I don’t know what to tell you. I liked Tomb Raider. A lot. But that’s the majesty of having a personal top ten list for game of the year; this isn’t a defense or accusation or anything of the sort. This is me sharing my experience with you, and that’s it.
Tomb Raider is an objectively good game, but it also contains its fair share of problems. For example, it builds up a vulnerable yet powerful hero in Lara, but also one that has yet to tap into the character we’re used to seeing fighting tigers and cartwheeling over crumbling structures. When she kills a person for the first time, it’s tense and meaningful in a way we didn’t think we would ever get from a Tomb Raider game.
And then she goes on to immediately kill a dozen more before racking up nearly a thousand corpses by the end of the game. It’s immensely squandered potential. We could have had an action-adventure game that held all of its action and adventure within our hearts and heads instead of shooting the shit out of dudes and animals.
However, judging a game for what it’s not is never a good idea, though ignoring it as part of the final product is similarly foolhardy when it jukes you like this. But the Tomb Raider we’ve gotten is still something special.
What sticks out the most to me is the simple act of actually playing the game. It feels just superb in so many ways. Lara handles in a way that hews closer to her days in short shorts and a crop top than the bumbling steps of Nathan Drake, but in the nuances of her animations, she still comes across as a green adventure, just one with huge potential. She dodges quickly and effectively but inelegantly; she strikes quick and reliably but never hard; she shoots fast and accurately but tentatively.
So while the narrative impetus to see Lara grow into someone more capable is tossed out the window, the character-player interactions mostly see them through to the end. This also includes, however, Lara’s use of the bow. This might be why I liked Tomb Raider so much more than most people (though everyone still does seem to like it a lot). I limited myself to use only the bow.
It felt personal that way, and the entire game hinges on connecting to the personal strife of Lara on this island. The bow shoots much like any other firearm: hold the left trigger to aim, press the right trigger to fire. But its actual controls are inherently imbued with agency. You have to hold the right trigger to draw the arrow back and release it to fire. That alone sets it apart from a gun’s “press to kill” modus operadi.
This means that every arrow you let fly is one you send out with conviction. You set the arrow, drew the string, and released. It forces you to consider the implications of your actions. It even enables the sensation of regret in the midst of killing, allowing you to re-quiver your arrow.
But to do that, you have to release your left trigger before your right one, disengaging from the same side you began it with. The reversal itself is worth consideration. Its movements are opposite those of the kill, reflecting the desires to see an arrow penetrate some thug’s head and the desires to remain hidden and let a life go untouched.
Unfortunately, you only reach this point of contemplation once you’ve reached the end, still relying on the bow, recovering arrows and cursing its speed when all you need is rapid fire power. This personal choice in effort and challenge colored my time with Tomb Raider.
Many of you will otherwise find competency where I found excellence. Its objective qualities are straightforward: amazing art design, Camilla Luddington’s stellar voice acting, and so on. But for the ruminations of life, death, stoicism, and conviction caused by the drawing of a bow, Tomb Raider is my number two game of the year.