In 2013 we began a new journey with Lara Croft. After decades of being little more than a rock-climbing, sex symbol for horny teenage boys, Crystal Dynamics presented Lara for the first time as a real person. This was framed as the start of a trilogy that would show the emotional and psychological journey that would lead her to becoming the Tomb Raider.
This adventure started strong, with a brilliant snapshot scenario in which an un-initiated Lara had to overcome the physical and psychological barriers necessary for her to survive. It was followed by an entry that, though convoluted and missing the focus of the first game, did a good job at presenting the psychological drive instilled by her father and the larger threat of the Trinity organisation.
Now, at the end of this five-year journey, with two games building us towards the pinnacle of Lara’s origin story, the trilogy has stumbled. Mere feet from the summit, it has slipped dramatically downhill, and dashed the potential this trilogy had to reach new heights for the franchise.
Unlike the first two entries, this third installment was developed by Eidos Montreal rather than Crystal Dynamics. Despite this shift, the core aspects of the game remain largely the same. This time taking place largely in Peru, you are still exploring the same linear path, with open spaces along the way, and jumping between sections of exploration, puzzle-solving and combat.
If you have played any of the previous entries, just how similar the gameplay loop is can be a little frustrating. From the moment the world opened to explore, I knew exactly how the next 15 hours would play out – climb, sneak, shoot, tomb, climb, sneak, shoot, tomb, and so on. These tasks all remain fun, but after engaging in this same loop twice in the last five years (not to mention the same loop in other franchises), it is a little deflating when you realise how little this loop has been changed.
Despite this, these mechanics are generally very satisfying to engage with. True to the name of the franchise, raiding tombs is still the star attraction. These challenge tombs scattered throughout the map offer a range of multi-stage obstacles and puzzles to overcome, all of which integrate the games core mechanics in varied and interesting ways, as well as offering fresh obstacles for you to contend with.
For instance, an early tomb tasks you with raising a ladder to reach a platform. Using your rope arrows, you must figure out the order and configuration with which to adjust a series of counter-weights to pull the ladder up. As always, there is a certain amount of logic that needs to be suspended in order to enjoy these puzzles – I mean, surely the ancient Incan’s didn’t construct this elaborate weight system just to lift a ladder if it fell down – but, the act of solving these tomb puzzles is consistently a welcome brain-bender that breaks up the pacing of the game in just the right way.
These moments of calm puzzle-solving were even more of a relief in this entry than they had been in the past – mostly because they offer a momentary relief from the baffling, and often exasperating, narrative of this game. Undoubtedly, the downfall of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the story, and how it ties into the developments of Lara’s character.
The game opens with Lara racing to beat Trinity members to a Mayan treasure in Mexico. Upon finding the treasure, and without thought snatching it from its millennia-old place of enshrinement, Lara is told by her enemies that she has unwittingly kickstarted the apocalypse – at which point catastrophe begins to unfold.
It seems like an interesting enough premise, but it doesn’t take long to realise it is going to undermine the foundations the past two games have patiently built – especially for the characterisation of Lara. Though the previous two games have included supernatural elements, they were far more contained than this global threat that Lara has kicked off. Under the care of the series previous head writer, the fantastic Rhianna Pratchett, it might have been possible for Lara to have a believable and understated personal journey within a narrative of this scale – but the team at Eidos Montreal were not up to the task. Rather, Lara reacts to this development by continuing to drive headlong into the situation with the same bullheadedness that caused the problem to begin with – melodramatically monologuing about how terrible she feels to put everyone in danger, while simultaneously continuing to show a flagrant disregard for the safety of everyone she meets.
It seems that Eidos Montreal have decided that the logical next step for the progression of Croft’s character is to make her a wholly unlikable person. Gone is the compassionate, thoughtful young woman of past entries – replaced instead with an arrogant, single-minded, bull in a china shop. I’ll say it, they made her into an asshole.
It might have been fine to take Lara in this direction – I mean there are many ways you could justify this progression based on her experiences in past adventures - the trouble is, the story fails to justify anything. I mean, the game cannot even maintain a logical consistency within its own narrative, let alone, continue a believable through-line from two previous games.
A lot of this logical dissonance emanates from the premise of the game itself - Lara’s personal downfall coming from unthinkingly snatching an item from a tomb. Now, Lara’s journey from this moment might have been fascinating exploration of her line of work, and the ethics and consequences of it. The game tries, ineffectually, to raise these issues in cutscenes, but none of it lands because mere moments later you’ll be raiding yet another tomb. Weirdly, the game seems to acknowledge this dissonance - but instead of exploring it, it instead uses key moments to give the middle finger to the whole issue. For instance, when Lara arrives in Peru she meets a woman who instructs her on where to go next and asks her to please not damage anything. The first thing Lara does on entering the area is take an axe to a millennia-old mural.
Overall, it seems like the development team understood what they wanted to achieve with Lara’s journey, but just missed the mark in execution. Evidence of this is that, although in the main narrative Lara is an asshole and none of the logic lines up, in the side content the character we grew to know and love shines through much more clearly – as does the logic of this world.
For instance, in one of the very first side missions, Lara finds out that local archaeologists have been holding children and workers and making them dig for relics. With empathy and respect, Lara sets out to
right this wrong – never mind the fact that she has caused thousands of deaths in the moments before and shown little to no concern over it. Still, it is nice to have glimpses of this Lara in the side missions and hear writing which acknowledges the problematic aspects of Lara’s work. For instance, one lady in this storyline says to her “It’s a shame you’re not a tourist. Tourists bring money – archaeologists only take”.
Ultimately, since this trilogy has started, it has been walking a very fine line trying to present a grounded personal journey while delving into a world full of magic and supernatural elements. Until now, the series just managed to maintain this balance - but with this entry, it fell off. Though familiar, the rest of the game’s mechanics maintain their fun and challenge, but if you were in it for the developing narrative, the end of Lara’s origin story is likely to disappoint.
Fun and familiar mechanics
Does little to grow the franchises mechanics