Rise of the Tomb Raider is an action-adventure title with light metroidvania elements developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix in 2015 for Xbox 360 and Xbox One. A year later in 2016, it was also released on PS4 and PC, with ports to Linux and macOS being released in 2018. It also came to Stadia in 2019 for some reason.
A year after escaping Yamatai, enthusiast archeologist Lara Croft decides to continue her father's research into immortality, which leads her to the empty tomb of the Prophet of Constantinople in Syria. There, she runs into the religious order Trinity (now a paramilitary organization), who are also interested in immortality. Together with a returning Jonah, Lara follows the trail of the prophet to Syberia, where he is said to have migrated with his people, alongside the key to immortality.
With the previous game behind her (after a bit of counseling you can listen in on which doesn't really go anywhere), Lara is now capable enough that she doesn't get stabbed by debris constantly (though she does suffer some blunt force trauma here and there), making her story more focused on her inherited obsession with ancient cultures and what she intends to do with her life, which is a tad more interesting than what happened in the last game.
What isn't better is the writer's ability to set up a story. Not only do they go for a weak in-medias-res opening again, they still can't establish characters characters for shit. I mentioned in the preamble that Jonah is a returning character, but thanks to his new beard and how forgettable he is, I had to check whether he was actually in the first game or not. All the other characters besides our main villain Konstantin are also this forgettable and poorly introduced. And he only gets by being memorable because he's a religious nutjob straight out of an 00s B-movie thriller.
As such, there isn't much of a foundation for the story to stand on, which feels like a waste given how much effort has gone into it. Just like before, each and every document you find is voice-acted and it really wasn't necessary, as I inevitably got bored half-way through each one and just read the rest myself or just tuned out. Which is a shame, because the documents you find each correspond to a different era and people, with accompanying relics to discover, which are as interesting as before.
If that part of the story was structured better and had its fat cut off, you could have multiple levels of mystery for the player to work towards and puzzle out in parallel. Instead, it's just a bunch of rambling with no good hooks.
That description works for the core plot as well, since a lot of it is just people arguing over the Divine Source of immortality, how important it is, versus how it shouldn't be touched. I like the slightly more heroic angle Lara has this time around, but beyond that she is just protagonist lady. A protagonist lady whose hair went on its own adventures in wind-less environments during cutscenes just because I didn't want to tax my PC with the more accurate hair physics simulation.
I think the game's greatest missed opportunity lies with the remnants of the prophet's people living in Syberia. They're this group of people who have lived in isolation protecting the source that the story frames as stereotypical "rebels" against Trinity, when they could be so much more.
What strikes me as odd is just how agreeable they are, save for Sofia, the daughter of their leader, Jacob. You run into quite a few of them and they just act like peasant NPCs in an RPG, with the personality to match and with no discernable features.
You'd think that with the thrust of the story being Lara wanting to discover lost secrets and completing her father's research, the game would be focused on the struggle of understanding and befriending this unique group of nomads in order to fight Trinity, while also drawing some clever parallels with Sofia and her dad Jacob somehow. It's right there, why wasn't the story about that instead of retreading the climax of the last game while also ripping off Uncharted 2?!
The core systems and progression remains largely unchanged for Rise, with you starting with only a bow (which is as satisfying as ever) plus basic equipment and building up to a huge arsenal of weapons and abilities come endgame. I found things about as enjoyable as before, even if it can get pretty easy.
At the start, stealth is encouraged, since resources are scant and ammo is tight. But even at your weakest, stealth really isn't a big deal. They tried to increase depth by introducing aerial drop kills and distraction bottles, but with how absolutely blind enemies are, sneaking around behind people on the ground and stealth killing them is incredibly easy.
And should you screw up, you can just shoot your way out, which is also pretty simple, since you have access to more special ammo for the bow and can craft more in combat. You can just pick between the various special arrows, go to town and there's not much even the most armored of enemies can do. And if you like me get the current PC version with all the DLC for free, you'll end up with a bunch of weapons that break the intended progression curve, making combat even easier should you use them.
The ammo situation is especially ridiculous if you choose to use the bolt-action rifle, which is strong enough to kill most enemies in a single body shot (which just feels wrong) and shares ammo with the rest of the assault rifles in its weapon class. So whereas 100 assult rifle bullets feels somewhat balanced, since they're a bit weak, 100 bolt-action bullets is enough to last you in like 6 shootouts!
I think a lot of my issues would be remedied by just cranking up the difficulty, but beyond that, I think enemies should have more ways to put pressure on you. There are elements of this like body armor, grenades and flame throwers but they never amount to much.
Which is a shame, since my favourite part of firefights was scrambling around the area for special items (bottles, jars, cans, radios, gas cans) in order to craft them into grenades to throw behind cover. If enemies were tougher or more prone to swarm you so that these craftable grenades would be more important, I think the game would be in a better place.
