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Retrospective: Tomb Raider (2013)

Welcome back to Survivor Reborn’s Retrospective series. Today, we’re peeling back the covers on Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider – the game that swept away all of the previous backstory and characterisation to retell Lara’s origin story as a shipwreck survivor on the mysterious, and deadly, island of Yamatai.

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In 2013, the Tomb Raider franchise entered a new age – the second Crystal Dynamics era – with an entry entitled, simply, Tomb Raider (subtitled “A Survivor Is Born”). It was developed by Crystal Dynamics and Nixxes Software, and was the first Tomb Raider game to be published by Japanese-owned Square Enix. It was also the first Tomb Raider game to get an ‘M’ (18) rating, for its graphic violence and strong language, and the first game to have a multiplayer option.

 

Retelling Lara’s origins

Tomb Raider opened with a 21-year-old Lara Croft, fresh from university and eager to begin her archaeological career, on board the Endurance for her very first expedition. She was accompanied by her mentor (and expedition leader) Conrad Roth, and her best friend, filmmaker Samantha Nishimura. The crew were in search of the lost island kingdom of Yamatai – the realm of Himiko, the near-legendary Sun Queen. On Lara’s suggestion, and against the wishes of the expedition’s archaeologist, Dr. James Whitman, they steered a course into the dangerous Dragon’s Triangle, east of Japan.

However, a storm ran the ship aground on an uncharted island. Lara became separated from the rest of the crew, and woke from unconsciousness as a captive inside a cave. Lara managed to escape the cave – and her savage captor – and set about trying to orientate herself and find any other Endurance survivors.

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Lara surveys the dawn on the mysterious island of Yamatai

As she explored the island, Lara discovered its hodge-podge of ancient Japanese ruins mixed with more recent graffiti, carvings, and disturbingly gruesome shrines. Lara soon reunited with Sam, who was in the company of a man called Matthias. He claimed to be a teacher, and delighted in Sam’s retelling of the legends surrounding Himiko. The Sun Queen was said to have had shamanic powers over the weather, and was surrounded by loyal priestesses and her invincible Stormguard. As Sam talked, Lara, exhausted, fell asleep.

When Lara awoke, Sam and Matthias had vanished. Afraid for her friend, Lara regrouped with the rest of the Endurance crew and they split into two groups; one to find Sam, the other – Lara and Dr. Whitman – to find the still-missing Roth.

Their explorations revealed more of the island’s peculiar shrines. Lara realised that the islanders were actively worshipping Himiko, which confirmed that this really was the lost kingdom (or rather, queendom) of Yamatai. However, a band of savage islanders captured Lara and Whitman and hauled them away to a mountainside settlement for questioning. There, Lara witnessed the islanders executing other survivors of the Endurance. After she tried to hide and flee, she had to resort to lethal force to defend herself from attack. She escaped the settlement and reunited with Roth – defending him from a pack of wolves in the process.

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Lara and Roth share a quiet moment

Roth, his leg injured by a wolf, encouraged Lara to head up to an old radio tower to try and send an SOS. She succeeded – much to the joy of her crewmates on the ground – and headed back down to await the rescue plane. However, the aircraft was downed by a sudden, violent storm that coalesced out of an apparently clear sky.

Lara was further disheartened when Reyes and Alex – the Endurance’s engineer and electronics expert – radioed in to say that Sam had been kidnapped by the islanders. Lara immediately set out to rescue her friend. At the gates to a monastery, she was confronted by Matthias – leader of the islanders, the so-called Solarii Brotherhood, a cult of shipwreck survivors-turned-Himiko-cultists. Matthias ordered for Lara to be killed, but was interrupted by an attack of gigantic humanoid creatures clad in Samurai-style armour – the Oni.

The Oni took Lara (and the remains of several others) into the monastery’s abattoir-like storeroom. Lara managed to escape, and was horrified to overhear that Matthias was planning to put Sam through a fire ritual. He believed that the ritual would show if Sam was worthy to be the next Sun Queen – and burn her to death if she was not.

