“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden
That quote from Steinbeck floated around in my head throughout my time with Rise of the Tomb Raider, refusing to leave. While 2013’s Tomb Raider was about Lara Croft’s discovery of herself, Rise is about her determining her own agency and place in the world – as a person, an archaeologist, and as someone who is destined to do great things.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is focused on Lara’s hunt for the Divine Source, an artifact that bestows eternal life; the search for which drove her father to insanity, defamation, and eventually the end of his life. That fiendish search drove a wedge between Lara and her father, but since the events of the island of Yamatai, Lara has come to realize that her father was right — there are deeper, more mysterious things at work in this world. She begins to blame herself for spurning her father, casting him away instead of listening, and so delves into his research to find the Divine Source and clear his name, putting both his and her demons to rest.
After the cacophonous sound and fury of the game’s opening hours, you’re plunged back into familiar territory. Lara is alone in the Siberian wilderness, with only a bow and a campfire, and you have to find your destination and stay alive. You’re under-equipped, but not ill-prepared — this time around, you won’t spend hours trying to scrape by enemies, but take them head-on with skill and precision.
Lara is ruthless in Rise, never hesitating to take down a soldier of Trinity, the evil organization trying to beat her to the Divine Source and use it for their own nefarious devices. Every perk and skill you gain from levelling up and completing objectives enhances your ability to dispatch foes en masse, whether you’re leaping from a tree to plunge a knife through their skull or dragging them underwater for a cold, wet ending.
Yet Lara is not without empathy. You’ll befriend the natives, those who have lived in a monk-like existence to defend the Divine Source, and the immortal Prophet who carries it. Where your shipwrecked friends in the first game were often just damsels in distress, your new native friends are interesting and more than capable of handling themselves. Sofia and Jacob are both incredible players in the overall narrative, adding a dynamic that complements and enhances Lara’s personal journey rather than acting as a catalyst for Lara to have to rescue someone again.
Without the restraints of base survival and escape to worry about, you’ll be free to roam the world as you see fit. Each major hub feels open and vibrant, with plenty of quests and challenges to complete. The woods teem with wildlife, soldiers routinely patrol the roads, and massive bears and wild sabrecats guard caverns just asking to be plundered for ancient treasure.
Among the many distractions that will pull you from the plot are a number of optional challenge tombs, an answer to the lack of actual tomb-raiding in the reboot. Nine optional tombs and a number of mandatory ones populate the world, each with a unique design and concept. In one tomb, I was raising and lowering water levels in a bath house to operate a ship. In another, I used the fierce winds of the mountain peaks to slam through a wall, and in another I was busting walls open with mine carts to get to that sweet ancient treasure.
These tombs, while offering new tools and upgrades to your arsenal, are optional. If you’re playing on any level of difficulty above easy, however, you’ll want to consider them — enemies aren’t as easy to take down this time around. I found myself utilizing a number of abilities I never had to in the previous game, simply because enemies weren’t always susceptible to the good ol’ arrow-to-the-head trick. Soldiers have sight lines, investigate noises, move to flank you, and provide cover fire for one another. While executing stealth runs makes Lara feel like a deft, acrobatic assassin, head-on direct combat is a vicious and rabid affair. Both made my palms sweat and my heart race, and both felt totally in my own power to control.
That’s where Rise of the Tomb Raider hits a strange contrast. Some areas allow you to progress as you see fit. If you want to sneak through an area, eliminating enemies without being seen while leaping from treetop to treetop, that’s perfectly acceptable. If you want to bust out your shotgun or grenade arrows and be a one-woman army, that’s viable too. Some segments force you into one of the two, though, and those got a little frustrating. While most upgrades can be useful in either situation, I’d still find myself in spots where I wished I could sneak my way through, or gun my way out of being spotted, but couldn’t.
Thankfully, those moments are few and far between. The rest of Rise feels like an excellent display of how to create a game truly about discovery. Considering the punctuated bursts of explosive scripted moments in the reboot, I was happy to see Crystal Dynamics forego more of the set piece, blockbuster moments in favor of a game where I had choice; in how I progressed, in how I outfitted my character, and in how I tackled the game’s events.
There’s occasional hitching in the framerate department, which I feel obligated to get out of the way before I tell you how absolutely gorgeous this game is. Lara’s hair looks incredible (I know they love to tout this, but seriously, it looks fantastic), facial animations are realistic and expressive, and the vistas are the kind you want to pause and watch for a moment before moving on. It was always a pleasure to turn a corner and see a new set of ancient ruins, sitting locked in a moment of time, waiting to be plundered.
Lara’s journey is one of moral grays, and in it, she questions much of herself. Her identity, her goals, and who she will become are all inquiries that are answered by the time the credits roll, but it comes at a price. Her “gods” — the ideal left behind by her father, and the weight of her guilt in his demise — must come tumbling down.
Yet in that rubble, a wonderful bounty is excavated; an exquisite story, a compelling heroine, a fascinating sandbox, and a beautiful view. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a little more subdued, a little less bombastic, and a whole lot more introspective. It sometimes falters in scripted sequences and technical hitches. But the way it combines such excellent themes into such fantastic gameplay is evidence that Lara’s story was one that needed to continue. This series is set to re-establish Lara Croft as the beloved icon as she once was, and for all the right reasons.