Originally published on PlayStation Insider on October 10, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.
Since 1996, Tomb Raider has been an iconic franchise in pop culture. Over the course of games, reboots, Angelina Jolie, and the marvelous Lara Croft GO, Tomb Raider has been a staple in video games and media for quite some time. After this long in the industry, Lara’s games have become action/adventure comfort food for gamers.
Despite all the outlets Tomb Raider as a franchise has reached, it has always favored well on PlayStation. The two seem to go hand-in-hand, which is why when Rise of the Tomb Raider was announced in 2014 as an Xbox and PC exclusive, I was shocked. The game came out in 2015 to much critical acclaim and PlayStation fans were stuck patiently awaiting their turn to dig into the next grand adventure with the English archeologist.
One year later, PS4 owners now have the opportunity to go with Lara on her latest adventure. Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is the same story and world as last year’s game, but packed with all the previous DLC, new content to explore, and a PSVR experience. Was it worth the wait for PlayStation fans? In short, yes. Despite an overall lack of difficulty, the story and mechanics hold true, as do the righteous open world segments sprinkled throughout the hidden land of Kitezh.
From top to bottom, Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is how you make a proper sequel. As a follow-up to the reboot simply titled Tomb Raider, developer Crystal Dynamics has created an Empire Strikes Back quality sequel. It keeps the snappy bow mechanics, engaging, but not too difficult puzzles, RPG-like skill tree, and expands the environment with open world locations. These open world areas allow you to explore, collect materials you may need, and level up. They also are full of great detail that lend credence that this lost city was real. The remains of the civilization beg to be explored. There are plenty of tombs, structures, and crypts to discover, each with rewards that aid Lara in her quest for the Divine Source and eternal life.
If the story and characterization of 2013’s Tomb Raider was an appetizer, then Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is the main course. Lara is no longer the inexperienced treasure hunter and survivalist she was; she is experienced and poised this time around. That experience came at a cost though, as Lara struggles with her identity as a Croft, her father’s legacy, and her balance between being an archeologist and guardian of history’s dark secrets.
Lara’s character and progressive arc is one half of the narrative’s strength. The other is the villain chasing Lara into Kitezh: Konstantin. Leader of an underground, religious private militia, Konstantin is consumed wholly by claiming the Divine Source as his destiny for God. He has no hesitation when it comes to murder. He truly and emphatically believes in his cause, which makes his actions of chaos all the more terrifying. He is the yin to Lara’s yang and it spins the story in a exciting way.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast fails to evoke any sort of response from me. Lara’s best friend Jonah and stepmother Ana feel like puppets placed in to fill gaps. As hard as Crystal Dynamics tried to flesh out the cast and draw players in, the supporting characters never leave a mark the way Lara and Konstantin do.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration blends so many diverse game mechanics into its structure that one may worry of an overload. Like a giant pot of gumbo, the game has a splash of action/adventure with a dash of RPG skill trees to go with a sprinkle of Metroidvania item progression, that all seeps together over while simmering over the warm flame of its open world. It is a recipe that Crystal Dynamics has clearly slaved over in the figurative kitchen to get just right. The balance of new and old strikes a piquant flavor that envelops your digital taste buds.
The key ingredient in the recipe is its character progression systems. Lara is the same badass she left the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot with. She has no problem dirtying her hands with her enemies blood. Each kill you get, whether in stealth or open combat, is rewarded with a small bit of experience. Stealth kills and clearing an entire combat section quietly is worth the most, but build up your combat skill tree and you can score massive points for gnarly kills.
You are always becoming a better tomb raider. Outside of combat, collecting lost artifacts of the past also boost your experience. Lara will become more proficient in foreign languages if you translate enough memoirs. With higher language proficiency, Lara can translate monoliths that reveal hidden locations of treasure that helps push your level even higher. Every level up is extremely satisfying.
When you do level up, you earn one skill point to spend. You can use these skill points to flesh out one of three skill trees. Each one is adaptive to different types of play styles. If you prefer to explore and gather materials, you can dump your points into the survivor skill tree over the brawler one. It adapts to your approach, much like Lara has to adapt to her surroundings.
Outside of the skill trees, other skills can be acquired by completing the optional tombs scattered throughout the open environments. These tombs are detailed puzzle rooms that are utterly satisfying. The tasks are never too difficult to solve, but the game doesn’t hand over the solution either. If a puzzle is too tough for you, pressing in R3 activates survival senses. This feature lets objectives and key items glow and helps players figure out the puzzle.
Another way Crystal Dynamics spices up the game with RPG mechanics is through resource management. Gathering wood, cloth, and oil lend materials to crafting different types of arrows or new equipment to let you carry more ammo or even more materials. Hunting down deer or rare animals like bears score you their fur to use as gear. It’s never hard to find more supplies as the game is full of them. If you are missing something, just use survival senses. Nearby materials glow gold and help fill your satchels quickly.