Lara tracked Sam’s kidnappers on a traumatic, tumultuous route down from the monastery and through a squalid shanty town erected at the base of a ruined Japanese fortress – the Solarii’s stronghold. She fought her way through the shanty town – aided by Roth’s sharp-shooting and Grim, the Endurance’s helmsman, who sacrificed himself to protect her from the Solarii. Lara arrived at the fire ritual chamber in time to see Sam being gagged and bound to a pyre. She tried to save Sam, but was caught and incapacitated by Solarii. Lara was forced to watch as the pyre was set alight – only for a powerful wind to appear and extinguish the flames before they could do Sam any harm. Matthias declared that Himiko had chosen Sam to be her successor, and had Sam taken away for preparation.

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Lara is powerless to prevent the fire ritual

Lara managed to escape her captors, and fought her way through the bloody bowels of the fortress where she reunited with Reyes, Alex, and Jonah (the ship’s cook). They formulated a plan to rescue Sam and escape by summoning a rescue helicopter. Lara returned to the fortress in pursuit of her friend, and encountered a twitchy Dr. Whitman, who appeared to have talked his way into the Solarii’s good – or at least, indifferent – books.

Lara discovered her friend and urged Sam to seek safety while she fought off more Solarii. Lara managed to escape the fortress via a helicopter – commandeered by Roth – after a nail-biting climb to the fortress’ roof. Seeing Sam, Reyes, and the others trapped on the ground, and another unnatural storm brewing with terrifying speed, Lara ordered the pilot to descend – holding a gun to his head for emphasis. They made a crash-landing in which Lara almost died but for Roth’s emergency first-aid. However, they came under attack from a small band of Solarii led by Matthias, and Roth took a thrown axe meant for Lara.

The other Endurance survivors reunited with Lara and helped to build Roth’s funeral pyre. Lara realised that the unnatural storms were actively preventing anyone from leaving the island, and that they were somehow connected to Himiko. The next morning, Lara followed her friends down to a beach littered with shipwrecks. They located a boat that could potentially be made sea-worthy, and Alex headed off to salvage appropriate tools from the wreck of the Endurance. Whitman suddenly reappeared, claiming to have barely escaped the Solarii fortress, but Lara was suspicious. As time went on and Alex did not reappear, Lara went to look for him. She finally found him, badly injured and under attack, in the ship’s engine room. He passed on the vital tools needed to repair the boat, and then sacrificed himself in an explosion to give Lara the chance to escape her pursuers.

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Jonah keeps watch while Lara searches for Alex

While Reyes and the others began repairs to the boat, Lara headed up into the cliff side to an old WWII Axis research station. During her explorations, she had discovered an old diary chronicling scientific investigations that had been carried out into the island’s unnatural storms. The research pointed to there being an old Stormguard tomb in the cliff that could hold some answers. Upon entering the tomb, Lara discovered the remains of a Stormguard general – Himiko’s personal bodyguard. He had committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in shame for failing his Queen. In his final letters, Lara read that the Sun Queen’s latest successor had taken poison during the ascension ritual – trapping Himiko’s spirit in a dead, rotting corpse. Her rage was the source of the storms, and only by finding a new, living body would the storms abate. Horrified, Lara realised that this was Matthias’ plan – to gift Himiko’s spirit with Sam’s body and thus appease the Queen’s fury.

Lara returned to her friends to find their camp under attack from the Solarii. Lara’s suspicions were confirmed; Whitman had betrayed them and, in the confusion, kidnapped Sam. With the boat repaired, Lara, Reyes, and Jonah headed upriver and inland back to the monastery. At the gates, Lara witnessed Whitman and Matthias, with Sam in tow, approaching the Stormguards. Unimpressed, the guards killed Whitman and Matthias pulled Sam into the monastery – intending to perform the ascension ritual.

Lara fought her way through ranks of Stormguards, the fearsome Oni, and the increasingly furious storm to the very top of the monastery’s central ziggurat. There she saw Matthias begin the ritual with Sam next to the decaying corpse that housed Himiko’s wrathful spirit. Lara fought Matthias and he fell to his death, allowing her to approach Sam and Himiko. She then took a flaming torch and plunged it into the withered corpse – destroying it and saving Sam. Within moments, the storm subsided, and they were able to reunite with their friends back on the boat.

