Very few games, let alone big budget releases, deal with the topic of physical suffering. A character exists in a binary state, alive or dead. Injuries inflicted during combat are minor worries, dealt with by the quick application of an available first aid spray or merely hiding behind cover long enough for the red blur on the screen to clear up. On a mechanical level Tomb Raider doesn’t change the rules, but in its narrative it tells a deeper story about a woman who finds herself in an impossible situation and is forced to push herself beyond what she thought she was capable of.
If there’s any fault in the game, it’s that the gameplay doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the idea of being a survivor beating down hardships. It’s not long after Lara’s first bloody, dramatic kill that the act of murdering the savages who reside on the mysterious, Lost-esque island, promptly awards Lara with experience points. Headshots grant even more experience, and with more murder you can make her into a better killer.
The Quick Time Events don’t help the process, either. Scrambling for your bow and shooting a wolf that’s lunging at you out of the air is exciting. Pressing Y at an appropriate time to avoid death is not. At the very least there’s an ample supply of checkpoints, meaning a slip of your thumb will not cast you too far back.
Leveling up is a simple, almost unnecessary affair. There are three paths to unlock, each with their own benefits. You can choose to become a better hunter and select upgrades that boost your ability to find hidden objects and salvage. A second path teaches abilities that make your weapons more effective, while a third path makes your melee attacks more powerful.
To win by losing
The multiplayer in Tomb Raider is ordinary, but it does come with one unique feature that connects to the main game. Performing feats, like killing several foes in a row, grants experience, but so can setbacks, like getting killed several times in a row. It presents the idea that suffering can make you stronger, that you learn from your mistakes.
I say it’s unnecessary because upgrades aren’t available until you unlock a certain amount first, which is most of them. Your upgrades come in three tiers, and as you unlock more you are granted access to the next tier. With the abundant amount of experience that is collected throughout the game, there’s little worry about not being able to unlock just about everything.
Guns are a different story. It costs salvage materials to upgrade your guns and if you limit yourself to minor exploration you’ll find yourself wanting. The best thing about this isn’t the benefits that get doled out from having extra ammunition in your clip or being able to deal more damage, though that’s nice on their lonesome. The best part is that upgrading the gun changes the look of it. The extra ammo for your pistol will extend the clip visually, not just functionally. And even though you’ll only carry four different weapons, it’s the ability to find better versions of these weapons throughout the island that grants variety where none was expected.
The island backdrop of Tomb Raider is worth exploring, and not just for weapon parts and scavenging material. In this quasi-open world, trinkets can be collected and diary pages found, but that’s merely the bottom of the barrel. The real attraction is the optional tombs that are scattered about, just off the main path.
Where the majority of the time is spent in a combination of acrobatics and combat, it’s the tombs that contain the essence of the classic puzzle gameplay. Each optional tomb can be raided at your leisure, regardless of how dramatic and urgent the narrative has become. At the back of the decaying crypts lie treasure, and only the most clever of explorers will be able to figure out exactly how to get to it. Or the most spatially astute. Lara has an ability to highlight useful objects, and enemies, but it doesn’t provide the answer to the puzzle. It merely points out the pieces.
When you return to the actual plot, you’ll find a story that’s worth its salt. Dialogue is well written and the voice acting is spot on, with the exception of the villain of the story. He sounds like he belongs in a Saturday morning cartoon. The mystery Lara’s trying to solve deserves the same treatment; it’s obvious and Lara appears dumb for not understanding it. The original Lara Croft didn’t question the presence of a T-Rex. Surely this Lara could’ve followed simple logic to connect the dots, but the mystery is not the main point. Watching Lara grow as a character is what takes the center stage.
And the conclusion to the fairly dumb plot is riveting because of it. This is a game that starts on a high note and ends on a high note, and propels Lara with a brisk pace in between, without falling into monotony. It’s an exceptional new start for the Tomb Raider franchise.