Tomb Raider: A Franchise Is Born?

The following is a review of the 2018 film Tomb Raider initially composed for my personal newsletter. It has been lightly edited for a broader audience, but should still be interpreted predominately as me expressing my personal thoughts on the film rather than a foolhardy attempt at “objective” evaluation.

Video game movies have an impressively awful track record, particularly with critics, and if early reviews are any indication it’s unlikely that this film-based-on-a-game-inspired-by-a-franchise will break that record. However, good grief does it try. Alicia Vikander’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal, selling the evolution of young Lara Croft from curious twenty-something adventurer to hardened killer in two hours arguably better than the game it’s based on ever did. Beyond that, the film’s most polarizing components will likely be the numerous set pieces it lifts from the game: from shipwrecks to deadly rapids, spike traps to ice axes, Tomb Raider feels at times like a sizzle reel for the 2013 game. And while that is great for someone like me who loved the game, it may be off-putting for those with no prior knowledge of Lara or who are not keen on the recent direction of the franchise.

I saw Tomb Raider opening night, and shortly after getting home I posted a photo in support of the film. That unwavering and immediate support has made me acutely aware of subsequent negative reviews and makes me feel somewhat compelled to defend the film against them. Because whether or not it is a “good movie,” I really loved Tomb Raider. What I’m most wrestling with is how we ought to judge adaptations, particularly of games — source material with dozens of hours to develop characters and plotlines, and which are as much predicated on player interaction and mechanics as they are vehicles for story. I think it’s fair to question the wisdom of even making film adaptations of games. But if they are going to exist, on what merits should they be judged? Do we evaluate them as films — which, of course, they are — or on the basis of their fidelity to source material, even if it resists linear, hands-off presentation?

I also think it is perfectly fair to question whether Tomb Raider would have been better trying to tell its own brand new Lara Croft story rather than explicitly drawing on and re-presenting scenes from a game. That may have alienated strong fans of the games, but those fans may well be alienated anyway by the places where the film takes liberties and significantly departures from plot points in the game. Yet catering to cinematic audiences — that is, people who will see Tomb Raider because it’s an action movie or because they loved The Danish Girl, not because they like or know anything about the games — almost requires this to be an origin story, and it’s hard to argue for a complete reworking of Lara’s origins after she has so recently had them reworked multiple times.

And so we go with an adaptation that borrows heavily from the game without duplicating it, with enough preface material to establish the general things that make Lara who she is: her rebellious spirit, her antagonistic relationship with the family wealth, her physical prowess, her clever personality. And then it’s a speedrun: finding Yamatai, facing and escaping capture, acquiring weaponry, and attempting to thwart Trinity. The pacing is brisk to the point of jarring, and leaves little room for nearly any of the other characters to breathe. Which is a shame, because a decent supporting cast certainly had more to offer than it had a chance to give here. On the other hand, this may have been a blessing, because the sidelining of everyone else in order to focus on Lara almost (almost) justifies the absence of some of the most memorable and effective characters in the 2013 game, especially Sam and Jonah.

Ultimately, Tomb Raider is working under a lot of pressure. It’s trying to relaunch a franchise still memorably (if winkingly) associated with Angelina Jolie; refreshen an already-told origin tale; and condense a sprawling exploration-driven experience into a tight, brief plot; all while juggling the difficult task of turning a happy-go-lucky college-ager into a survivalist in an under-120-minute window. And while it’d be dishonest to say the film succeeds at everything it tries to be, I think it’s also important to ask what else it could have done with so many boxes to check.

Alicia Vikander pours her Oscar-winning heart into this performance and I have no doubt that, if given the chance to thrive in a film untethered by the obligations of a daddy-issues origin story, she (and the Tomb Raider franchise) can breathe new life into a dusty genre whose most recent offerings have included Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a surprising amount of Nicolas Cage, and whatever that disaster with Tom Cruise was supposed to be. I desperately want to see future Tomb Raider movies, and so critical reception aside I am really pulling for this one to pay off at the box office. Meanwhile, if you like the games at all, if you like Vikander, or if you just want a fun popcorn flick packed with action and adventure (if not much else), go see Tomb Raider this weekend.


Note: Featured Image taken from the official Tomb Raider movie Instagram account.

