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Shadow of the Tomb Raider received a polarizing response, was it deserved? And what’s next for the Tomb Raider franchise?

Gamingtodaynews1g - Shadow of the Tomb Raider received a polarizing response, was it deserved? And what's next for the Tomb Raider franchise?
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TLDR: SOTR is perhaps the most refined and comprehensive entry across the trilogy of Tomb Raider reboot games, but traces familiar ground in areas where innovation would have served it well.

 

The Outline of Shadow of the Tomb Raider:

When Square Enix handed the next Tomb Raider project over to Eidos-Montreal back in 2015, the world of single-player narrative games wasn't exactly thriving. The Montreal-based studio was well aware of the paradigm as the last two games it produced (Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided) fell flat commercially, but impressed critics.

"It's a question of maybe trends, or moment, or timing," Head of Studio David Anfossi ponders. "Every year there is a new trend. At the moment it's Fortnite – which is a great game – and all the attention is around these kinds of games. But we just have to wait. I don't want to change a Deus Ex game or experience. We want to be respectful to that."

So what's the reason for the current trend?

"I believe that the story-driven experience is going through a generational change," Anfossi surmises. "Especially for people like me, the old guys… people who are 25 or older. Looking at God of War, that's a pretty good example of a great single-player experience. I like it a lot, but I might not get the time to complete it. For me, that's a frustration. Because when you start a story-driven experience you want to see the conclusion. So we have to adapt and try new models."

While many have had the time to complete prominent single-player narrative-driven (I'm going to invent the acronym of SPND for brevity) games, the notion that time is a luxury is ever evident. In this discussion, I aim to review Shadow of the Tomb Raider in detail, evaluate its place in the reboot trilogy, and look ahead to the franchise's next release through the lens of the current gaming industry.

Become the Tomb Raider (SOTR Review):

The final installment in the reboot trilogy has had a polarizing reception among Tomb Raider fans. While the tombs and puzzles are an acknowledged improvement, the story and Lara herself are met with confusion and perhaps appropriate exasperation as Trinity makes yet another appearance. Is SOTR a worthy narrative? And has Lara been put through significant character development? As narrative direction Jason Dozois claims, SOTR is "Lara’s defining moment, the moment when she becomes the Tomb Raider."

So let's start with Lara.

Many fans have noted that Lara is quite unlikeable in this game, and while I agree I don't think that was unintentionally done by the devs. Take a look at the official game trailer to see how Lara sets the tone. "I've come so far, I'm not turning back. After all I've sacrificed…" she says assertively. But who else does that sound like? Why Dominguez of course! I think Lara and Dominguez are intertwined and are often portrayed as reflections of each other.

When Dominguez and Lara first meet, she comes across as a reckless archaeologist that has no regard for her consequences while Dominguez appears to be responsible and rational. As the story progresses though, we see Lara begin to question her motives after Unuratu's death ultimately leading to the game's emotional zenith in the Porvenir oil fields. Dominguez meanwhile is steadfast in his goal when Unuratu tries to reason with him. The two meet again in San Juan where Lara acquiesces and turns over the Silver Box to Dominguez. He implies that he had a hand in killing her father, but insists that he had no choice. Lara replies, "There's always a choice!" which emphasizes the now growing difference between the two.

While Lara eventually succeeds in her mission, she learns a lesson that Dominguez did not; the world and its artifacts are to be respected and not used to further one's goals. The parallel between Dominguez, Lara, and Lara's father should come as no surprise since this obsessive characteristic has resulted in their demise, save for Lara who realizes her misguided ways. Lara makes peace with the death of her parents and in the epilogue, we see a shift in her character as she becomes a more measured version of herself.

I also want to briefly touch on another interesting parallel that has to do with the New World and the Spanish Conquistadors as well as Paititi and the outside world. The in-game documents and relics provide a modest exposition on these dynamics, but in the context of Dominguez's isolationist agenda that protects Paititi from the outside world, I think the writers were trying to tie the historical Mayan/Incan Civilizations to the Paititians in-game.

Changing gears from narrative themes to game mechanics…

The story told in SOTR should be fairly familiar if you've played the other entries in the trilogy. The main plot beats consist of special relics, a powerful organization with nefarious intentions, supernatural creatures, and Lara saving the day. While the story isn't particularly innovative, I think that may be selling the game a bit short. Eidos-Montreal instead focuses on augmenting common game elements across the trilogy.

In-game puzzles, crypts, outfit customization, stealth mechanics, and tombs were all vastly improved in this iteration. Main game tombs were a clear step up from the previous two entries in the trilogy with Temple of the Sun being a standout for its complexity. Meanwhile, missions and DLC content were a mixed bag in SOTR even though overall they were significant improvements over their predecessors.

Some missions (e.g. retrieve the king's horn/saviour's amulet) were merely dressed up fetch quests while others (e.g. Sumaq's Murder) provided insight on Paititian society. DLC tombs suffered the same inconsistency; for example, Zipacna's Craving (The Grand Caiman) is another spin on Trinity doing Trinity things and Lara saving the day. However, The Forge and especially The Price of Survival provide essential backstories to key characters. Eidos-Montreal emphasized listening to player feedback during development and one has to wonder whether the positive reception to ROTR's DLC Baba Yaga prompted them to develop their DLCs similarly.

