There certainly have been a lot of ‘Tomb Raider’ games over the years. The series has been around since 1996 and has even undergone two reboots. Although they have featured the same protagonist in Lara Croft, there has been quite a variation in the quality of entries, with some being much better than others.
In 2013 Square Enix kicked off the second of the series’ reboots with the release of ‘Tomb Raider’. It was a big departure from previous games in that it was a coming-of-age story involving a much younger and more fragile Lara Croft. The teen heroine spent most of the game getting bashed around, screaming in pain, and trying to reassure herself with hammy Hollywood movie lines such as ‘I can do this!’. We had never seen such a frail and inexperienced Lara, and in this instance she seemed like a completely different character to the one which long-standing ‘Tomb Raider’ fans had grown to love. Despite the opinion of some gamers that the 2013 entry didn’t really seem like a ‘Tomb Raider’ game, it was highly praised by critics and many people enjoyed it, which left no real doubt that there would be a sequel.
The follow-up took quite a while to come around but was finally released in late 2015 as ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’. In ‘Rise’ Lara is older, more mature, and more capable. The technical aspects of the game also seem to have made as much progress as its protagonist, with its visuals in particular showing drastic improvement over those featured in the previous release. Developer Crystal Dynamics retained a lot of ‘Tomb Raider’s’ strong points, such as the dramatic set pieces and ability to craft items, but overall created a much better and more immersive experience.
In this adventure, which went on to receive several thoroughly deserved game of the year awards, Lara continues her late father’s quest to find a mysterious immortality-bestowing artifact known as the Divine Source. The journey leads her all the way to a lost city called Kitezh. As with ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’, ‘Rise’ puts considerable focus on the theme of family, as Lara is driven to validate her father’s research. The obsession to prove his credibility adds extra fire to her already tenacious personality and helps to define her character.
In her bid to locate Kitezh and the Divine Source, Lara is pit against fictional religious extremist organization Trinity, a group that was only briefly alluded to in 2013’s ‘Tomb Raider’, but which plays a major role in ‘Rise’ and the third game of the trilogy, ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’. The overarching story is easy to understand and flows well, which results in a much-appreciated lack of complicated verbal exposition—something that often holds back too many narrative-driven action titles. The game does however give the player the freedom to dive into things to a deeper level should they desire.
Those who enjoy finding out more about a game world, or love delving into the backstories of characters, will be satisfied with the amount of optional extra information available to them through collectibles. These include journal notes and other location-relevant objects that provide interesting, and sometimes emotive, details about people, places, and past events. Hunting them down is rewarding because when they are put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, some immersive side stories are revealed leading to a deeper, more involved player experience.
When Lara retrieves a document or relic, we are given the option to open up a screen that shows a description of her find alongside a high definition image of it. The game designers have also included voice-overs of the documents’ lengthier written descriptions, which can be paused to let players read at their own pace. Such small quality-of-life features make playing ‘Rise’ a pleasure rather than a chore. Having an adventure in full swing forcibly interrupted by something like an obligatory inventory screen can be intrusive and annoying, but the designers have balanced the preferences of different types of gamer well by offering choices.
For a more obvious example of the attention to detail that has gone into this title, we only need to look at the opening section of gameplay. In a situation reminiscent of a cutscene from the first level of the original ‘Tomb Raider’, it starts with Lara and her friend Jonah traversing the knife-edge ridge of a treacherous Siberian mountain. The realism on display is phenomenal. Powerful gusts drive flurries of snow horizontally across Lara’s path as she clutches her shivering body tightly to retain heat and braces herself into the wind. This opening is so strong it rivals that of ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’, which also happens to involve a life or death scenario set amidst dominating icy mountains.