As before, the biggest thing this incarnation of the series has over Uncharted is the slightly more complex traversal and the much denser environments. Exploration is key to leveling up, finding resources for the new crafting system and discovering puzzle tombs to raid for new abilites. Though the game stretches the definition of a tomb to its breaking point. Not that I mind, since the puzzles are neat and full of unique assets & design ideas.
The game is divided up into a few non-linear hub locations connecting more linear levels. Here you can do the odd side quest, fight wild animals, hunt (which serves a purpose beyond exp this time, since you get crafting materials), search for treasure, clear optional objectives and generally just roam about seeing what you can bump into.
In a smart move, the stereotypical Ubisoft towers to reveal map icons have been split into multiple things here, making it so each one only points out a couple of things, making sure you won't get overwhelmed by bullshit to collect initially. That can still happen later though, especially since there are now collectibles hidden in the tombs, which means there is a lot more ground to cover per area, especially if you missed the backpack pointing out where the collectibles are in the tomb.
Climbing and expanding your toolset is as fun as before. You can even do a tiny bit of sequence-breaking, which I thought was cool. Lara doesn't have that many new tools at her disposal, but the grappling axe and broadhead arrows you can stand on are worthwhile additions. It really feels like a combination of Prince of Persia and Uncharted platforming at this point, which works for me, even if the animation work feels rather sloppy at times.
The set pieces work off of the same framework as before and they really don't stand out this time around. You'll be bouncing around even more collapsing structures doing simple platforming with the most interesting part being trying to estimate how much of the game's budget these ate up. I wish we got more set pieces like the one where you need to slowly take out enemies from underwater while trying to avoid detection. It was both unique and challenging, which are aspects of design the game could do more with.
Since Square Enix was dead set on making this the next big thing (it wasn't), there's a veritable smörgåsbord of extra content to mess around with.
Baba Yaga is a side plot you quickly get access to during the game, which has a lot of unique visuals and set pieces, plus a story that is somewhat engaging, if predictable. Could have been better, but it gives the game an actual boss fight in the form of the titular witch, so it works out on the whole.
The other piece of story DLC is a prequel story set in Croft Manor. It features no combat and instead revolves around Lara exploring her old home looking for her father's will so she can claim the estate from her uncle. What impressed me about this DLC is how engaged I was with the story, as it is very small in scale and simply details the early lives of the Croft family while throwing in a few puzzles. It goes to show both what the writers are capable of and how vital it is to have proper hooks. A shame the rest of the game couldn't manage this.
Then we get to the weird shit, which revolves around loot box card packs, which I assume could be bought with real money at some point, but the ingame store seems to be broken, so all that's left is the grindy in-game currency earned by completing various challenges.
There's a score attack mode which lets you replay levels full of magical sparklies on a timer. The intent is to keep a combo of kills and collectibles going while clearing the level as fast as possible. It's an alright extra, but I found myself done with the main game, so I didn't mess with it much.
Endurance mode is a lot more interesting, as it is a survival mode made out of recycled assets. The thrust of the mode is to survive as long as possible by hunting and making fire and aquiring as many artefacts as possible while fighting off Trinity. It's decent, but cracks in the design make themselves evident after a while.
The skills from the main game make a return, but since you level much quicker and need to keep moving at all times, a lot of the old skills don't really serve a purpose. I was missing some skills catered to the mode, like better ways to stay warm or detecting all those instakill traps that always killed me 30 minutes into a run. And since it's all made out of recycled assets, its not very engaging to explore, since you always know what to expect and there's no meta-progression making things harder or more complicated like in Prey Mooncrash. Still a neat idea fitting with the reboot's theme of survival.
Ignoring some online mode I didn't touch (why would I even bother?), there's also something called Cold Darkness, which is very odd. It's basically a non-canon side plot which puts you up against soviet mutants that are pretty much blind. The idea is to sneak around them, enter three silos, follow instructions to set up an explosion and then engage in a giant combat encounter to blow everything up and save the day. I didn't care for it much since it's even more underdeveloped than the Endurance mode.
Same goes for the combat survival mode Lara's Nightmare, which just repurposes Croft Manor for a randomized survival mode that's way too hard since it swarms you with enemies and is very stingy with ammo.
All of these modes can be influenced by cards you choose to equip. They can be positive (start with certain skills or weapons) and detract from your score or negative (no healing, more damage from explosions) and boost your score. There are even some netrual ones which let you use PS1 Lara models which looks incredibly weird in this engine. But it all feels for naught since from my experience it takes forever to earn more points for more cards beyond the freebies you get for beating the game.
They're very much reflective of the game as a whole. Loads of rad but underdeveloped ideas given the wrong focus and ruined by Square Enix's greed. Good thing the core jumpy shooty bits are so much fun.