While waiting for Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Doom Eternal to come out, I finally completed the Tomb Raider “Survivor” series, as the latest games from Square Enix have been called. My friend Bubba (hello, Bubba!) gifted me Shadow of the Tomb Raider a while ago, and I finally finished it.
My thoughts on the three games in the series are decidedly mixed, but for the most part, they’re positive. And as I wait for the only games I made plans to purchase this year, this is the perfect time to review these Tomb Raider games I played.
If you don’t have the time to read a lengthy review, all you need to know is that the first game is the star of the series in my opinion. It gets worse as the trilogy goes on. But, if you want to go more in-depth about each game, let’s get into it!
The first game sees Lara Croft transition into her future role as the iconic Tomb Raider. She’s a young student going out into the field to test out her theories. She’s looking for the lost island of Yamatai, and she has mentors and friends accompanying her. But when her ship gets shipwrecked on the island and the situation is more hostile and mystifying than she originally thought, Lara has to survive the harrowing experience using her smarts, skills, and not a small bit of luck.
Tomb Raider excels largely because it is a beginning. Players get to experience Lara’s transition from an inexperienced and unsure explorer into the confident delver of history we know she becomes. It’s a fantastic journey to follow.
Of course, there’s a rampant case of Murphy’s Law going on, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Lara seemingly falls from one bad situation into the next, and it can feel like a rush of haphazardness. But this panicked type of storytelling gets the job done. It sets players on edge, heightening the peril Lara is in.
And by the time the game’s credits roll around, players are satisfied knowing that Lara’s story is only just beginning.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The second game sees Lara a bit more experienced than in the first. She’s hot on the trail of a purported messiah, but the insidious group known as Trinity is after the same thing. Lara Croft must confront her past and her future as she is brought closer to the mystery of immortal life her father was always chasing after.
The fantastic thing about Rise of the Tomb Raider is the focus it places on Lara’s guilt surrounding her dad. Her father had an obsession with discovering this ancient culture, believed in it with a passion that drove his every waking moment, but people didn’t believe him. Lara didn’t believe him. So when he purportedly killed himself, Lara was understandably guilt-ridden.
It’s clear she’s continuing his pursuits in an effort to make up for her refusal to believe him. Obviously, there is a part of her that enjoys the discovery of artifacts and ancient history, but her father’s death is an undeniable reason for the turn her career has taken.
In the end, Lara has to reconcile doing the right thing with proving that her father was never crazy to the world. It’s a damn interesting concept, and Rise of the Tomb Raider handles it fairly well.
Another major draw of the second game’s story is that it introduces Trinity as an enemy, and having them on the field raises the stakes.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
The third game of the Tomb Raider “Survivor Series” has Lara accidentally set an apocalypse in motion.
Yeah, if you thought the stakes were high in the last game, this one really tries to lift them even higher.
While trying to stop Trinity from getting their hands on a Earth-altering artifact, Lara accidentally causes the beginning of the end of the world. She travels to South America to rectify her mistake and to see if she can’t stop Trinity once and for all.
Right off the bat, the third game has issues with Lara’s character development. The initial premise actually sets up a promising start. Lara’s obsession, eerily similar to her father’s, causes the death of hundreds of people due to floods, earthquakes, and mudslides. She has to accept the responsibility that her actions come with consequences.
But the game’s story doesn’t carry this theme through to a satisfying conclusion. Lara does not learn from her mistake, or at least you never really get the sense that she does. She saves the day doing the same thing she’s always done. Raiding tombs, shooting baddies, and hunting the shit out of the local wildlife.
Toward the end of the game, Lara has to make a sacrifice to stop the apocalypse, and for a brief moment, you get a glimpse of a weird kind of redemption. But instead of actually making the sacrifice, some hokey magic happens and…well…that’s it. Lara’s alive, her friend Jonah is alive, the apocalypse is averted, and Trinity is stopped.
Lara’s behavior is made to appear obsessive to the point of unhealthiness. And the idea that the beloved Tomb Raider is responsible for hundreds of people dying sets her up for some deep character development. But if you were hoping to see her cope with it or struggle with it, all you really see is her burying her head in her work as per usual and everything working out okay in the end.
The core gameplay for every one of the games in the “Survivor Series” stems from the first game. There is exploration, environmental puzzles, and combat. During exploration, Lara can find artifacts, complete challenges, and use those ever-present, video game “senses” to help her and the player locate important objects.
