Tomb Raider - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Lara Croft is famously known for two things. No, not those, you dribbling idiot. The series is comprised of a rough split of a) pillaging the sacred tomb sites of ancient indigenous cultures with the gleeful indifference of a presenter of Flog It!, and b) shooting endangered animals in the face.
I feel like the original Croft series passed me by. As a young teenage lad with the attention span of a golden retriever in a ball pit, I lacked the necessary patience to muddle through all of the puzzles. Strangely, I don’t remember any qualms with murdering animals, so clearly I enjoyed some of the game.
The series clearly did something right, however, and the original Tomb Raider is oft-cited as a pioneer of the medium, laying the foundation for generations of action-adventure platformers to come, and gifting us with enough cosplay to make an entire generation of pimple-faced teenagers pass out from low blood pressure.
Fast forward to today, and with the rebooted series in full swing - we reviewed the latest edition here - it felt like the perfect time to dip my toe back into the murky world of grave robbing. Sorry, tomb raiding.
Despite my general cynicism about prequels, what really caught my eye initially was the writers of this particular edition. Susan O’Connor, who has worked on a multitude of other games, including BioShock, and Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of my favourite fantasy author Terry Pratchett.
I’ve got the Steam version loaded up, and I’m ready to shoot some orangutans right in their cute, little, endangered ginger faces. Let’s go!
Two Minutes In
There’s no messing around. One minute, you’re happily scribbling in your diary about the fun sea expedition you’re undertaking, the next minute the ship is breaking in half and exploding. I feel like a large portion of this game will involve running through things that are breaking in half and exploding.
We make it to the shore, barely. But before you’ve even had a chance to say “boat fuel can’t melt steel”, you’re bludgeoned and dragged away. Worst. Cruise. Ever.
Lara comes to hanging upside down and cocooned in a canvas that looks like it was last washed in pre-Victorian times when Britain still ruled the ocean waves. It looks like this could be the last of Lara before we’ve even begun, but fortunately escape is just a short quick time event away. Still, at least in Tomb Raider they don’t overstay their welcome, and we make short work of escape by setting Lara on fire and falling on a metal spike. This isn’t like the old Tomb Raider games at all.
Five Minutes In
The atmosphere of the various environments is immediately excellent. The lighting is subtle, with flickering torches and rays of moonlight. The levels are alive with sounds: pounding waves, dripping water, rustling leaves. It’s a very visceral experience which anchors you in the action.
I’ve made it out of the cave. Good thing the owner kept a sea mine next to the door. Shame it destroyed his home, and resulted in him getting squished thinner than a layer of liver pate on a cracker. Bit weird that he said “I’m just trying to help y…” before that giant slab of rock fell on him.
Whatever. I’m Lara Croft! I don’t need anyone's help!
Five Minutes and Thirty Seconds In
I’ve stepped in a bear trap. I need someone’s help.
Six Minutes In
This game is pretty brutal to our protagonist, and it’s clear that this version of Lara is far grittier and darker than any of the previous incarnations.
Speaking of our protagonist, Lara’s animations and reactions are incredibly well done. She stumbles, pushes away from walls, trails her hands through water and just generally feels really present in the environment.
All of the movements were motion capped by Camilla Luddington, who also voices our hero with plummy English tones. The performance is a bit breathy and overacted at points, but she is clearly giving it everything she's got. Camilla also has upper back strength that would make any gym bro weep manly tears of joy.
Eight Minutes In
Girl gotta eat. Fortunately, my first weapon is just one quick time event away, and I’ve soon liberated a bow and arrow from the clutches of a desiccated corpse. Weaponry collected, a friendly deer cavorts into view, clearly sick of life and just begging to be killed. I aim for the head, and at the last second, the deer jerks its head and I shoot it right in the eye. I'm horrified, but also elated by my dominance over Mother Nature.