Tomb Raider: Where the Survivor Stumbled

Let’s get the full disclosure part out of the way up front, shall we?

  • I love the new Tomb Raider.
  • I’ve never played a previous Lara Croft game.
  • I have 100% campaign completion on Normal, am going back through for my Hard playthrough, and recently bought a few cables so that I can play multiplayer with voice chat over PSN.
  • Nothing I’m about to say precludes my resounding recommendation that people go buy and play this fantastic game. It tells a great story, it’s set in a breathtaking environment, has some fantastic, memorable music, and is just a ton of fun, particularly if you’re the sort of person who feels compelled to find and collect anything that causes an incomplete fraction to pop up on your screen when you find one of it.

But in the wake of news of “disappointing sales” and a flood of unhappiness and ranting following the announcement that no single-player DLC is planned for the game, I think it’s worth looking at what happened and considering why.

The number one problem I have with Tomb Raider is that it is too easy. I say that not as a long-time fan who misses the challenges of older games, but as a platformer aficionado who has tackled extremely challenging and hazardous tombs in, say, several Assassin’s Creed games over the years (tombs which aren’t even fundamental to the franchise’s story or branding) and found that the most difficult moments in Tomb Raider were a cakewalk when compared to other games it can’t help being held up against. I had to work far harder to achieve full campaign completion in pretty much every other platform/exploration-driven game I’ve ever played (going back to PS1, say).

That’d be alarming even if this weren’t called “Tomb Raider” and if the franchise’s core fanbase hadn’t fallen in love with the challenge of each tomb. So while I think any fans who pass on this game because of its representation of Lara are simply making an incredibly ignorant decision, the fans who pass because of the lack of challenge? They have a point. It may be a great game, but it isn’t the type of game they wanted to play, not the type of game Tomb Raider used to feel like.

So here’s my “review.” If you played Tomb Raider for Lara, pick this up. If you played Tomb Raider for the sense of mystery, discovery, and adventure, pick this up. But if you played for puzzles that could stump you for hours, and if your sense of achievement is tied to the difficulty of overcoming extreme challenge? Then maybe this isn’t for you after all. And I think the extent to which that may apply to a lot of people who loved Tomb Raider in the past is rather sad. But beyond that, I can’t think of many reasons not to play this game.

While all that may seem a bit unrelated to the backlash over DLC, it honestly isn’t tangential at all. The campaign established a great toolset and delivered progressively harder tombs as Lara combed Yamatai, and I don’t think I was the only fan who not only hoped but took for granted that a “challenging tombs” pack was going to come out sometime soon. We were prepared to pay extra money for the challenge that was blatantly missing from the game. And then we found out it wasn’t coming…ever.

I attended the Tomb Raider panel at PAX East this weekend and the difficulty of the game (or lack thereof) was brought up. Crystal & Square recognize the outcry, and acknowledge the more rudimentary challenge level of this game. While what was said doesn’t necessarily excuse them (or the lack of DLC), it’s worth mentioning here. Two culprits were pointed to, each with its own merit.

The first is the tone of this Tomb Raider in contrast with past games. 2013’s Tomb Raider is rugged and real, powered by emotion and character rather than action and diversion. The story maintains a rather constant urgency and that’s a tone which is difficult to maintain even in the best of games. While diversionary romps through hour-long tombs may make sense for Ezio (especially if he hasn’t reached the next narrative waypoint to guide the story along), Lara is in a very present battle for survival and rescue. In terms of “gamey” mechanics, it simply wouldn’t make narrative sense for her to meander off into dark and dangerous dungeons while her best friend is in real danger of being sacrificed, or while she herself has not developed an affinity for crypts as of yet and would just like to be home in a warm bed. Sure, as the game goes on we begin to see the “old” Lara surface and a confidence emerge which ensures future games will have to up the ante. But in terms of this story? Extensive tombs really just wouldn’t have worked.

