Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part review. This portion focuses on the story of Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft is one of a few leading lady characters the video game industry has produced who is not only a household name, but has starred in several games since her debut in 1996. There are twelve games in the core series, and along with a dozen or so spin-offs plus three Hollywood films, they have made her one of the greatest video game characters of all-time, regardless of gender. Like it or not, Lara was one of the first — and still only one of a handful of — female characters to helm an action gaming franchise, and despite her troubled past, the Tomb Raider series (at least the main entries) have more often than not delivered high-quality exciting adventures to gamers worldwide.
When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise, it was somewhat criticized that the studio took a page from the Uncharted series. It’s hard to ignore that Croft’s more recent iterations do indeed take a wee bit of inspiration from Naughty Dog’s extremely popular action series, if only for the cutscenes and action-set pieces alone, but let us not forget that while we can clearly trace the cinematic imprint that Nathan Drake’s adventures have had on Laura, Uncharted itself began as a Tomb Raider clone. I mention this because as much as I love Nathan Drake’s adventures (and believe me I do), Lara Croft is undeniably the original globetrotting Indiana Jones-like figure of video games, and thanks to the recent trilogy, she’s back on top. Lara may not be as charming as Nathan Drake, but I’d argue that this recent trilogy has so much to offer, and apart from maybe the story, it gives Uncharted a run for its money.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the first entry to be developed by Eidos Montreal (in collaboration with Crystal Dynamics), begins not too long after its predecessor ends. Following the events of 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is chasing down Trinity, a secret society determined on world domination via the acquisition of mystical artifacts. Her search for answers leads her to such an artifact, an ancient dagger (found at a Mexican temple) that acts as a key to set off an apocalypse. Staying true to her character, Lara carelessly seizes the dagger and unintentionally triggers a giant tsunami that destroys the small Mexican town, leaving behind the deaths of hundreds of innocent lives. From there it leads to a storm, later an earthquake, and eventually an eclipse that threatens the very existence of mankind. Fortunately, the dagger must be paired with a yet undiscovered silver box in order to set a doomsday prophecy into motion. Naturally, the only way for Lara to correct her mistake is to locate the box in question. She heads off to the legendary hidden city of Paititi, only to discover that a local cult has other plans for the apocalypse, mostly involving the ceremonial slaughter of their own people.
With so much ground to cover, Shadow of the Tomb Raider might just be the most ambitious game in the entire franchise. There are enough plot twists, high stakes, and characters to fill an entire season of a television show, which should keep players more than busy throughout the game’s ten-to-fifteen-hour running time — not to mention an unexpected spin on Lara Croft’s character that sends her through a grueling emotional journey. As usual, the action is on an epic scale, delivered with breathless enthusiasm and much panache, but as far a story goes, Shadow of the Tomb Raider suffers from many of the same narrative shortcomings that plagued its predecessors. The plot makes little sense, and more often than not you’re left questioning various character motivations and the on-and-off reappearance of Croft’s good friend, Jonah, who randomly appears at the most convenient of times, only to disappear again minutes later.
This being a video game — or rather, this being a Tomb Raider game — none of the plot holes really bothered me, but I can’t go without mentioning how downright silly some it truly is. For starters, Lara travels to a Peruvian settlement populated by a large native tribe who have somehow never made contact with the outside world, yet inexplicably Lara is able to fluently communicate with them — and in English, no less. It’s absurd, especially since the game goes out of its way to encourage you to read about every artifact, tomb, and treasure you come across in order to increase Lara’s chance of understanding these ancient lost languages. Nitpicking aside, Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s biggest issue in terms of writing revolves around our heroine. Or does it?
In the short time since the game was released, I’ve browsed about one hundred articles addressing the problematic portrayal of Lara. As the heir to her white, British, aristocratic, tomb-raiding parents, who spent decades collecting, destroying, or downright stealing the antiquities of entire cultures, Lara now spends her adult life — wait for it — raiding tombs. Shocking!
Seriously though, put aside the earlier games, when Lara was grossly sexualized, and even the recent trilogy (of which this is the third installment) has never once attempted to change or hide who Lara really is. The difference here, however, is that Shadow of the Tomb Raider at least places Lara in a position in which she comes face to face with the reality that she is part of the problem. In Shadow the stakes are raised, as her reckless pillaging of a Mayan tomb kicks off a series of unfortunate events. And although Lara Croft is still trying to save the world, her obsession for collecting ancient artifacts is ultimately responsible for that which could bring the world to an end. It’s something she’s never taken responsibility for, at least until now.
An Emotional Journey
Admittedly, Shadow of the Tomb Raider places Lara once again as the white savior, protector, and only true hope for the indigenous people she meets along the way, but give credit to its creators, who recognize the flaws of the series and at least attempt to not only address these flaws, but do away with them hopefully once and for all. It may not be perfect, but it is an admirable attempt to repair whatever they can without fundamentally changing the entire series or game. With Shadow, Lara meditates on the repercussions of her actions, and throughout her emotional journey she goes from brilliant archaeologist to a confused and beaten hero to a relentless warrior out for revenge. Give credit to voice actress Camilla Luddington, who fully commits to her role, carefully walking the tightrope between courageous, curious, adventurous, vulnerable, angry, and yes, downright over-the-top at times. It also helps that she shares great chemistry with series veteran Earl Baylon, who returns as Jonah, the voice of reason and arguably Lara’s emotional anchor.
A Journey of Self-Discovery and Horror
It should be said, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an extremely violent and grim game. It has a higher body count than that of any other installment, especially when you take into account the number of innocent lives lost — sometimes as the direct result of the decisions Lara Croft makes, and other times due to a ritual human sacrifice at the hands of a crazed Purivian cult. Lara herself also shows a disturbing darker side. When compared to the innocent young girl in the first game and the accomplished archaeologist and adventurer of the second game, here Lara must literally crawl her way over hundreds of decomposing corpses, swim through rivers of blood, and bear witness to indigenous people murdered in front of her eyes. Her journey is one of self-discovery, but also one of horror. Once she gains the courage to see it through to the very end, Lara Croft rises from a blood-soaked flaming river to become a cunning and cold-blooded killer, bent evermore on survival, instinct trumping all. She’s on a quest for revenge and vindication. When it comes to gunning down her enemies, she doesn’t blink an eye. She’s brutal, to say the least, a resourceful deadly predator who is brought to life as a modern blend of Rambo and Ripley, with just a glint of psychopathy in her eyes.
In the final act, Lara Croft changes. For the better or for worse, she may never be the same, although judging by the post-credits cutscene, she may have finally exorcised her inner demons.
– Ricky D