When adventurer extraordinaire Lara Croft raided her first tomb back in 1996, she brought with her an exhilarating feeling of isolation and discovery. Over the years, Lara has continued to venture into parts unknown, taking dark turns and frequently tangling with the supernatural as the series evolved alongside the burgeoning third-person action adventure genre. The gameplay of this series reboot takes a few cues from a current titan of the genre--Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series--but don't let that familiarity put you off. This origin story is a terrific adventure that balances moments of quiet exploration with plenty of rip-roaring action to keep you enthralled from start to finish.
As Tomb Raider begins, Lara is more an academic than an adventurer. But when she's shipwrecked on an island full of ancient secrets and deadly cultists, she has little choice but to learn how to survive. Lara endures a great deal of punishment early in the game, and though no small amount of that anguish is physical, it's an unpleasant moment in which a man tries to force himself on her that's most harrowing. But as unpleasant as it is, it marks an important turning point in Lara's understanding of just how hard she has to fight to survive. Rather than crumbling under the weight of her physical and emotional struggles, she emerges from them a stronger person.
It's empowering to witness Lara's journey from the understandably fearful individual she is when she first arrives on the island to the justifiably confident survivor she becomes. Later in the game, when she has proven to the resident cultists that she's not the easily cowed person they mistook her for, she turns the psychological tables on them, letting loose battle cries to strike fear into their hearts. Aspects of the story that fall outside of Lara's character arc aren't as strong; there's a twist of sorts that occurs late in the game that you see coming hours ahead of time, for instance, and the central villain offers little in the way of nuance. But as an introduction to the legendary Lara Croft, Tomb Raider's tale is a success; she emerges as a strong, charismatic and human figure, and you're left eager to see what the future holds for her.
Lara's origin story deserves an extraordinary setting, and the island where Tomb Raider takes place does not disappoint. Centuries ago, it was home to a kingdom called Yamatai. Many shrines, temples, statues and other remnants of that history remain, and often, you just want to take in these places, slowly advancing through the darkness, eager to discover what's just outside the light of your torch. The island is a beautiful place, but not every discovery is a pleasant one; Yamatai's dark history is vividly communicated in piles of bones and far more grisly things.
The ancient structures of Yamatai now coexist alongside bunkers built during World War II, the wreckage of planes brought down by the storms that surround the island, and the shantytowns and makeshift machinery of the island's current inhabitants. It's a fascinating hodgepodge of the beautiful and the utilitarian; the buildings are believably nestled in their rough natural surroundings, and appear appropriately weathered, damaged, and rusty. The island really feels like a place where people have lived and where great and terrible things have happened. It's a place with many facets; it has claustrophobic caverns and breathtaking vistas, and phenomena like gentle snowfalls, torrential downpours, and fierce, howling winds make it alternately seem like a tranquil place, and a brutal one.
It's immediately clear that one thing the island is not is safe, so it's a good thing that Lara soon gets her hands on a bow. You acquaint yourself with using it by hunting animals; Lara doesn't have hunger levels you need to manage or any such thing, but the deer, rabbits, crabs and other creatures that call the island home make it feel much more alive. For reasons of their own, the cult that currently occupies the island doesn't exactly welcome you with open arms, so it's not long before you need to turn that bow (and, soon, a pistol, rifle, and shotgun) on humans. Combat is varied and suspenseful; some situations give you the opportunity to take a stealthy approach, sneaking up behind enemies to perform silent kills, or firing arrows into walls to distract them and picking them off from a distance with well-aimed arrows while their comrades aren't looking. During one particularly tense battle in a fog-shrouded forest, patrolling foes hunt you with flashlights; if you can manage to stay unseen, you can shift from prey to predator, using their cones of light to pinpoint their positions and eliminating them one by one.
Then, there are the all-out firefights. When your presence is known, enemies are smart and aggressive about flushing you out from cover with grenades and Molotovs, which forces you to keep moving and act boldly. Many enemies attack from a distance while others get in close, so you need to be constantly on your toes, switching between your weapons on the fly and evading foes who attack with melee weapons. Dodging and countering melee attacks is easy, but the savage animations of Lara's counters make eliminating those foes who make the mistake of getting too close to you consistently satisfying.