During this ordeal, Lara’s face is so well animated that she seems more like a real person than a video game creation. She grimaces under duress and her eyes flitter around in their sockets apprehensively as she tries to comprehend the seriousness of the situation. As this is the first section of gameplay the level of detail really stands out, but the presentation of our heroine is fantastic throughout. Strangely, in the following entry, ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’, Lara doesn’t look as alert and at times her expression borders on being sleepy. The use of facial movements and body language in ‘Rise’ to portray what she must be physically and mentally experiencing has yet to be bettered in the series.
The geographical setting certainly helps to heighten the game’s sense of adventure. Apart from one level in Syria, the action takes place in cold snowy Siberia. There is just something about high altitude freezing conditions that give a game of this genre an extra edge. The graphics, textures, and lighting are impressive and are used effectively to create environments that seem both beautiful and hostile. Despite their aesthetic allure most of the locales featured in ‘Rise’ are uncompromising and consist of snowy tundra, which, from a narrative point of view, feeds well into the gameplay mechanic of crafting items to ensure Lara’s survival.
Following her mountain ascent and a subsequent superb avalanche set piece, our heroine finds herself alone, knee-deep in snow, without either sustenance or shelter. Through one of the game’s tutorials, the player is encouraged to forage in the unknown wilderness for necessities such as wood and hides. With Lara still wracked by realistic shivering fits, finding the items she needs to make a fire and craft a shelter seems imperative if she is to survive the night. ‘Rise’ leads the player to feel that they are locked in a constant battle with nature, and when the adventurer finally slumps into her self-made refuge we feel a strong sense of relief at having gained a short reprieve from the harshness of the sub-zero environment.
The challenges posed by nature extend beyond the boundaries of the elements. Lara also has some aggressive wildlife to deal with, which can be hunted to provide further materials for crafting. While some animals such as birds and deer offer little or no threat, others are savage and dangerous. The more vicious of them include wolves and snow leopards, but the most challenging are the huge bears that defend their territory with ferocity. The close-quarter battles with these powerhouses are well done and are similar in their intensity to the famous scene from Oscar-winning survival film The Revenant.
There are plenty of encounters with human foes too, in the form of Trinity operatives and mercenaries. ‘Rise’s’ solid movement controls and shooting mechanics help make combat enjoyable and satisfying. Skirmishes feature quite a lot of gore, which together with the effectiveness of the weapons gives fights a visceral quality. Throughout the game Lara has access to a significant selection of firearms but the star of the show is her trusty bow, which is particularly useful when a stealthy approach is warranted. No matter which weapon the player prefers to use, all can all be upgraded to grant additional bonuses.
Lara is also able to acquire new outfits that range from modern outdoor wear to traditional handcrafted garments. Unlike some of the cumbersome offerings found in ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’, most appear to be practical and possess a functionality that suits the game’s environment well. Crystal Dynamics have also included a few retro costume skins that are throwbacks to Lara’s earlier outings. These pixelated classics may be disregarded from any serious conversation about design choice and appreciated for their nostalgic value instead. It is interesting to browse through them to see how the character has developed over the decades.
Lara certainly needs all the protection she can get from the elements in Siberia, and with the realism of modern games, running around freezing terrain in a tank top and shorts as she did in 1996 just doesn’t cut it anymore. Despite highlighting such generational differences, ‘Rise’ hearkens back to the original ‘Tomb Raider’ games in other significant ways. One of these relates to the feeling of isolation that was present in the series’ earliest entries. Although there are sections in ‘Rise’ where she spends time with non-playable characters, for the vast majority of the time Lara is all by herself.
The solitude of adventuring alone is made almost tangible by the game’s superior sound design and graphical prowess. We hear the crunching of snow and ice as Lara walks or runs through it. When she climbs to a high vantage point the wind picks up strength and howls around her as she looks out over whatever amazing vista is visible at the time. In addition to the realistic snow, other impressive weather effects include driving rain and atmospheric mist. Camera shake and vibration are also utilized with great timing to immerse the player in the environment.
