Monday, August 26, 2013

Gamer Drama: A Story Critique of Tomb Raider

    I began to play Tomb Raider shortly after I finished Mass Effect, and I finished the game in three sittings. I really couldn’t put it down. Obviously, I really enjoyed playing the game. I did wait to write the Gamer Drama entry, though, because I really wanted to think about the game and the story line. So, without further ado, here is my story review of the newest Tomb Raider title. Per usual, I avoid big spoilers, but there could me some smaller ones littered throughout (Spoiler: you see most of the plot “twists” coming from miles away).


    In this reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, Lara Croft is part of a research/videography team searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai. When their ship strays too close, however, a huge storm strands the team on an island. Unfortunately, the island is already inhabited by a murderous cult—one lead by an unsettling man named Mathias and one that worships the long-dead Sun Queen Himiko. From the beginning, Lara seeks to help her and her friends get off the island, though she is initially unsure about her capabilities (though, really, since you can survive all of those falls and impalings, I’m sure nothing really stood in your way, Lara). Along the way she unearths some seriously supernatural goings-on and, more importantly, becomes increasingly confident in herself. It has everything an origins story needs, and you see the birth of Lara Croft as we know her today.

The Setting

    For a small island that few people have found in modern times, Yamatai has a diverse environment. Most of the island is covered by forest, but you spend a significant amount of time in the mountainous region. Which is important, because I guess you wouldn’t know where you were going if the trees didn’t start to fade as the altitude increased (also, there’s beaches because, you know, ocean).
    While the forest in Alan Wake was essentially a character and a plot device in and of itself, the island in Tomb Raider isn’t as successful in distinguishing itself as something beyond the backdrop for Lara’s character arc and tons and tons of murder. This is a little bit of an issue, because for a fairly large portion of the game Lara channels her inner Jack from Lost and claims that “the island” won’t let them leave. Of course, we find that this isn’t exactly the case, and the setting doesn’t bother to fully mature. Basically, the game could take place in any sort of environment and not be diminished. The setting’s biggest downfall, though, is that the island is fairly easy to navigate, and you rarely feel the frustration of someone outside her own element.
    It looks really, really pretty, though.

The Characters

    Tomb Raider is all about Lara Croft and her progression from archaeology student to professional bad ass. For the most part, it’s highly successful. Especially if you’re me, and the game sets the mood with a drowning scene because ohmygodIcan’tbreatheaaaahhhh. The tension is maintained as Lara washes ashore, is captured, narrowly escapes, and then sets out to find her friends. She meets up with some of her companions—setting up the damsel-in-distress and her wizened counselor. Lara knows that she needs to protect her friends, but initially it is only through Roth insisting that she can climb a mountain without safety harnesses or take out a wolf pack that Lara learns what she can really do. Lara tells us how she progresses, becoming more and more certain about what she can do and more willing to do the things she must. 
     Of course, the game leans more toward “telling” us that Lara doesn’t know what she is doing than “showing” us that we should be uncertain about her capabilities. Personally, when Lara walks away after being caught in a bear trap in the first twenty-or-so minutes of the game, I was thought “Alright, she’s got this.” There were a few times when I accidentally killed Lara where I wanted to stop and yell “I SURVIVED SOMETHING WORSE FIVE MINUTES AGO!” Lara has excellent aim, she can leap giant valleys in a single bound, and she has the upper body strength of Thor himself. She was going to be just fine.
Which really can’t be said for the rest of the characters. Lara’s friends are plot devices—she has to save them or she has to mourn them. Sometimes she sends them off to do their own thing, and then goes to save them later. Most of what you learn about supporting characters and their own back stories or personalities is found in documents hidden throughout the island. As I am not a strict completionist, and TOMB RAIDER TRIED TO MAKE ME FIND TOO MANY THINGS, I didn’t experience a lot of the minor character development. I don’t think it took too much away from the game, though.
     Another minor quibble comes from the obvious way that “bad” characters are portrayed. When you meet Mathias, you know that this is one shady son of a bitch. You also know that the character who betrays you is going to betray you. This isn’t the only way that the antagonists fall flat, though. Mathias doesn’t really progress beyond “crazy bastard.” He never really seems like much of a threat. The same is true with his henchmen. They’re only unsettling when they’re in a quick-time-event, or when they massively outnumber Lara. The “primary” antagonist (I guess that’s the best way of putting it) is only introduced late in the game, and really didn’t live up to the title. Basically, Tomb Raider feels more like a survival game than a “Lara vs. The Baddies” game. You’re not too concerned with the antagonists—no one’s a true nemesis—you just want to get off that damn island.

The Payoff

     You work hard and spend a lot of time saving and re-saving your friends. When you finally sail off into the sunset, you’re definitely relieved that you’ve escaped that island, with its tortuously frequent quick time events.
     In all seriousness, though, Tomb Raider makes you work hard each step of the way—at least, if does if you play it on a high difficulty level, like I did. The story line seems really drawn out near the end—I kept expecting it to be over soon for the last five hours I was playing the main story line. You relish the win when it happens, but it does feel a little underwhelming. This is largely, if not completely, due to the fact that there is no boss battle. There is no final, large fight to end the game. You have a quick time battle with Mathias that’s over so fast that you feel a little cheap, and then you “defeat” the Big Bad in a cut scene. Maybe I was spoiled as a child, with the likes of Ocarina of Time, but I expect to really DESERVE the end of a game through a boss battle. Or at least a lead-in that isn’t easier to survive than most of the rest of the game.
     So, does Tomb Raider provide a good payoff? If you’re focusing on game-play, I think it does. You work hard to get to the end, damn it. I’m less sure of the answer in regard to the story line, though. The plot twists and turns leading up to the end of the game are really formulaic. I didn’t find any of it surprising and, in a point where Lara experiences a key revelation I thought to myself “…wait. Didn’t we already know this?” If you’re alright with that, then there is definitely some great narrative payoff at the end of Tomb Raider. Everything’s wrapped up quite well. If you’re not alright with knowing what’s coming, well, then the story falls a little flat.

Grins and Gripes

  • Was SquareEnix paid by the quick-time event? Someone needs to tell these guys that QTE does not equal gameplay.
  • I was really entertained and intrigued by the seamless way that Tomb Raider moved from gameplay to cut scene to QTE and back to gameplay…for the first four hours or so. It became increasingly frustrating as time went by.
  • I mentioned this earlier, but there is a RIDICULOUS amount of collectibles in this game. I was initially trying to find everything, but once I realized that nothing really happens when you do, I stopped.
  • The voice acting is excellent, and Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara Croft is probably the single best video game performance that I’ve ever experienced.
  • With a bow, a handgun, a shotgun and a machine gun, you’re able to mold Lara’s action style pretty well. I found that using the bow was immensely satisfying, and I spent a lot of the game slowly picking off enemies, trying to see how many I could kill before the sounded the alarms.
  • Surviving the island is abandoned in favor of surviving the crazy cultists pretty early on in the game. As a result, I found the Survivalist skill tree to be largely useless—I spent most of my skill points in the Brawler and Hunter skill tree.
  • One of my favorite touches in the game revolves around Lara’s physical changes. As you make your way through the island, Lara’s clothes exhibit the wear and tear that you would expect from her adventures. Also, even if her injuries don’t slow her down much, the character design shows that they still leave a scar (or scrape, cut, or abrasion).

Rating: 8/10

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