Despite what you may have heard, Lara Croft doesn’t need protecting. But it almost seems like she might during this ninth Tomb Raider’s opening moments. She has been shipwrecked and separated from her crew on an island in Japan’s hostile Dragon’s Triangle. She’s hurt, hungry and clearly very scared. As the first of many animals roasts on the first of many campfires, she hugs herself tightly and shivers. Videogame heroes don’t tend to do that.
This will all change in due course, admittedly. Tomb Raider is Lara’s origin story, telling the tale of how she turned from a gap year adventurer into the globe-trotting PlayStation pin-up introduced almost 17 years ago. By the end, she’s flinging herself across chasms with ease and stabbing aggressors in the eyes with arrows, leaving countless dead bodies in her wake. But for now, huddled tight against the cold as the rain tips down on Yamatai island, things are different.
Lara’s shipmates found Yamatai by flaunting accepted explorer wisdom at the insistence of our protagonist, causing them to stumble handily across it. It’s a mythical place, the location of which real-world historians and archaeologists have debated for centuries, so plonking it in Japan’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle makes not only narrative sense but for a fine videogame setting, too.
The brutal storms that bring in new arrivals and keep them here have weathered this landscape, and that it’s frequently a beautiful place says a lot for the quality of the art direction. This is no shimmering paradise hiding a dark secret like Far Cry 3 or Lost; this island wears its darkness on the outside. Heavy storms blacken the sky as an angry sea crashes endlessly against the shore. Mountains are intimidating, rocky and impassable. Foliage is lush, but never verdant. It’s a dark, foreboding place, which makes the rare moments of beauty – the sun peeking through a blanket of cloud, a snowy climb up a radio tower – all the more striking.
Several centuries of inhabitants have left their mark, too. The mystical Queen Himiko’s early followers built Nara-style temples in her honour that still stand today, while more recent occupants have made a rickety shantytown that’s surprisingly industrialised. When stitched together by a smartly interwoven network of woodland, scalable rock and caverns, and combined with a changeable climate, there’s a lot of environmental and architectural variety here for a single location.
This does much to address the Nolan North-voiced elephant in the room. Uncharted is an obvious influence, and one that Crystal Dynamics might feel is entirely justified given how Nathan Drake has appropriated Lara’s globe-trotting, treasure-hunting ways. There are differences, though. While Naughty Dog’s cheery protagonist jets from place to place, every few chapters dropping him in a fresh environment in some new far-flung corner of the globe, here there is only Yamatai. That Tomb Raider at times rivals Uncharted for variety and spectacle while having such a consistent sense of place is a true achievement.
There are moments, of course, when the camera takes absolute control, when the only time you break Lara’s relentless forward momentum is to walk around an obstacle, clamber sideways to the next handhold, or pop in and out of cover to eliminate those who stand in your way. But this is an open game, if not an open-world one, and it exerts much less strenuous control over you than Drake’s misadventures have to date.
Yamatai is broken up into hubs – the beach on which your ship is wrecked, the woodland where you first make camp, the shantytown – and the mountain paths and underground passages that run off them tend to loop back on themselves. You’ll step into a mountainside crevice and emerge 20 minutes later overlooking the same area but 200 metres higher up, perhaps with a new tool or ability to open up new areas.
While Uncharted has only its main route and the occasional glinting treasure in your peripheral vision, here you’re free to go off piste. OK, there’s a golden path – sometimes literally, since a tap of LB activates your Batman: Arkham Asylum-like Survival Instinct, which highlights objects and objectives in the glittering colour – but distractions are plentiful. From one central platform you might spot three or four different routes, only one of which will trigger the next narrative beat. Another path might lead to a Hidden Tomb in need of raiding, although that’s a misnomer: you’re alerted to their proximity by a popup, and their entrances are clearly marked with hieroglyphic scrawls. Inside each, you’ll find a single-room physics puzzle.