Since early 2013, Crystal Dynamics’ rebooted version of Lara Croft has been a perplexing character. She shows genuine compassion for her father’s archaeological work and follows in his footsteps, yet she kills more people than her archrivals in Trinity, the organization her father vowed to stop. She takes time to learn and study from the cultures she’s exploring, yet she violates the tombs she enters with little regard for the history surrounding them.
Ludonarrative dissonance is not a problem unique to the Tomb Raider franchise, but the globe-trotting series has a particularly bad case of it. It’s an issue that Eidos Montreal, the developer taking the reins for Shadow of the Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics, is aware of and is trying to solve with the conclusion of Lara Croft’s origin story.
Jason Dozois, the narrative director for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, took the stage at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles Thursday night to give a short presentation before we jumped into a hands-on preview of the game.
“This is Lara’s defining moment, the moment when she becomes the Tomb Raider,” Dozois said. “It’s the culmination of her journey over the series, and shows how the events of the past adventures have affected her.”
Dozois’ notion of Lara only now becoming the Tomb Raider didn’t make sense to me when I started playing the game. Nothing felt like a departure from the mechanics of the two previous titles, 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Outside slightly better visuals and improved climbing options, nothing indicated Lara was different. It wasn’t until I had experienced a bit of the story that I realized how the developers are trying to wrap up Lara’s origin trilogy.
The chunk of gameplay that I experienced, which Dozois and lead game designer Heath Smith emphasized was taken directly from the game, felt long, even though it only lasted an hour. As with other cinematic adventure games, playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider for a short while felt like watching an episode of a miniseries. So many tense moments made seconds feel like minutes.
It started with Lara searching for an ancient Maya temple hidden somewhere in a small Mexican village. She works with an old companion, Jonah, to keep an eye on Trinity as the company mobilizes nearby for the same reason. Even with the implications of having heavily armed mercenaries around, the walk through the village as I tracked the Trinity leader during Día de los Muertos was alluring, with plenty of colorful setpieces to admire. It felt like a mixture of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s introduction and the opening scene from James Bond’s 2015 adventure Spectre.
The walking segment also highlighted the “living tombs” feature that Eidos Montreal is introducing, in which Lara can interact with local culture through conversations with nonplayer characters. The walk was filled with opportunities to talk to locals and learn more about the the village’s history, as well as the game’s story. It’s clear that these moments are Eidos Montreal’s way of telling an elaborate narrative with Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s linear segments after spending so much time making the more open Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
“We’re trying to get the best of both worlds with the combination of linear segments with the openness of exploration,” Smith said. “It’s still very much the Metroidvania you know and can cater to yourself, but with the added ability to give us a strong storytelling tool.”
It’s a combination of structures from the other games, mixing the open-world segments with curated linear parts where significant story events take place.
Soon after the walk through the village, I was spelunking through cliffside caves, following a potential path to the hidden temple. Climbing, swinging, running and rappelling felt better than they did in any of Lara’s previous adventures. The transition from running to quickly traversing a wall is smooth, and has few instances of missing a ledge and falling to a gruesome death. The rappelling feature allowed me to get to what seemed like unreachable platforms by either descending or swinging on my rope. It made exploring linear areas feel more like a choice than a fancily carved tunnel that I had to go down.
After a bit of traversal, I found the Maya temple and the ancient key dagger that Lara was trying to keep out of Trinity’s hands. It’s an artifact that, once removed from its altar, would cause a huge tremor to rip through the cave and bring it tumbling down.
The Tomb Raider games have always been broken up into bite-sized pieces. A climbing segment leads to a weight-based puzzle that, once solved, leads to a room full of baddies to kill. It’s a repetitive formula that works well in keeping the challenge you’re facing new and interesting.
Soon after I escaped from the collapsing cave, I found myself in the middle of the dig site of the Trinity camp that was trying to find the temple before me. It was combat time, and pulling back my bow and placing an arrow in the neck of enemies felt amazing. It’s a visible improvement over Rise of the Tomb Raider’s already great combat. As I made my way through the camp, I was reminded of how violent Lara is as I killed at least a dozen nameless henchmen.
“We’re aware of the perception that Lara’s a killer, but when she engages in violence, it’s a matter of life or death,” Smith said.
“She’s going dark, using fear tactics, and even learning from the enemy and the cultures she’s studied,” Dozois added. “She’s become an apex predator even if she didn’t mean to.”
It was an odd thing to hear, since I had never imagined Lara Croft as an “apex predator.” That explanation came off as a peculiar justification for the senseless killing she commits, rather than something more meaningful to the narrative.
In typical fashion, the last person I ran into on my way out was the big baddie himself. He takes the key dagger and tells me that, by removing it from its altar, I’ve started the Mayan apocalypse and brought doom to the world.
The cutscene felt like typical villain fare, with over-the-top theatrics and references to ancient texts that I didn’t believe would actually come true. Trinity packs up and leaves Lara to frantically plan her next move.
But before she can get a thought out, a gigantic wave sweeps through the village, destroying cars and buildings, and killing several people right in front of the camera as Lara struggles to survive. It was a shocking scene that I wasn’t prepared for — even more so after I was put back in control of Lara as she was getting swept down the road with the wreckage.
A quick-time event let me grab onto a flailing door of a nearby market, and I dove down inside to see if I could find a way out of the water’s path. As I swam deeper, I passed corpses floating in the depths. Death wasn’t new to me in this game; I had watched Lara die gruesome deaths time after time when I missed jumps. But I wasn’t concerned with Lara’s death — I was concerned for all the people I had just spoken to in the small Mexican village who were now floating lifelessly in this market.
Once Lara got out of the water to climb to higher ground, I saw a boy hanging from a rafter calling for his mother. But I couldn’t get close to him before he fell to his death off-screen. It was incredibly brutal — and exactly what Dozois, Smith and the team wanted.
“It’s a moment that’s shocking and a moment that teaches Lara that there is a true consequence and human cost to what Trinity is doing, and what she’s doing to an extent,” Dozois said. “People are suffering. That couldn’t be expressed with raging waters filled with dangerous objects; it had to be something real.”
It’s a powerful moment that puts a lot of the story elements in context, pushing Lara’s character to show remorse, and to look at her own actions and how they might be hurting others.
“When she took the dagger, I’m hoping you felt that was the right thing to do — you felt that it was the Tomb Raider thing to do, racing to get there before the baddies,” Dozois said. “We tried to flip that expectation and cause this sense of guilt. Lara started this Mayan apocalypse, and a lot of this loss of life is because of her. The game has a lot of defining moments for her character.”
Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be released Sept. 14 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a mention of Lara’s companion, Jonah, who has appeared in previous games, and to remove a reference to past Tomb Raider games’ supernatural aspects.