*Note: Most of this review was written a month ago, but some parts have been added/edited recently in response to recent events. I’ve added asterisks to a couple parts to indicate this.
After a month of constantly playing Animal Crossing, I’ve finally gotten around to checking games off my backlog. I played a little Assassin’s Creed Odyssey before deciding it was time to complete Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I managed to do pretty quickly. I wanted to complete a couple games, but I knew the open world Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption 2 were not the kind of games I could finish in a week. So it was time for the final entry in the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy. *This post contains spoilers for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.*
I’d like to start by saying that I loved the gameplay. It felt like there was a bigger emphasis on platforming and exploration than combat, which is how I prefer my games. I enjoyed the escape sequences, which reminded me of some of my favorite parts of Uncharted. Also, there’s nothing like a Tomb Raider or Uncharted game to make me feel like I seriously need to up my fitness levels and archeological/historical knowledge.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game trying to answer, what Lara’s place is in all of this. Is she some kind of savior, protector of cultural artifacts, or is she a murderous thief, no better than Trinity, the organization she’s trying to stop from stealing artifacts to take over the world? The game begins with Lara taking an artifact that sets in motion a Mayan apocalypse, starting with a tsunami which destroys Cozumel, the town that harbored the artifact. She expresses guilt for causing the tragedy and immediately wants to go after Trinity, who now have the artifact. Lara’s companion, Jonah, stops her and reminds her that there are townspeople who need help first – she needs to deal with the consequences of her actions. The scene cuts out, and soon they’re back to hunting down Trinity.
“What are they so afraid of?” Lara questions while hiding from Trinity guards, already having killed dozens of them. I don’t know, you maybe? I actually said that aloud to myself at that point in the game. In a game that tries to establish Lara’s feelings of guilt for all the death she’s responsible for, right from the start, her question felt odd to me. Is it okay when she’s killing ‘the bad guys’?
I felt less guilty when I was being shot at – it was just self defense then. But slowly and methodically going after Trinity guards while in stealth felt so cognitively dissonant. Lara is no longer murdering people because they’re hunting her, she is now this lethal assassin. Sometimes I’d try to get through a section without killing anyone. But I was rarely, if ever, successful. The game encourages killing, especially violent killings. Upgrade points went into making Lara’s attacks deadlier and more horrific. *As I’m going back in to edit this post a month after playing, I’ve just read Kotaku’s The Last of Us Part 2 review, by Riley MacLeod, I’m struck by his critique, “I never felt like the game asked me anything. Instead, it told me “brutality,” repeatedly and louder.” I did feel like Shadow was trying to ask me something, but it didn’t quite hit the mark.
The game does well making me feel the weight of my actions, but it doesn’t extend to Lara enough. I think for me it goes back to that “what are they so afraid of?” quote, where it seems Lara lacks any self awareness. Lara seems so comfortable with her high body count that the line isn’t convincing. This was the first point in which I felt a comparison – intended or not – being drawn between Lara and the Yaaxil, Shadow‘s supernatural humanlike creatures (I don’t even know what to call them, but I watched The Descent recently and it all felt eerily familiar). Was Lara some monstrous being just hacking down everyone in her way?
Just before Lara encounters her first Yaaxil (she’s seen them before, but only briefly scampering across the screen), you see the shadow of one cast on the wall of the cave she’s making her way through. She’s about to find out what it is, what it’s really capable of. Like the Yaaxil, we’ve seen Lara’s shadow, but we haven’t seen the fully-realized Lara Croft, tomb raider, yet.
Lara Croft is an extremely privileged woman. She’s a rich white woman able to travel the world because of her inherited wealth. The world is her oyster. Shadow goes farther to emphasize this than the previous entries in the trilogy. Lara makes decisions and survives at the expense of brown people, even as she tries to save the hidden city of Paititi. The most notable instance of this happens when the rightful queen of Paititi dies protecting Lara, which leads to Lara taking the queen’s place in a ritual sacrifice to save Paititi. It comes off as overwhelmingly white savior-y.
Going back to the Yaaxil, I ask, are Lara and the Yaaxil one and the same? The Yaaxil weren’t killing Trinity members for the heck of it – they were protecting their own culture, which is what Lara realizes she needs to help them do at the conclusion of the story. Lara ends up teaming up with the Yaaxil, rather than exploiting them, to stop Trinity. If Lara truly wants to protect the world’s artifacts, she can’t ignore the people whose cultures these artifacts are important to. And she especially can’t steal them herself.
So where do things go next for Lara Croft? Now that the “becoming the tomb raider” reboot trilogy is complete, I’d really like to see what’s in store. *Any future Tomb Raider needs to take extreme care to consider the world we live in, in which looting in the backdrop of tragedy is constantly condemned, but the looting of Lara Croft’s sort is praised and even glamorized for the sake of Hollywood blockbusters and video games.