Hands-on with ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider:’ Lara sacrifices all to be a badass

Since 2013, the Tomb Raider reboot video game series was billed as Lara Croft’s modern origin story: a journey from survivor to hunter. In the newly announced Shadow of the Tomb Raider, she’s reached her “defining moment,” finally embodying the badass apex predator we knew in the older games.

But it’s going to cost her. And honestly, I’m kind of tired of watching Lara Croft suffer.

Because in practice, the survivalist story arc of the series reads more like the developers asking themselves: “How can we torture Lara Croft this time? What fresh hell can we drag her through?”

Each game offered a different torment, and it all seems to have been in service of her “earning” the title of bona fide badass. In the first, Lara fought tooth and nail to survive the island on which she was shipwrecked. In the second, she wrestled with the trauma of being a survivor (before kind of forgetting about it), while following in her father’s footsteps to solve the mystery that killed him.

Judging from the hour-long demo we played of the final and third installment of Lara’s new origin series, the next ordeal involves not only physical pain (though there’s plenty of that). There’s also an added layer of emotional reckoning, as she — a rich, white British lady raiding other people’s cultures for personal growth — will be forced to face the selfishness of her whole legacy.

The basic premise is that Lara must stop the Mayan apocalypse. Before you can accuse the story of being a white savior narrative, though, the game makes clear that it’s at least somewhat aware of the questionable politics of this quest.

Edios Montreal (which has taken over for Crystal Dynamics as the leading developer) even inserted an Assassin’s Creed-like disclaimer assuring players that their team is made up of diverse people, including cultural experts.

I still can’t help questioning the way the game appears to position Mayans as this violent, sexy, exotic “other” who serve as the latest trial Lara must conquer for more character development. But as Caty McCarthy of US Gamer reports, Edios seems to recognize that Lara is kind of awful, and aims to address the colonizing undertones of her story.

That still doesn’t explain the increasingly baffling question of why we feel the need to watch Lara Croft endure so much punishment before awarding her the title of legendary hero.

There are few other action-adventure game heroes we’ve felt the need to torment like this. Kratos from God of War had a tortured past, sure, but he was a badass before that. It wasn’t a prerequisite to him kicking ass, and we never linger on his physical pain, bruises, cuts, or even much of his emotional suffering. Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake was given more of an origin story in Uncharted 4, but it was nothing short of adorable in comparison to Lara Croft’s ever-evolving torment.

Usually, origin stories give these characters motivations, rather than qualifying their superhuman abilities in a trail of blood and tears.

Outside of The Last of Us (which is gruesome for a reason), I can’t remember more graphically violent death sequences than those in the rebooted Tomb Raider games. And no one dies, complete with orgasmic-sounding screams, like Lara Croft as she’s impaled by various spikes throughout the series.

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, that shriek of pain appears to have turned into a rallying cry of blood lust. At the reveal event for the upcoming game, Edios described this chapter in her agonizing journey as the point at which Lara really comes into herself, and becomes “one with the jungle.”

The first few games saw her as prey, but now she’s a killing machine on a mission, and as part of that she must eat gross things like bugs, cover herself in mud, hide in the bushes, and use her keenly honed predatory skills to kill terrified targets.

These “skills” are billed as fun new features for the player. But the fun appears counterintuitive to  the question it’s trying to answer. Which, as Lara herself asks in the trailer, is: “After all I’ve sacrificed, I have to wonder: What will I become?”

In the demo we played, Lara finds herself in Cozumel, Mexico, among locals celebrating Día de los Muertos. She dons a mask to “blend in” while tracking Trinity, the shadowy organization from the previous games that’s trying to retrieve the same artifact from a nearby Mayan temple.

Lara shoves past people honoring their dead, using the tokens of their culture as a literal costume. She murders some bad dudes, saving one local archeologist in the process. Inside the tomb, she overcomes familiar, forgettable puzzles. Like the good old days of classic Tomb Raider, she takes a swim, where she battles an eel, making it out alive but (as always) just barely, gasping for breath.

The real climax of the demo is when Lara takes the Mayan dagger from the temple, even though wall paintings inform her this will set off the apocalypse. Sure enough, she resurfaces only to have the dagger stolen by the presumable new main villain from Trinity. He thanks her for setting the “cleansing” in motion.

Suddenly, a huge tsunami tears the town apart, murdering countless civilians. Lara must survive it, through familiar and unremarkable platforming. Inevitably, you’ll mess up, falling to your death — but you don’t die by drowning. As in previous games, you must watch Lara die as she’s impaled by spikes inexplicably hidden beneath the water.

After all this death and destruction, Lara’s longtime friend and companion Jonah yells at her for not considering the consequences of her actions. She seems more distraught about losing to Trinity than causing this monumental travesty.

This does indicate that the story will center around Lara’s flaws, and I’m eager to see how that narrative plays out.

But the reboots were marketed as a more “human” and “relatable” (dare we say: “feminist?”) version of the very inhuman ideal of the old Lara Croft. Her bra size went from a EE cup to a sizable C. She struggled to find her footing, and felt kinda bad about killing everything in her way. In the latest game, she doesn’t seem to feel all that bad about killing people who aren’teven in her way.

It’s starting to become clear that, intentionally or unintentionally, her tortured journey was actually showing how Lara Croft slowly lost more and more of her humanity on her way to becoming the iconic badass.

That’s a truly fascinating take on her story. But it’s not particularly inspiring. I’m also not sure why I’m supposed to be excited about playing a character devoid of humanity.

What were all her trials, viscerally gruesome deaths, pain, strife, and suffering for — if it was all in service of getting her back to exactly who Lara Croft was back in 1996?

We’ll have to wait until the game comes out on Sept. 14 to see.

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