Sorry for the long pause- I promise to get back to Vigil soon but for now I want to do something simple and fun.
I’m an early riser, my partner isn’t. So a lil while ago when I was putzing around in the morning on my own, I decided to grab Shadow of The Tomb Raider.
In general, I haven’t met a TR game I didn’t like. Tomb Raider: Chronicles being the exception that proves the rule, and even that one had some fun platforming and puzzle-solving. Fun can still be pulled off even if some of the potential for depth is mishandled.
The modern Tomb Raider games succeed at one of the major draws of the original series: exploration. Rise of The Tomb Raider and Shadow of The Tomb Raider always reward exploration off the beaten path. The placement of the player in the wilderness looking for hidden temples kinda makes it intuitive tbh. The modern games even have this nifty lil mechanic in the key item menu where you can rotate and zoom in on artifacts to examine them for clues. This is probably one of the best usages of modern graphics in these games. The modern games likewise succeed at tense, fast-paced combat that rewards situational awareness and careful management of consumable items.
There was a second strength of the originals, though, that the modern TR games haven’t done so well: atmosphere. And modern graphics may have contributed to the misunderstanding that led to this.
Obviously, when the series first launched on the PS1, realistic human figures were pretty hard to pull off. As a series with a human being for a main character with a tone that (at least a little bit?) aims for believability, the developers for the first Tomb Raider games wisely chose to play it safe. For the majority of the first few games, you see Lara Croft more than any other human character.
With the normal human proportion box checked, freedom could still be had in other areas. Three levels in, you get dinosaurs. Other human figures are largely saved for the higher-quality cutscenes between gaming segments. If a human other than Lara did appear in the polygonal gameplay graphics, it would have to be occasional and be calculated to fit within or play on top of the atmosphere.
In the first two Tomb Raider games, this calculation was integrated wonderfully. The lack of precise graphics left room for two probable risks: comical weirdness or creepy, uncanny weirdness. The first humanoid figure you encounter in the first game is a mummy that’s just a little taller than normal with an unusual head shape. When you grab the first scion piece, the mummy falls forward with a moan.
By leaning into the potential for creepy, uncanny exaggeration with some choice musical cues, it makes you go “holyshitwhat’sthisI’mouttahere“. So you’re running your ass off from that room and you’re soon greeted by a living human shooting at you. Because of the brief shock from the zombie, you are almost relieved to see a normal human murderer. And soon after neutralizing the threat, Lara and the assassin start talking. Your attention goes from the combat to the dialogue.
The atmosphere and the importance of what is being spoken takes the burden of believability off of the graphics for that segment. But the player still arrived at that segment through a shift from a creepy, human-ish being to the “relief” of a more realistic human presence. The psychological “threat” of something not quite human is still intact, and comes back with a vengeance when you encounter undead and mutant humanoids later. This usage remained consistent in TR2 in addition to TR2’s increased implementation of large, dark, vertiginous spaces (under water, on floating islands, etc.).
The appeal of the Tomb Raider games has mostly been a balance between a power-fantasy of physical strength and the vulnerability of isolation. I’m totally on the positive end of agnostic about the modern entries maintaining that standard: it is totally possible and I would like to see them pull it off. They’ll just have to find a different way of doing it.