Tomb Raider: Savagery, legacy, and survival

Tomb Raider

On the island of Yamatai, everything can be conquered with fire. Really unrealistic fire.

March’s reboot of the long-running Tomb Raider video game series takes Lara Croft back to the beginning — to her first real adventure. She’s young and pampered, but she loves archeology. She convinces the team aboard the Endurance to brave the Dragon’s Triangle, where she believes the hidden island of Yamatai is located. Then their ship crashes in a curiously violent storm and, well, welcome to the jungle.

The whole point of the game is to show how Lara transforms from naive girl to hardened survivor. She takes the life of a man to save her own, hunts wild animals for food, and fends off wolves. She overcomes her fears and kicks a lot of ass.

Tomb Raider is also a game in love with fire. Lara lights torches, huddles around campfires, burns salvage and blockades, shoots flaming arrows, explodes oil barrels, and so on. It’s a foolproof solution to almost every problem and scenario, and it burns neatly, igniting only what it’s supposed to before putting itself out.

I get it. Fire represents savagery, and Lara is surrounded by savages. She learns from them, succumbing to her instincts and primal nature. That’s how she survives. Like the fire that consumes conscientiously, though, Lara’s story is superficial. There’s no doubt that she becomes a survivor, but she does so after a few hours. Better tools, weapon upgrades, and hunting skills only make her more of what she already is. The person who leaves the island is no different from the one we saw her become shortly into the game.

I wanted to know Lara beyond her physical capabilities and diminishing limitations. Courage fuels that prowess; I can already see that she’s brave. Snippets of dialogue like “I hate tombs,” her respectful mourning of the first animal she kills, and brief mentions of her father only hint at her character outside of her survival story.

Tomb Raider deer

Tomb Raider is fun — and beautiful and inspiring at times — but the game is compromised. It’s restricted by its focus on Lara as a survivor yet content to give her immense power early on. It makes me think about the old Tomb Raider games, where Lara sought and earned stronger weapons because the player desperately needed them. That’s not so in this game, where her first, the bow, is sufficient enough to use in almost every encounter.

The archeology and puzzles that have always defined the series are now a side note to cover-shooting and a group of characters who demand most of the story’s attention. Real tombs are optional; so is much of the cultural discovery (a good 40 percent or so of the game’s overall completion). Puzzles are mere objects, as we so often think of them now — obstacles to progress rather than main events carefully tempered with thorough exploration, where the environment is its own puzzle.

That’s the difference between the new and the old Tomb Raiders, besides the notable loss of the supernatural, which exerts such a small presence in this game. I want to fight dinosaurs and Yetis and sharks and mummies, not human beings.

A fresh Tomb Raider that combines these elements would be glorious, and in some ways, this one did succeed. The climbing axe that Lara uses to traverse cliffs allows for unprecedented freedom of movement. The bow feels so good to use. The open environments, including more unseemly places — like filthy waters and foul bone pits — are memorable.

I understand why Uncharted served as such a big influence even though Tomb Raider establishes an identity apart from it. It might be easier, when adapting a series that’s long-outdated in its design, to copy a new and successful model rather than try to replace the pieces of a broken machine. Still, I want less cover-shooting and scripted set pieces. I want more of the supernatural and mysterious. I want an adventure where survival is an endless series of unpredictable trials without the best weapons already at hand — and if they are, they’re not enough. It needs to be challenging not only for Lara but also for the player.

Special thanks to my friend Meagan for giving me the chance to experience Lara’s latest adventure, which has, sure enough — as if with fire — rekindled my passion for Tomb Raider and my desire to see it continue as an even stronger series. I’m glad Lara has survived all these years as gaming’s greatest heroine.

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