As is the case with ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’, ‘Rise’s’ geographical location is one that has not been explored much in action-adventure games. When designers base their adventures in such unfamiliar places it can imbue their creations with a stronger aura of mystery and discovery because they feel unknown to players. More famous stalwarts of myth and legend such as Atlantis, Shambhala, and the Lost City of Z are relatively popular and are referenced quite often throughout a variety of media, but how many people have heard of Kitezh.
One of the factors that contributes to ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ featuring on Escape & Adventure’s recommended list of games is the return of significant tombs—which should naturally be included in any game that belongs to a series with this name. The paltry offerings found in 2013’s ‘Tomb Raider’ have been vastly improved upon in ‘Rise’, with most of them containing puzzle elements ranging from platforming to the manipulation of environmental objects. It is worth taking time to explore them, as they offer rewards in the form of new skills that Lara can employ. In addition, each tomb has its own unique atmosphere and contributes something to the game’s narrative by providing the player with snippets of backstory.
The first one encountered is an ancient ship frozen in an embrace of ice that has turned the once seagoing vessel into its crew’s tomb. By exploring we learn more about them and the events that lead to their unfortunate fate. In another one, Lara comes across a venerated geological feature that the first migrant settlers used to rescue themselves when lost during their long exodus from their homeland. The backstory presented in this instance paints a dark but interesting picture of last-minute providence following suffering, privation, and desperation. Ultimately, these pieces of exposition help to flesh out the game world.
Lara is also able to enter the crypts of several important people who contributed to the founding of Kitezh. Inside these spider web-laced grottoes we can learn about the individual to whom the memorials were dedicated. As with the game’s tombs, it is easy to use these crypts as examples that demonstrate the game’s superb atmosphere, but locales that feature in the main story also serve as wonderful showcases: an abandoned Soviet gulag is packed with details of its grizzly history—as is Kitezh itself. When we finally get there, it feels like a truly hidden place with its eerie desolation. It is strewn with the debris of a massive battle that took place there centuries earlier, giving it historical significance.
As Lara intrepidly makes her way deeper into the city, she comes across notes that fragment by fragment tell of what happened. Consequently the player comes to the realization that they must also confront the nemesis that destroyed an entire army. This creates great anticipation and foreboding before we take on the formidable and fearsome guardians that still exist somewhere within. From this point on the intense action doesn’t let up until after the game’s satisfying grand finale.
As with the other games of the second series’ reboot, ‘Rise’s’ Lara is voiced by Camilla Luddington and it can be argued that she gives her strongest performance here. Although she doesn’t provide the sass that Keeley Hawes did in the games of the series’ first reboot, she is fully committed to the dialogue and almost always on point with its delivery. Because of this, Lara comes across as more believable than she does in the games released on either side of ‘Rise.’ Luddington’s excellent portrayal of the more experienced, confident, and edgy adventurer bring her a bit more in line with how she was first presented to the world.
That reconciliation and other evidence celebrating its stronger connection to the series’ heritage are factors that will make ‘Rise’ enjoyable for many fans. Despite being a modern game, it still manages to capture the spirit of—and pay homage to—the originals. Throughout the campaign long-term ‘Tomb Raider’ devotees will almost certainly discover things that remind them of the very first games, whether it be a battle with a bear or the atmosphere present inside one of the snowy caves our heroine passes through. One of the title’s DLCs even consists of a fully explorable Croft mansion, which is filled with collectibles and includes some nostalgic Easter eggs that make references to entries of years gone by.
If 2013’s ‘Tomb Raider’ was like an eager amateur adventure seeker that ended up lost in the wilderness due to its overzealous shift away from previous games’ protagonist and style, ‘Rise’ is a competent and seasoned explorer—making sure to stop, check its bearings, and adjust its heading to put it on a more solid but no less exciting path. It is a fantastic and lengthy adventure that proves that modern ‘Tomb Raider’ games can innovate and give us the best that eighth generation console technology and design can offer, while still remaining true to the series’ origins.
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