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And yet one thing that wasn't improved was the serious and self-important delivery of the narrative. Make no mistake, the reboot trilogy executes the gritty and realistic Lara Croft well, however with limited nuance comes monotony. I found that the narrative arcs in SOTR began to blend together, which made it difficult to follow the plot.

A prime offender happens to be a plotline in Kuwaq Yaku where Lara and Jonah break through a wall, Lara enters and traverses through a mine fighting off enemies only to circle back to square one. That leads to a swimming section, a climbing section, a verticality puzzle, and finally Paititi. I'm left wondering how I got from Kuwaq Yaku to Paititi and the answer is…it's complicated. I'll come back to this down below, but the point here is that I think the pacing and monotony were partly responsible for disengagement among players.

Where does SOTR rank in the reboot trilogy?

Here's my quick ranking with an explanation below:

Shadow of the Tomb Raider > Tomb Raider 2013 > Rise of the Tomb Raider

Story:

  • The first entry in 2013 had the most gripping story by far; each game in the trilogy evokes surviving against all odds, but the latter two entries failed to replicate the urgency and intensity as Tomb Raider 2013 did.
  • ROTR's plot is only marginally worse if not just as thin as SOTR. The decision to write a disconnected narrative and force Trinity into the story is baffling, but SOTR doesn't necessarily do things differently either. The common elements of Trinity, special relics, supernatural monsters, and Lara being a saviour are simply not creative enough.

Characters:

  • The crew of The Endurance in TR2013 feels like a fleshed-out cast each with a backstory and motive for joining the expedition. Mathias is arguably the best-written villain across the entire series and the relationship between Roth and Lara highlights Lara's character growth. Overall, TR2013's characters are well-written.
  • ROTR's characters on the other hand are a missed opportunity in some ways. Jacob is a fine supporting character, but we only receive a third-person account of his story via documents and relics
  • I think Jacob's trials and tribulations with the Roman Empire and Trinity would have had more of an impact if they were told differently. Konstantin is a confusing villain as his motivations are tied to Ana. In addition to no mention as to what exactly Ana is suffering from (we have to assume it's idiopathic), the relationship between Konstantin-Ana and Ana-Lara feels contrived and too coincidental.
  • SOTR executes the protagonist-antagonist dynamic well. Lara goes through character development that was lacking in ROTR while Dominguez has a backstory that explains his motivations effectively.

Puzzles:

  • This is probably the most concise comparison as SOTR is undoubtedly the most puzzle-centric entry in the reboot trilogy. While the main game tombs, crypts, and in-game puzzles are the best they've been, SOTR's DLCs encapsulate the progression in puzzle-making over the years.

Additional Content:

  • TR2013 has one DLC tomb and while it's arguably the best one across the game, it pales in comparison to later offerings.
  • ROTR has great additional content. So much so that it left me stumped after I finished the game thinking "The team can write a great story, so why didn't they?". Baba Yaga is a great side mission that instills a sense of mystery and horror the whole way through. Blood Ties is well-written providing a backstory on The Croft family while integrating some neat puzzles. And for a reboot constructed around the idea of survival, Endurance was much welcome.
  • As great as ROTR's additional content is, SOTR is an evolution in the right direction. To ROTR's credit, I think Baba Yaga served as an inspiration for the general layout and progression of the DLC tombs. SOTR's DLC tombs challenge players with some of the most intricate puzzles while (sometimes) adding meaningful narrative content as well.

What's next for the Tomb Raider franchise?

What's next for single-player narrative-driven games is just as valid of a question when it comes to the franchise's outlook. I think there may be a propensity to handwave this issue and point to the commercial and critical success of games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, TLoU2, and God of War. However, those SPND games are the exception and not the rule. What's even more interesting is that these games have very long main game campaigns when player activity suggests time commitment is an issue that hinders game completion. So what's going on?

It's not exactly clear, but there seem to be two trends at play. Developing a short story campaign that is highly engaging on a modest budget is one way to go, akin to Ninja Theory's 2017 release Hellblade. Anfossi had this to say about that game,

"It's amazing. I am playing it at the moment. It's exactly what we said a bit earlier about trying to change the business model…so I started to study it, because for me it's an interesting new approach, and the result is great. It's definitely a good way to stick with the older generations of fans of story-driven games."

Spider-Man: Miles Morales did exactly that, clocking in at around 7.5 hours of main story gameplay. The other trend is the aforementioned lengthy campaign, but that seems to be more of a common theme than an answer. HZD, RDR2, TLoU2, and GoW are all unique games that excel at player immersion.

Can Tomb Raider execute on that high standard of quality and stand out as an exception? Maybe, but with budgets and risk tolerances, things get complicated rather quickly. Whichever studio works on the next Tomb Raider release should evaluate the world of SPND games and choose accordingly, but either way, I look forward to what comes next.

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