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Sunday, October 1, 2023

'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' Tries to Be Epic, But It's Really Just Mean

I have not quite finished Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest in Crystal Dynamics' rebooted saga of videogame icon Lara Croft. I'm not sure I want to, either. Following the violent archaeologist on a quest to a hidden city with the lofty goal of stopping an ancient apocalypse, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a competent, occasionally enjoyable action-adventure romp. It'd be great, if only it weren't so nasty.

Lara Croft is defined by her ability to endure pain. One of the earliest moments of the games is pure claustrophobia. Lara is wedged in a crevice deep underground, nearly crushed between two sheer rock walls as another rock pins her legs down. The camera lingers intimately as she agonizingly uses a knife to work the rock off of her lower leg, scraping off skin, groaning and squirming. The scene immediately before this, the literal first moments of the game, showcase Lara getting into a plane crash.


The new Tomb Raider series is built on the foundation of Lara's pain. In the first game, the pain was at least expressive, a crucible through which Lara Croft could go from a naive young woman into a hero, a fighter, the insatiable curious and bloodthirsty heroine of the 1990s. Back then, pain was a form of redemption for Lara, and while that isn't without its problems—why must a woman be physically injured to grow?—it was at least a meaningful idea, and Lara's mantra, a slow, breathy "I can do this" before confrontation, had a power to it.

That was two games ago, and yet Lara, supposedly fully developed into her heroic self a long time ago, still regularly gets stabbed, impaled, mauled, nearly drowned, and shot. Every time the player dies in this game, something awful happens to this woman. My own failures made me cringe, as I had to see some horrific punishment inflicted on her.


Lara Croft is born to suffer, and Lara Croft is also born to dole out suffering. Violence follows her everywhere. The game begins with Lara making a terrible mistake out of greed and desperation, a mistake that kills countless people. In another early scene, a supernatural tsunami—caused by Lara's plundering—consumes an entire Mexican town. Another vignette depicts a child dying. This, the game says, is Lara's fault. Shadow of the Tomb Raider then has Lara go on a warpath of her own, murdering droves of her enemies in pursuit of redemption and knowledge, even as the game halfheartedly attempts to encourage Lara to learn to be, well, less of a tomb raider and more of a tomb visitor. Hundreds of people die in this game to teach Lara Croft a lesson in humility.

The problem in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that this suffering feels without expressive purpose. It doesn't carry sufficient weight to justify itself. In these games, people suffer as mild, milquetoast entertainment. Crystal Dynamics, whether purposefully or by accident, have created games that feel, first and foremost, cruel. This would be less insulting if the games weren't so competently made. The combat, the sneaking, the labyrinths of puzzles that feel both sprawling and tightly focused—it all pops. There is a legitimate and powerful sense of tension here, and in a game that was framed with less brutality, a more bright and cheerful and playful sort of adventure, there would be a lot to recommend.

But over the course of three games, the tone of Tomb Raider has curdled. Lara Croft often gets compared to Indiana Jones, but disregarding their mutual tendency toward appropriation and violence instead of archaeology, the two have little in common. Lara's world is mean in its heart in a way that Indy's never was. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a nasty game, and if this series continues, I hope it veers in a wholly different direction. I'm tired of watching Lara Croft get impaled on spikes.

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