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Lara attempts to save her friend from Himiko

The survivors left the island and were picked up by a passing cargo vessel. Lara, standing apart from her friends, suddenly comprehended that all of the myths and legends her father had been obsessed about were – at least partially – based in fact. Scarred by her experiences on the island, she resolved to seek answers rather than return home to her previous, sheltered existence.

 

A survivor is developed

Tomb Raider represented a completely fresh start for Lara Croft’s character, and was a hefty advance from the previous titles in terms of gameplay and graphical intensity. Lara’s backstory and personality underwent major revisions, taking away her cocksure confidence in favour of making her more ‘relatable’ and ‘vulnerable’ – a young, inexperienced woman thrown into a traumatic situation and finding out the limits of her personal endurance. The story was written by Susan O’Connor and Rhianna Pratchett, of Mirror’s Edge fame. It borrowed many familiar features of the first Crystal Dynamics-era Lara Croft backstory – i.e. a strong underlying relationship and unresolved issues between Lara and her parents, particularly her father – but reinvented it, and Lara herself, in several key areas. These included, but were not limited to, making Lara more sociable and replacing her iconic twin pistols with new signature weapons (a bow and climbing axe).

According to executive producer Ron Rosenberg, in an interview for Kotaku:

“”She is literally turned into a cornered animal… It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.”

The island of Yamatai certainly offered plenty of traumas, as well as opportunities for exploration. The game incorporated strong survivalist gameplay elements, on top of RPG, exploration, stealth, and lots of combat and QTEs during the frequent high-octane action sequences. Various inventory items and weapons – such as the bow, climbing axe, shotgun, pistol, and rifle – could be upgraded using parts scavenged from dead enemies, animals, and various stashes. Lara herself could also be upgraded with skill points as players accumulated experience, which honed her finesse in salvaging, ranged attacks, and hand-to-hand combat. The game also featured dozens of collectibles in the form of archaeological relics, GPS caches, and documents. For times when players got stuck, there was even a ‘Survival Instincts’ function, which illuminated objects of interest and the direction players needed to go next.

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Zip-lining off the beaten track

The island of Yamatai was split into distinct areas that could be revisited, either on foot or via camps that incorporated a fast-travel function. This allowed players to return to previously explored areas to pick up items or complete challenges as and when they received the appropriate upgrades – such as being able to create zip lines with rope arrows, or blast walls apart with a grenade launcher. Small puzzle tombs were scattered across the island; while they were individually fun and offered useful rewards, all of them were optional in terms of story. Yamatai itself was realised with exceptional detail, from the splendour of a ruined Japanese palace to WWII-era bunkers and everything in-between.

Composer Jason Graves created a unique soundtrack to encompass Lara and the island of Yamatai. Lara’s famous theme was hauntingly rendered by a violin solo, while Graves used impromptu and bespoke percussion to craft unique sounds for the score and effects.

Lara’s movements were upgraded with the use of motion-capture, and included practically every mode of traversal except swimming. Lara’s voice and performance-capture was provided by Tomb Raider newcomer Camilla Luddington.

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Lara was portrayed as being more vulnerable

As indicated by its M/18 rating, Tomb Raider pulled no punches in terms of graphic violence and profanity. Combat and deadly brushes with natural hazards were substantially more gory and brutal than those of any previous entry in the franchise. The game also featured lots of downloadable content (DLC) and even a multiplayer option – another first for the Tomb Raider franchise. There were several commercial versions of the game, including many different pre-release incentives; the most exhaustive was the Collectors Edition (EU and NA), which included, amongst other things, a mini art book, double-sided map of Yamatai/Lara poster, a CD of the soundtrack, and a special 8” Play Arts Kai action figure in a special metal ‘survival kit’ tin.

 

Release and reception

Tomb Raider set a new record for the fastest-selling title in the franchise to date (a title previously held by Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness), selling more than one million units within two days. In April 2015, head of studio Darrell Gallagher announced that the game had surpassed 8.5 million sales, making it the best-selling title in the franchise. Ironically, on 26th March 2013 – three weeks after the game’s launch – Square Enix had stated that Tomb Raider had reached barely half of their internal sales expectations (3.4 million instead of 5-6 million). Gallagher defended the sales in a statement released three days later, in which he pointed out that it was still the “biggest opening so far in 2013”.

