by Kristin Bezio
The Tomb Raider franchise is old, in videogame years, dating back to 1996, and has appeared on an impressive array of consoles and platforms. It has something of a reputation – a sardonic one among the people I know – for its feature character, Lara Croft and her more-than-amply endowed upper half. She’s been held up by some feminists as the iconic representation of everything that’s wrong with the way women are portrayed in games, but she’s also been lauded as a stand-alone heroine who is actually featured on the box art of her games.
In 2013, Square Enix rebooted Tomb Raider, releasing a game whose final line – “A Survivor is Born” – encapsulates the focus of the game. As with the film Batman Begins, this new Tomb Raider restarts the franchise with an origin story meant to explain the main attributes of a character with which many fans will already be familiar.
I have to confess, I’ve never actually played a Tomb Raider game before this one. I have seen the Angelina Jolie movies. That said, I’m not sure how “true” to Tomb Raider canon this reboot actually is, or what elements of the original series were “lost” in this new rendition. But I also don’t really care, because Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is exactly what I always hoped the series would be.
First of all, Lara is a young but respected archaeologist, a woman with an advanced degree and a background of research. She’s an academic, a veritable Indiana Jones before the Lost Arc or the Temple of Doom (and really before the Crystal Skull, which I’m pretty sure should never have existed). Also, her chest is reasonably proportioned in this version, which was an enormous relief for my feminist sensibilities and, I’m sure, her back.
The point is, Lara – Dr. Croft – is smart, resourceful, and a better scholar than her colleagues on the ship. And at the start of the game, that’s her calling. She’s an academic interested in field research as well as books. Throughout the game, she finds relics which she describes, dating them, providing information on them, demonstrating that she’s not just a relic-hunter, but someone who has a keen interest in history and culture.
She is also about as far from a damsel in distress as you can get… aside from a really irritating penchant for breathing with this weird little gasping whine all the time. The sound design, for the most part, is really well-done, but there were times when I wanted to strangle Lara just to make her stop making THAT NOISE. But that’s really the only complaint I have about the whole game. No, really.
Because despite all the hullabaloo about Lara being assaulted in the game – and she is – she never once needs rescuing from anyone else. She defeats her attacker (and then every other person out to get her) all by herself, relying on instincts, resources, and skills that she develops throughout the game. Yes, she panics from time to time, but, really, in her situation, who wouldn’t? Weird creepy island, human sacrifices, weird crazy people hunting her down… that seems pretty panic-worthy. And yet, every time something happens to her, she pulls herself together, gets over it, and moves on. All by herself.
Furthermore, even the game’s obligatory father-figure, Roth, needs her help because his leg has been chewed by wolves. Yes, he provides knowledge and wisdom to her (and, we learn, was the one to teach her how to climb walls), and he does help her in a few sticky combat-situations, but she doesn’t rely on him to save her – Lara is never a damsel, although she is in a considerable amount of self-sufficient distress throughout the game.
One of the stronger narrative points in the game is the theme of sacrifice, and that’s where the game really demonstrates that Lara isn’t a damsel. Roth, Grimm, and Alex are the three male figures who give their lives to save Lara and the other remaining survivors. Roth takes an axe to the back to protect Lara in combat, Grimm drags his own captor over a ledge, and Alex – in the damsel position himself – triggers an explosion to take out an enemy-occupied ship. In fact, three if the survivors are women (Lara, Sam, Reyez), and only one of them is even remotely damseled (Sam, who really is the proverbial damsel – and princess – in distress, but Lara’s the one who keeps saving her). Reyez and Lara are nobody’s damsel, and they make sure everybody knows it.
The narrative itself is fairly rich, although I was a little disappointed that the game chose to go with a supernatural rather than scientifically plausible theme. I was happy with the weird creepiness of the island, but was hoping that the storms and other oddities would be the result of some strange experiment-gone-wrong rather than ancient-evil-undead, but at least the “rules” of the supernatural part were consistent.
In terms of gameplay, Tomb Raider was enjoyable – new skills were introduced quickly, but not too quickly. As a player, you had the opportunity to get used to the bow before you found a gun, get used to that before you got fire arrows, and so on. You also began to notice elements of gameplay that indicated future mechanics you didn’t have yet… which also told you that you would return to an area, so you didn’t become overly frustrated by being unable to reach a prize somewhere in the level.
And the maps were fantastic. They told you what you were missing, the percentage of the map you’d completed, and even allowed you to go back to prior areas (through fasttravel camps). From the perspective of a completionist, it was really, really nice to be able to know those things, rather than wandering around hoping you’d found all the relics or the diary entries, only to discover hours later than you missed something and now have to replay those hours.
Overall, even though Tomb Raider didn’t get a high metacritic score, it’s one of the more enjoyable games I’ve played this year, and is hands-down a better depiction of female agency than Fable III (also, basic language skills! Bonus!). The gameplay feels natural, it makes the player feel clever, and it’s a pretty game. Every time you pause it, you look at the still image and think “That is so pretty.” It’s a well-made, decently-written, well-executed game that deserves a play-through. And yes, the husband agrees.