The puzzles involve a small amount of logic and a knowledge of how the game’s physics work. Whether you’re opening windows to allow some wind to push something out of the way or balancing carts with weights, they’re still fairly straightforward.
The combat leans toward stealth, with the bow and arrow being the preferred weapon to use in situations. The game rewards you more if you can sneak up on enemies to kill them than if you rush in guns blazing. However, there are those aggravating “action scene” moments that rely on trigger-quick reactions and QTEs to save Lara. On occasion, you might get confused trying to stealth your way through a section of the game only to realize you’re supposed to play it loud and proud. But overall, the combat is still incredibly fun.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The second game starts to add the clutter. One of my least favorite things about sequels is when too many new mechanics are added that don’t really lend anything worthwhile to the experience.
Doom Eternal is giving me a flamethrower to incinerate demons.
Rise of the Tomb Raider gave me crafting.
I’m not against crafting in video games, but I personally felt like it didn’t add much to the Tomb Raider experience.
One of the good things Rise of the Tomb Raider added was rare animals to hunt. These intense encounters with predator animals always hyped me up. Nothing gets your blood working like a bear charging at you.
Plus, the snowy settings looked absolutely gorgeous and made the game feel different from the first based on looks alone.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
As with the story, the gameplay took a nosedive for me in the third game. The crafting was excessive, and the skill tree felt useless after a time. And do you want to know how often I used the Perception herbs to find things in the environment? Zilch, after the tutorial showing me how.
There were too many weapons available to upgrade, and they all felt the same. As a matter of fact, combat felt terrible in this final game. It became…easy. Encounters frequently relied on stealth, so much so that if you had some handy foliage and mud to cover yourself with, odds were you would survive the situation no problem. This final game became a walk in the park for me combat-wise.
The environmetal puzzle, on the other hand, did get upgraded in this game. There were plenty of times when I got stumped because I wasn’t using my noggin properly. So kudos to Shadow for that.
But you know what never makes a game fun?
And Shadow of the Tomb Raider added water levels. Breathing was an issue when you were trying to explore, but after a time I gave up on exploring underwater because I didn’t give a damn. (More on that later.) But even when trying to make my way from point A to point B underwater, frickin’ piranhas showed up and fucked with me.
By which I mean they ate Lara.
The manner in which you “hid” from the piranhas felt forced, and their awareness of you was hard to detect until it was too late. Once that swarm of fishies found you, you were dead meat.
And the side quests were the worst!
That’s right. Side quests.
At one point, I was asked to fetch a ceremonial horn for someone. I trotted over to the man who was suppoed to have it, but he was angry because his wife was sick and his son had gotten arrested trying to get medicine. So I walk over to where the son is held, but the guards won’t let me see him. Then I have to approach these neighborhood boys and fetch a toy they lost that’s not two feet away. The boys then feel amenable enough to distract the guards. I approach the son and tell him he’s free. I finally skip back to the horn-holder, tell him his son is safe, hand him the medicine, and then receive the horn from him.
This was by no means an interesting story, the horn didn’t really come into play in the main narrative later on, and I can’t even remember what I earned for that side mission. A feathered outfit…I think. It is a prime example of what not to do for a side quest.
But perhaps the most grievous offense Shadow of the Tomb Raider committed was getting rid of the various voice actors used for found artifacts and journals.
In the previous two games, Lara would often come across ancient writings, old journals, recorders, and other such things that told small stories of the people who had come before. Different voice actors would lend their talents to bringing these documents to life. I actually enjoyed finding these things because I was eager to hear the story of events past, the inner thoughts of a character, or a place’s history. This was one of my main reasons for exploring.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, gone is the cast of voices used to bring documents, journals, and records to life. Lara reads them all.
I take no issue with Lara’s voice actress. None at all. But if I wanted these documents to be read in the same voice, I might as well just read them aloud myself. Lara reading everything took away the fresh perspective those recordings should have had. They became almost pedantic in nature, and I lost all interest in the side stories they would tell.
The “Survivor” timeline of Lara Croft’s stories is serviceable, but toward the end of the trilogy it tempers my enthusiasm.
However, despite my complaints, overall, I did enjoy the series. It has its flaws, all of which became more aggravating in the third game, but the good times I had while playing were not negated by them. Just…occasionally overshadowed by them.
I rate this latest Tomb Raider franchise a fun-adventure-game-series-with-some-glaring-issues-but-still-enjoyable-nonetheless-that-is-if-you-are-okay-with-some-of-the-most-gruesome-death-scenes-in-gaming.