You drag the corpse back to your campfire, and you are greeted by a Dark Soulsesque menu to unlock your first skill. It’s all familiar stuff, and clearly Lara’s journey will take her from vulnerable survivor to unstoppable murder machine.
Twelve Minutes In
I’m not sure how you write your diary, but in video games the accepted method is: find incredibly difficult to reach / hidden place, write a single page of character exposition, discard entire book on the floor where it can be found by anyone, then rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Lara also starts finding her first artefacts around now, discarded knick-knacks and geejaws that teach you a little of the islands history, and can be inspected for hidden clues.
Both diaries and artefacts do the job of expanding the game lore (mysterious undying samurai army, anyone?) but otherwise I find them distracting. The artefacts are a callback to the original series, and are an important part of Lara’s future life as internationally renowned pillager, but they feel too on the nose compared to the desperate scrabble for survival against insurmountable odds in the main story line. I still spend ages trying to collect them all though. What can I say. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.
Fifteen Minutes In
I’ve found fellow gap year student and shipmate Sam! However, instead of a joyful reunion, the moment is spoiled by the creepy guy with a gigantic chest tattoo who is also there, who tells me that he’s definitely not a “bad person”. I can get behind that.
Sixteen Minutes In
Sam has been kidnapped.
Twenty Minutes In
I’m now in pursuit of Sam, and I’ve murdered a bunch of what I can only assume are incredibly rare jungle wolves. Again, the environment and level design impress, as I jump through an abandoned village while a thunderstorm lashes down. I start finding my first ‘challenge’ at this point. Again, they feel a bit tacked on to give the player something else to complete, but they are fairly fun. Light eight statues, steal six birds’ eggs, shoot ten bone wind chimes. The usual stuff.
Thirty Minutes In
Speaking of death, I finally meet some other survivors. They are bad survivors. How can you tell, Shaun? Because they are murdering everyone and setting things on fire. Clearly, the island has a bit of a madmen problem, and I’m not talking about advertising.
There’s an affecting scene here, where Lara is trying to escape and is caught by one of the bad guys. The overt implication is that some sort of sexual assault is going to take place, and the first time I got to this bit I actually failed the quick time event and got shot in the head.
Dying in this game is traumatizing. Really traumatizing. If you don’t believe me, smash Lara into one of the river spikes. It reminds me of The Last of Us, and how final death felt. I still remember the first time I got Joel caught by a clicker. Some memories don’t go away.
Tomb Raider is the same. Death is nasty and gritty. This heightens the tension of survival, and the responsibility you have to keep Lara alive.
Two to Three Hours In
By this point, I’ve raided a few tombs. As opposed to the way the challenges feel tacked on, the tombs are integrated into the game really well, and are subtly hidden within each level. Each requires you to solve a physics-based puzzle, and you’re rewarded with a crate full of shining loot, which translates to salvage you can use to upgrade your skills. It’s a shame that you don’t find anything physical inside the boxes other than skill points, but solving the puzzles is fun.
Some of the puzzles were a little tricky, and this is where Lara’s “detective mode”, or “survivor’s eye” comes in. Presumably this is how Bear Grylls sees the world all the time, monochrome and smoky, with useful items helpfully highlighted in glowing yellow. I think the only game I’ve played that did this trope well was Batman, as it made thematic sense. Although it’s useful, it becomes a crutch, and puzzles would usually involve me flipping in and out of detective mode about a hundred times, at which point it doesn’t feel so much like I’m doing any detecting, and more mass environmental profiling.
I’m also learning more about the crew. And… I don’t really care. About any of them. I’m too busy trying to keep Lara alive. She should ditch these losers and look after herself.
Despite having murdered dozens of humans by this point, my animal kill rate has dropped exponentially, so I shoot a chicken, just to keep my eye in.
Six Hours In
I am become death. I am a whirling murder machine, a one-woman commando army. When I gaze upon a cultist, I do not see a man. I see salvage and ammunition for the taking.