Reviewers were unanimous in praising the game’s visual quality, the length and depth of its gameplay, the quality of its action sequences, and its character performances. GameTrailers gave it 8.5/10, stating that, “It’s refreshing when you’re let off the leash and the mysterious island you’re marooned on is beautifully convincing and has an appreciable sense of interconnectedness.” The tombs, whilst optional, were pleasant distractions, and the simple mechanics of deciding how to get from point A to point B – especially with items like rope arrows – could be challenging and fun.

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Some of Yamatai’s spectacular – and deadly – scenery

However, a nearly universal sticking point amongst reviewers was the disparity between the game’s strongly violent tone and Lara’s characterisation; her actions and and personality were often at odds with the gruesome, even gratuitous, violence which she meted out to her foes. This critique is best summed up by this quote from GameTrailers:

“The moment the player is handed a gun, this frightened, would-be explorer instantly transforms into the alpha-predator of Headshot Island… The story of Lara’s transformation is sabotaged by the gameplay.”

Lara’s crewmates – from “angry black woman” Reyes, “geeky computer nerd” Alex, and “tough old sea-dog” Grim – also suffered from stereotyping; as GamesRadar commented, “[they are] pretty generic characters who, while rarely annoying, just aren’t memorable.” However, the game’s story or characterisation weaknesses were always going to take a backseat to the intense, and beautifully-rendered, gameplay and Yamatai’s gorgeous visuals.

 

Legacy and controversies

The Tomb Raider franchise as a whole is no stranger to controversy, or for highlighting wider social issues within the public sphere. 2013’s Tomb Raider was no exception. When the game’s “Crossroads” trailer was first shown in June 2012, it appeared to show Lara being threatened with rape or sexual assault – the trigger for her first human kill (in self-defence). Later that year, Ron Rosenberg seemed to confirm this was the case in his interview for Kotaku:

“In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She’ll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.”

Forums erupted as fans expressed enormous anger over this decision. Rosenberg’s further comments – such as “[gamers are] more like ‘I want to protect her’” and “When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character” – also generated heated discussions about the role and portrayal of female protagonists in gaming.

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Self-defence, but from what?

The argument soon spilled over from the Tomb Raider fan community into the mainstream media. Writing in The Guardian soon after the Crossroads trailer made its debut, Mary Hamilton summed up a great many fans’ feelings on the matter with:

“Players aren’t expected to want to protect Nathan Drake in Uncharted, or John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, or Max Payne – so why Lara? Rosenberg seems to suggest it’s because she’s female – and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a sexist approach, an assumption that men can’t lose themselves in stories with female protagonists and/or that female gamers simply don’t exist.”

Following Rosenberg’s comments, Crystal Dynamics’ studio head Darrell Gallagher released a statement to clarify what Rosenberg had actually meant in his Kotaku interview. He referred to the controversial moment in the Crossroads trailer as having been “incorrectly referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene”. He said that “sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme we cover in this game”, and that “we’ll certainly be more careful with what is said in future.”

 

Regardless of its controversies, Tomb Raider represented a completely fresh start – and new direction – for the franchise. Great efforts were made to try and ‘humanise’ Lara Croft – making her more relatable both visually and in her personality. The game itself was a roller-coaster of thrills, occasional chills, and often bloody spills that kept gamers on the edge of their seats. Its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, debuted on the Xbox One in 2015, and continued to expand on and explore this new Lara’s journey into a fully-fledged Tomb Raider.

 

What are your memories of Tomb Raider, and what are your thoughts on this newest era in the franchise? We’d love to hear from you over on the Survivor Reborn forums! 

Article written and images courtesy of J. R. Milward.

With thanks to Stella’s Tomb Raider Site for her worth-their-weight-in-Golden-Masks savegames.

 

References

Creative Commons Licence
Retrospective: Tomb Raider (2013) by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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About jrmilward (21 Articles)
Researcher, writer, editor, proofreader, voice actress, science graduate.

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