When you consider past Tomb Raider games, you’ll notice more of an emphasis on fun and fantasy, elements which while not absent from this game are definitely (and intentionally) subdued. Seldom does a moment arise in the new Tomb Raider where your suspension of disbelief is broken: Yamatai feels real, the danger feels real, and part of you wonders if that dangerous island isn’t actually out there, amassing shipwrecks and downed planes and populated by a manic and lost cult. Every tomb feels like just that: a tomb, a place actually used by real people who had a real purpose for the environment. The challenge of traversing it feels practical because it wasn’t created to be challenging, it just became challenging as traditional footpaths and the like eroded and decayed over time. In much the same way as a person who drops a ladder needs to find another way down from the roof, Tomb Raider‘s challenge isn’t overtly gamey. It makes sense contextually.

One panelist pointed out how in previous games the difficulty stemmed from mechanics like having to pull a lever in one room which seemed disconnected from the door that lever opened in some other room. We’re used to this in games, but if you think about it, no actual person would ever develop a system that complicated for getting into a room. Believability and difficulty are ever at odds in these tombs and in this particular case, with narrative in mind, I actually appreciate the thought that went into the design of each one.

And the second point, which is so obvious it’s almost surprising, is that you didn’t need to use survival mode to get through the tombs. I’m sure there are SOME people out there who figured everything out easily enough without that aid, but anyone who complained that the tombs were too easy after having used such a blatant newb-friendly crutch should re-evaluate whether the game lacked challenge because it was inherently too easy, or because they opted for the path of least resistance. The goal of this reboot was to open the door for a new generation of players to a franchise which had become stagnant and rather esoteric, and to the extent that accessibility precluded forced difficulty, the onus may be said to be on players for challenging themselves if the standard experience proved too simplistic. This mirrors my own thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII‘s auto-battle system: sure, I wish the fighting had been more complex and demanding, but I could have chosen to mix up my fighting and made battles more interesting of my own accord; my decision to do otherwise can’t really be laid at Square’s feet.

So perhaps you can understand and appreciate why the game’s core tomb set was easier than it might have been. But that level of forgiveness is trumped by the absence of DLC — an admittedly more “hardcore” product insomuch as casual players aren’t likely to seek it out — and the knowledge that people who wanted to buy more Tomb Raider content in the spirit of the original Tomb Raider were deemed less worth developing content for than the ostensible multiplayer crowd definitely stings.

This, then, is the second major issue I have with Tomb Raider, and that’s its focus on multiplayer. Now like I said, I look forward to playing multiplayer. I have heard decent things about it, and it sounds like it’s got an interesting twist on the typical formula. But the fact remains that no one is going to buy Tomb Raider on the basis of it having a multiplayer mode, robust or otherwise. And while the people who do play will obviously need a fresh supply of content to keep them hooked instead of wandering off to play other games, it seems a bit more balanced approach would have been appropriate.

I’m not going to repeat the (now trite) complaint that single-player games are having multiplayer shoehorned into them and that development costs are being taken away from making a better single-player product because of it. There’s some merit there for sure but I don’t think the issue with Tomb Raider was that not enough time was spent polishing it. If difficulty is my prime concern and it can be explained for non-resource-related reasons, then obviously something more is at play.

In this case, it may simply be the failure to recognize that reigning multiplayer champions like Halo and Call of Duty are simply not going to be usurped. Variety is great but the popularity of such stalwart mainstays suggests that the reason people keep buying and playing them is more to do with how they don’t change than with how they do; familiarity, rather than freshness, seems to be driving those mind-blowing sales.

So to come along and expect, as Square clearly did, that a game-changing multiplayer might make Tomb Raider more of a hit — and to back that assumption by developing multiplayer-exclusive content — seems a rather foolhardy decision. And it’s a shame, because you know they realize that too. A cursory glance at the backlash reveals a rather clear message: We don’t want more multiplayer. We didn’t even really want it in the first place. And the money we would have given you gladly for other content, you’ll never see, because you’re not making that content.

Tomb Raider is a great game, and hopefully the beginning of an extraordinary new life for the Lara Croft franchise. It would be tragic for the “poor” sales to preclude further games with this level of excellence being made, and on that basis alone I reiterate my encouragement to go buy yourself a copy. But I sincerely hope that, now that the origin story has been told and a “survivor has been born,” Crystal and Square learn from their mistakes here and deliver a follow-up which will live up to the bar they’ve set while thrilling the disgruntled fanbase that just wants to be forced to think a little harder. Just cater to the masochists and introverts.

We are gamers, after all.