Just like Lara herself can be leveled up, so can her weapons. Using the materials you gather you allow you to invest in skill trees for the four archetypes of weapons in the game: Assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, and bow. You can collect a variety of these types of weapons over the course of the game, but the perks carry over. If you invest a ton of materials into your first pistol, those upgrades carry over to any other pistol. You aren’t punished for spending the materials. In fact, you are encouraged. It is a smart solution that doesn’t lock you into one weapon per archetype.
As your weapons and gear become more plentiful and diverse, you’ll be able to explore and do more. It’s this slice of Metroidvania design that I love the most. It encourages retreading older areas to explore the caves you couldn’t get into or to finish an optional tomb you couldn’t before. All of these choices lend themselves to becoming the best Croft you can be and the progression from beginning to end is a satisfying journey.
For all of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration’s well balanced ingredients, some stick out like pineapple on pizza. While the combat is fun and the weapons are snappy, the encounters themselves are a cake walk. The design for encounters funnels you into a space with usually three to seven enemies, depending on the size of the area. Typically these scenarios begin in stealth and let you choose how to approach the enemies. I played the game on normal difficulty and could complete nearly every encounter, in stealth, from the starting point. If the enemies did spot me picking them off their comrades with headshots, I could simply finish them off with my bow or axe. They never challenged me to switch up my approach or move around. The game does include three higher difficulties, which I wish I started on. The only encouragement I found in mixing up my routine was when chasing trophies.
I have noticed some technical errors as well. Objects won’t be available for interaction occasionally based off of the camera angle and Lara’s position. Lara can have wonky, minor collisions with textures and objects. It isn’t game breaking, but it can be frustrating, especially for a game that has been arguably complete for over a year now.
One surprising complaint I have is that new weapons from DLC are unlocked right off of the bat. As a part of the celebration, quite a few weapons in each category are simply unlocked from the get go (as long as you have the base weapon). This means you can use better and more deadly weapons immediately. This is in direct conflict with the Metroidvania design in the game. Sure, I wasn’t forced to use them, in fact, I steered away from them, but it sure does make an already easy combat experience even easier.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration isn’t solely reheated leftovers from Xbox One’s fridge though. The most notable addition is the Croft Manor expansion with the story content titled “Blood Ties” and a zombie horde mode inside the manor as well which is called “Lara’s Nightmare.” Blood Ties also has PSVR support.
Blood Ties is a no combat, exploratory environment that tells the story of the Crofts. In the same vein as Gone Home, you walk around an empty home in a storm collecting and reading different items that help flesh out the history of Lara’s parents. The story is quite good, although I felt like Lara was more invested than I was. It was as if I was silently watching Lara react to her family’s story rather than becoming Lara and feeling the emotional weight. This may all change in first person with PSVR and I plan to update this review with impressions of the VR experience shortly after I receive my headset on Oct. 13.
There are few puzzles scattered in the Blood Ties story that built in a satisfying way. Even outside of a tomb, Crystal Dynamics knows how to make satisfying puzzles that lend themselves to the feeling of being an archeologist. I did have an issue with the pacing though. The collectibles are narrated just like the main game, where all action stops to hear a brief monologue. With the text immediately to the right, I found myself reading it faster than the narrator spoke. I wanted to hear the performance and continue to walk around the manor. Having me stop everything to hear dialogue was like a game of tug-o-war, with one side being a desire to hear the performance and the other to continue exploring. Exploration often won the war.
Walking around the dilapidated manor isn’t the only thing to do inside. There is also a horde mode with zombies as a new expedition in the game. For those unaware, expeditions were around in last year’s version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. They allow players to take on self-imposed challenges and add modifiers through cards. These cards can be purchased with in-game currency that you either earn or can purchase on PSN. This new expedition uses the manor as a combat field for a zombie hoard inside Lara’s dreams.
Lara’s Nightmare is a blast to play. The manor has been given a proper, spooky feeling where I kept looking over my shoulder in search of zombies. Unlike the core enemies in the main game, these creatures did have me mix up my tactics. I had to use different weapons on different foes and manage my ammo by alternating guns. It adds a wonderful sense of dread as you run through the manor in search of three floating, fiery heads to shoot. When all three are down, you have to face a giant floating head as a final boss. I do wish, since the manor was designed with VR in mind from the ground up, that I could explore or play in VR for Lara’s Nightmare. I can only imagine the tension if it was all in a virtual world instead of third person. VR aside, this horde mode is the cherry on top of the whole experience.
The complete package of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is a meaty gaming experience that truly does feel like a celebration of an icon. While it may not demand the most from players in terms of difficulty, the game world concocted by Crystal Dynamics is a worthy anniversary title for the iconic heroine. PlayStation fans are in for a hearty, full bodied game that was worth the year long wait.