The enemies have started shouting encouraging things during combat like “she’s killing us all!” and “Arrgh, there’s an arrow in my face!” The combat is satisfying in this game, particularly the kill animations when you stick someone in the face with an arrow, watch them futilely grab at it, then pitch over a ledge to their death.
I’m not a psychopath. Honest.
Six and a Half Hours In
A crab nudges my foot, so I shoot it with my bow and arrow. Later, I blow up a pig with a sea mine.
Eight Hours In
Still chasing Sam. The level design and environments continue to impress, and the growing corruption as you move into the human-made environments of the shanty town, the lifts, the temple. It’s really well done.
At this point, one of my favourite sequences that I’ve played in a video game happens. Two words. Blood. Tunnel.
Ten Hours In
Note to self, never be a pilot in a video game. I think they have the lowest survival rate of any job choice in every video game. My advice, stick to something safer like, a janitor. You never see them getting killed by magical storms.
I’ve lost some buddies along the way. It was sort of sad, I guess. Again, I’m too busy caring about Lara to worry about anyone else.
I’ve also only just noticed the HUD at this point, or the lack of one. I’m super impressed that it’s gone under my radar for so long, and they did a great job with the design.
Eleven Hours In
I saved Sam! But now I need to fix a boat so we can escape! What’s that? There isn’t any tools to fix the boat, even though we’re surrounded by other boats, abandoned bunkers, and other locations likely to hold tools? Sounds like another situation requiring me to put myself in perilous danger.
In a neat closing of the circle, you end up back on the ship and Lara sees her reflection for the first time in the whole game. I thought the pathos of that moment was really well done. However, it’s completely ruined by the fact that the “tool kit” I needed is basically a spanner and a screwdriver - that’s literally it - and the crew member who wanted to impress Lara and ends up dying came all this way just to get a spanner and a screwdriver. He blows himself up to save Lara.
I don’t even care.
I throw the spanner and screwdriver into the sea.
Twelve to Fifteen Hours In
Sam has been kidnapped again! Conveniently she has been taken to Showdown Mountain, where I’ll finally get a chance to meet our arch nemesis: Chest Tattoo Man.
The last part of the game fairly flies by. There isn’t really anything new, although I can’t say that the very last section is a completely mad showstopper. Unfortunately, it’s marred by sub-par boss fights. When will studios learn that facing the mega-dangerous final super boss and killing them just by mashing quick time buttons is never satisfying? Anyway, everything wraps up neatly, and I end up on a boat home, sans some friends, but plus a Sam. Hopefully she won’t get herself kidnapped again.
The game ends with a fisherman saying to Lara, “You look like you’ve seen some shit.”
Yeah, buddy. Yeah.
Spoiler alert: I spent a large portion of this game running through things that were a) breaking in half, and b) exploding. I had lots of fun.
Given that a large part of the game seemed to centre on the human cost of survival, I was surprised that it wasn’t really dealt with at all, not even by the end of the game, when Lara had become a whirling blood tornado of destruction.
The story was on point, though. Things happened. They got worse. They got worse-r. Then they got really, really bad. There were some gaps. Croft’s father is mentioned multiple times, but nothing ever really seems to develop there. I guess they are leaving that for the inevitable sequels? Oh, and there was that guy who was crushed by the rock who wanted to help us. I’ll guess we’ll never know what he wanted. Oh well.
This game has a great story, stand-out atmosphere, and good gameplay. But they are somehow separated from each other. I can’t help but draw comparisons to The Last of Us. Admittedly that was a fine, fine gumbo, blending story and gameplay so expertly that you never noticed the lines. In Tomb Raider, this isn’t the case. It’s more like Heston Blumenthal's Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. Sure, it’s probably delicious. But I can’t eat it for dinner every night.
So, while not perfect, it’s perfectly enjoyable.
Most importantly though: how much senseless animal murder did I commit?
Countless human beings with lives, feelings.