Shadow of the Tomb Raider Pushes Lara Croft to Her Limits

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MONTREAL – “What have I done?” Lara Croft asks. She’s guilt-ridden, and her newest adventure is one that, if not of her own making, may be one of her redemption. It's also the one that finishes her origin story as the Tomb Raider.

At a showcase here, Square Enix and Eidos Montreal showed off an hour of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, releasing Sept. 14 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, and while Lara Croft may be more competent than ever, she could also have started the end of the world.

The game takes place in South America and pits Croft against forces that will show true growth, creative director Daniel Chayer Bisson said in a roundtable interview. While the 2013 reboot was about survival and Rise of the Tomb Raider was about Lara's legacy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is about Lara stepping up to the title of Tomb Raider and understanding her place in the world as she fights to stop an apocalypse that may be of her own making.

“This is about guilt, yes, but not about the guilt itself,” Bisson said. “More about dealing with the consequence of your actions... It’s her causing it, and she doesn’t know how to deal with that.” She can’t use intelligence. She can’t use strength. She’s in a pickle.

A South American Adventure

The demo starts in Cozumel, Mexico, where Lara and her compatriot Jonah are stalking Dominguez, an agent of the militant organization Trinity who they think has the key to unlocking a great treasure that’s probably somewhere in Peru. As the two spy on him, they realize something far scarier: he might be running the group.

The town square where this all goes down is rich with culture. Interestingly, the demo started with a note highlighting Eidos Montreal's multicultural, diverse developers, similar to what Ubisoft has been doing for the folks behind its Assassin’s Creed series. The scene, which takes place during a celebration, is rich with skull masks and flowers. A firecracker explodes at a boy’s feet.

This was our first look at the game’s new setting, and it’s rich with research. Bisson told me that he has spent some of his own time in Mexico beyond research for the game (he got married there). The game’s team worked with a historian and a linguist, and some of the team visited the Mexico and went to museums.

“It’s a fiction, it’s exaggerating reality,” Bisson said. “But it was important to us. As a creator, I love this culture, I did everything to respect it, and people should not judge it without exploring the message we try to convey, which is tolerance.”

But when it comes to finding Dominguez, Lara eventually must jump a fence into the jungle and search. As she tosses disguise and grabs her trademark bow and arrow, the player gets to use her survival instinct (returning from the previous games). Lara finds and takes out a Trinity agent threatening a local archaeologist, who is able to point the way to an underground cavern. Ah, this is Tomb Raider after all.

"What does it mean to exactly to be [the] Tomb Raider? It means the defender of humanity. It means to be able to defend humanity, to care about it." - Daniel Chayer Bisson, creative director, Shadow of the Tomb Raider

After careening down a mountainside, Lara sees a monument to the goddesses Ix Chel (of the full moon) and Chak Chel (of the half-moon), and heads inside.

People have been there before. Skulls are on posts, and booby traps that can instantly kill Croft follow the path. Inside are also the franchise’s typical climbing puzzles, pushing and pulling levers and moving obstacles. But what’s new is a greater focus on exploring underwater.

There’s a massive underwater space in the tomb, and the use of falling rocks and giant eels (yes, there’s a jump scare with a giant eel) make it feel like Croft can really die underwater. It’s no longer a means of just going through to get to the next room. If Croft wants to find something special, she has to risk drowning. I found that Lara can go a long time underwater, but you don’t have to worry about totally resurfacing. The waterway I swam through had some air pockets where Lara could catch a breath.

MORE: Tomb Raider Movie Review: Can It Break the Curse?

Lara Croft's Cardinal Sin

After climbing and solving puzzles to get to the top of the pyramid, Lara finds a mural about the Silver Box of Ix Chel, which can summon Kukulkan, the god of creation and destruction, as well as pictures of a storm, earthquake and a volcanic eruption. And then she turns around and finds a dagger, the “key that unlocks cleansing.”

And then Lara Croft commits what may be her cardinal sin: she steals it.

Anything to make sure Dominguez and Trinity don’t get there first. It unleashes tremors (surely, a coincidence. Not any sort of curse) and she escapes the crumbling tomb.

This is where we get to see gunplay for the first time, which hasn’t changed much since Rise of the Tomb Raider. Croft can hide behind objects covered in vines to stay hidden and can put an emphasis on stealth. But when it came to gunning, I always returned to my usual machine gun and pistol.

Ultimately, though, Lara is outgunned, and drops the knife. Dominguez shows up and picks it up, calling it the “key of Chak Chel,” and wants Lara to give up the silver box. He needs it to remake the world how he wants, without “sin and weakness.” One problem: Lara doesn’t have it. And what’s worse, Dominguez says, because not having the two together will “set the apocalypse in motion.” We already saw the tremors. Fire? Water? More? That’s coming.

For the first time ever, Lara can’t react with her strength or her intellect. She doesn’t know what to do, and is overlooking a city that’s flooded, on fire and shaken to bits.

In fact, it’s coming now: a tsunami immediately hits, picking up Land running her through Cozumel. She sees the people who drowned immediately as she falls under water. As Lara scales a building to get to high ground, a kid needs help, but she doesn’t make it in time, and he falls to the water below.

Jonah is up top. He’s OK. Lara is fraught for the first time in a demo that made her look more competent than ever. She’s ready to move, now, to get to Peru and find the box. But Jonah wants to wait. He wants to help people.

And for the first time ever, Lara can’t react with her strength or her intellect. She doesn’t know what to do, and is overlooking a city that’s flooded, on fire and shaken to bits. That’s where the scene ends, and we don’t know where the game will go next - but I expect its out of Mexico into Peru. In my interview, Bisson said the game would go further south before a colleague stopped him from elaborating if that meant deeper into South America or within Mexico.

Being the Jungle, Becoming the Tomb Raider

But most of what we saw wasn’t in what we’re told will be a primary location: the jungle. We saw Lara covered in dirt and hiding among bushes, but the developers were mum about more. But the jungle was chosen, Bisson said, because the story is about life, and “having an environment so alive was important to us.” You couldn’t do that in the desert.

Bisson promises that the game will have an emotional core.  She’ll need to grow not just through her brain or brawn, but through her connection to others. She’ll laugh and make jokes, he said. But she’ll also cry; he says to expect two sets of tears in the game.

“If you ask me, Dan, what does it mean to exactly to be Tomb Raider?” he said. “It means the defender of humanity. It means to be able to defend humanity, to care about it. She needs to accept people coming in her life emotionally, making her vulnerable. She needs to accept that and understand that. How can you protect someone you don’t know or you don’t really care about?”

What will that take? We’re promised that Lara Croft will end the game an entirely different person. But we’ll see her learn this September.

Credit: Square Enix