Lara Croft is one of the most iconic explorer figures in gaming, but her 2013 reboot allowed fans to see her journey through a newer, more realistic set of eyes. Tomb Raider's Lara Croft started inexperienced, unseasoned, and even somewhat frail before growing with her environment to survive an impossible situation. It was a more human take on the character, which is all well and good, but then when does Ms. Croft become the hardened explorer that captured people's imaginations in the first place? Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics' Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn't quite mark Lara's full-fledged maturation, but it certainly displays her continued growth and in the best way possible.
Seeking the Divine
Taking place after the events of the first game, Lara is now on a great archaeological journey, one that she hopes will redeem her disgraced father. Her journey takes her to the lost regions of Siberia, across the mountains and the fields. Her goal is an ancient secret called the Divine Source, but she's not the only one going after it. A secret, shadowy organization called Trinity is also seeking the powerful artificat, in hopes of cleansing the world and reshaping it in their own image.
At this point, it's tempting to dismiss the narrative as cliched. Shadowy religious cabals are nothing new in games, but neither Lara nor her enemies dwell on the extreme end of the good and evil spectrum. Trinity's leaders have a sinister reason for their actions, but they have a noble goal in mind, as well. Likewise, Lara is hopeful she can use the Divine Source to help the world, but not only does she get blinded by some major father issues (pointed out by her allies more than once), but her methods can be considered questionable. It's not simply a black and white narrative, carried marvelously by Camilla Luddington, who carries the mix of grit, determination, and occasional vulnerability. She helps make the story one of the game's major highlights.
That leads into the combat, which encourages stealth, but offers Lara so many different ways to proceed that it's almost worth wondering why a stealth path is even worthwhile. Sure, it's easy to dispose of guards by sneaking up on them with Lara's axe, but the ability to craft supplies on the fly is one of the game's most novel features. Lara's craftiness allows her to craft molotovs, makeshift smoke bombs, and even explosives to take out groups of enemies. Character upgrades will open the door to even more creative combat tactics, like booby trapping enemy corpses or using a foe's radio against them. The trouble with combat is that quick-switching can occasionally become unresponsive in the heat of battle. There were a couple of instances where I had enemies closing in and as I tried to make some distance, I'd frantically tap on the D-pad and still not end up switching to my desired weapon.
Let's Get Raiding
While the story is a high point, Rise of the Tomb Raider's major appeal is in its open world, which is begging to be explored. While the story will take Lara on something of a linear path, she's surrounded with a hotbed of side missions, hidden collectibles, and a number of optional tombs. Refreshingly, these stray away from the game's combat and focus on what makes the Tomb Raider franchise so great: tombs and their puzzles.
Optional tombs don't focus on combat, as much as they do puzzle-solving. This involves flipping switches, finding unstable walls, or using Lara's Survival Instinct mechanic to find hidden points of interest. The solutions are never spelled out, but they never feel impossible. They simply take work, enough to offer a sense of satisfaction upon getting to that "A-ha!" moment. While optional tombs can be skipped, they're filled with enough lore and worthwhile rewards, like on-the-field abilities that can prove valuable, that they're easily worth the challenge.
Outside of the optional tombs, there are a lot of open fields to discover, as well as caves to clear out. This leads into wild animals, which are abundant once Lara strays into the fields. Some of them are harmless enough, like deer or rabbits, which can be plucked with Lara's bow in order to grab animal skins for upgrades. It can get easy to stray into an exotic animal's domain, which is where things can get hairy. A prompt will indicate when an exotic animal (wolves, bears, leopards, etc.) is nearby, but there's about a one-second window between seeing that warning and getting pounced on. That's an undesirable result, but it was more of an indicator that I shouldn't be so careless than anything else.
And really, that's what I enjoyed the most out of Rise of the Tomb Raider. For the most part, if things went sideways, I felt encouraged to adapt and learn. Puzzles were obtuse, but were rarely unsolvable and in the few cases that they were, I simply left and came back with some new tools. Rise of the Tomb Raider encourages lateral thinking, but not so lateral that they become frustrating. That's largely helped by a generous checkpoint system, as well as an abundance of camps, though that generosity can be drastically reduced upon selecting higher difficulties.
Those looking for more of a challenge can also look into Rise of the Tomb Raider's Expedition mode, which focuses on Score Attacks, Chapter Replays, and other features. The main draw here is the Expedition Cards, which offer weapons and gameplay tweaks. These can be found over the course of the story, however they're also available as microtransactions. But considering how niche of a mode this feels and how easy card packs are to come by, the real money element feels entirely unnecessary.
Knowledge is Power
While Rise of the Tomb Raider continues on with Lara's story and focuses on her growth as a survivor, it's her growth as an intelligent archeologist that was most fascinating to me. That's why I enjoyed the new languaage proficiency mechanic, which would see Lara examining bits of lore left in the world to not only get valuable context for the narrative, but also find hidden caches of goodies. Some of these items, like the monoliths, are gated behind a higher level and Crystal Dynamics works this idea in a truly clever way. Once Lara is leveled up enough to examine a more advanced message, she'll dust it off and say something along the lines of, "I'm a bit rusty, but I think I can make this out..." It represents growth and I was really able to get behind that.
In fact, like its predecessor, growth is the central theme of Rise of the Tomb Raider. However, while the 2013 reboot was growth for the sake of survival, Rise is more about growth on a more personal scale. Between a fantastic story that introduces some fascinating characters, its vast open world filled with hidden elements and wild game, and a greater emphasis on solving problems with brains as much as bullets, Rise of the Tomb Raider proves to be a remarkable follow-up to Lara's origin tale.