have done better to leave her hanging and found a good game to play. One thing I can’t fault Tomb Raider on is the visual quality – indeed, the setting and underlying backstory are what kept me going for twelve hours. The setting of the mysterious island of Yamatai, and the particulars of the “curse” that keeps survivors of the various shipwrecks marooned intrigued me, and I felt it was well-realised, though it’s easily said that the visuals are the most important part of any (interactive) movie.

That’s the positive stuff out of the way.

While the backstory to the island and setting were quite nicely built up throughout the course of the game, transitioning from coastal forests to ruined native villages to the epic, sweeping structures built by more modern inhabitants of Yamatai, the writing elsewhere was sorely lacking. Tomb Raider positions itself as a fresh reboot of the franchise, and the “origin story” for Lara Croft. The Lara presented here is utterly insufferable, she suffers a total victim complex and spends almost the entire game talking aloud to herself about her surroundings (the game’s lazy means of reminding the player of the current objective). Her voice actor is also pretty awful, completing the impression that this Lara is the archetypal woe-is-me, naïve, rich girl with the requisite amount of daddy issues. There’s a clear dichotomy between “cutscene Lara” and “game Lara”; in a cutscene, Lara has major moral concerns about having to kill a man, but happily spends the rest of the game gunning down dozens of insane island folk. How does she suddenly acquire this bad-assery? Because the plot demands it. Why do the various injuries not cause Lara any impediment on her journey until the plot demands it in a very contrived manner? You guessed it! Quite astutely, later on, one of the underdeveloped companion characters Lara is inevitably tasked with rescuing states that “it’s all about Lara”. There’s plenty of instances where the game’s writing tries very hard (and very crudely) to force the player to empathise with characters because the plot demands it. For these reasons, narratively I found Lara utterly unrelatable as a character. At its root, Tomb Raider seemed to me to play out like a poor imitation of classic exploration and adventure films – a “budget Indiana Jones” for sure.

In terms of the franchise, the poor writing goes against the game in that it would be extremely simple to swap Lara Croft for any generic adventurer; indeed, one of my biggest wishes with this game is that the developer had embraced the setting, and the mediocre story, and just put their own character in; the use of the Tomb Raider intellectual property in such a mediocre and generic outing seemed to do the franchise a disservice. I feel personally, the story was underdeveloped; too often it felt like a checklist of adventure movie tropes, some of which (the surging river and rickety crossing for one) were poorly disguised.

In preparation, I watched Yahtzee Croshaw’s excellent review, and in terms of gameplay I’d wholeheartedly agree with his main points: the developer throws in mechanics that are transient at best. A great example would be the “hunger” mechanic, which drives the game through the first level, and leads the player to acquiring the bow and shooting a deer for food, as Lara incessantly complains about being hungry. Once out of this area, the hunger mechanic never troubles Lara again – there’s nary a “stamina” meter nor a health benefit to encourage the player to keep that in mind. The only reference I found to “hunger” later on, for instance, was great big orange cool boxes full of food that serve to merely top up experience points for the obligatory levelling-up system. The levelling system itself seemed amoeboid at best, there was certainly no subtlety, just three broad (and linear) skill “sets” to steadily unlock; same core, extremely simplified mechanic applies to weapon upgrades through “salvage”. Neither of these systems seem completely cohesive with the main game at all.

This game is “cinematic” gaming at its worst: there’s pretty much one linear path the game forces you down, from one set piece shootout or dodging sequence to the next, playing out like a movie the player has a distant level of control over, and several immersion-breaking allusions to the attempts at adding interactivity to this cinematic experience. All “climbable” surfaces are mysteriously painted white, for instance, and craggy rocks are a standout sign in an otherwise-well-realised world that you’ll eventually be expected to climb up there. The game seemingly wants the best of both worlds, and ends up with neither. Each area has a set amount of collectibles, but there is no real incentive to waste time looking for these; they’re neither required to advance the story nor provide any real fleshing-out of that story. Like most of the mechanics, they feel thrown in to give the player “something to do”, and little else. Even the titular tombs themselves are tertiary to the plot; they present infrequent puzzles that offer rewards that add nothing to the story. To even call this game Tomb Raider is almost a falsehood with so little amount of actual tomb raiding.

The overarching feeling while playing was that Tomb Raider was an immense missed opportunity. So much more could’ve been done with both the setting and the franchise; instead, a pretty average, standard, cookie-cutter game at best is presented. This could’ve been a definitive remake of the original game, exploring it from a new angle; however, the developer instead chose to make a pretty run-of-the-mill, generic adventure game with the Tomb Raider name slapped upon it for a quick buck. It’s like there was a half-hearted attempt to make a truly thrilling and enjoyable adventure here, but the developer got lazy. I get the parallels to Uncharted, but lacking a PlayStation or experience with those, I can’t comment further. Overall though, while Tomb Raider wasn’t a broken game, it’s competency and mediocrity at its best do doom it when considered as a continuation of a revered franchise. It’s just a shame this game wasn’t left dead and buried, though I luckily only paid £5 for it. Don’t pay more.

Buy Tomb Raider on Steam

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