Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft has been an iconic video game hero for decades, but all that’s ever really mattered about her character—beyond the lumpy polygons of her original model—was that she’s good at raiding tombs. Various games have indicated that she grew up in a big mansion with her father, and that he was a big influence on her, but all that matters when she’s actually down in a cave is that she shoots tigers with her dual pistols and does impossibly acrobatic leaps up to high ledges. Anything else either got in the way of Lara’s status as a video game sex symbol (god forbid), or was simply irrelevant to the kinds of stories that the Tomb Raider games were telling.
Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, the latest installment in Crystal Dynamics’ reboot trilogy, has finally made a big step toward changing that, and it does so by taking Lara back to her childhood. The hook of the reboot series, going back to the first game in 2013, has always been that they treat Lara as more of a human than the old ’90s platformers, which portrayed her as little more than a badass superhero. The new Lara grunts and groans as she fights off attackers, her fingers slip when she climbs up rocky cliffs, and she suffers horrible deaths when you fail to avoid spike pits. Yet, most of the character development Lara experienced in the previous two games was still just about growing more and more battle-hardened as she dispatched countless goons and—again—those dangerous cave tigers.
In Tomb Raider and its sequel, 2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider, you could’ve replaced Lara with almost anyone else, like Nathan Drake from Uncharted or Samus Aran from Metroid (games these reboots are very indebted to), and it wouldn’t have changed much. That’s not the case for Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, which is very much a game about what makes Lara Croft tick. The prologue sequence makes this very clear, with Lara racing to discover a mysterious artifact before the evil, semi-religious organization Trinity does. She succeeds, but in doing so, she inadvertently causes the apocalypse and loses the mysterious artifact to Trinity. Basically, in her rush to beat the bad guys and prove how good she is at “archaeology,” Lara makes things much worse, and indirectly kills a lot of people.
Lara is understandably horrified, and, after a plane crash that separates her from her buddy Jonah, flashes back to a traumatic memory from her youth that kicks off what is easily one of the best sequences to ever appear in a Tomb Raider game. With very little prompting about what’s going on, you suddenly wake up as a very young Lara on her family’s big estate. Young Lara is playing a game where she’s trying to rescue the White Queen, a stand-in for her mother, who she says has been taken prisoner in a castle. That means doing a lot of standard Tomb Raider stuff, including environmental and platforming puzzles, but instead of musty, trap-filled caves, it’s all being done on and around an elaborate playground.
The truly brilliant touch is that it’s all narrated by young Lara, who describes her actions as if she’s a great hero on an adventure. For example, you’ll climb up to the top of the playground, and Lara will describe the way she’s scaling treacherous rocks. As you explore, you start to find information about Lara’s mother, like letters that a family friend sent to her father, and the game Lara’s playing starts to evolve. She goes from climbing her playground to climbing the actual mansion, which her narration says is a mysterious castle where the White Queen has been locked away.
The sequence is especially fun because Lara maintains her imaginary narrative for almost the entire thing, repeatedly referring to herself as the brave hero she’s pretending to be and never really acknowledging that she’s actually running around a garden and a swing set. The one exception is when Lara gets to the very top of the mansion and a rail she puts her weight on breaks, briefly terrifying Lara and prompting the brave hero to wonder why she puts herself in such dangerous positions. It’s a cute way to foreshadow the stunts that adult Lara regularly has to perform, and it’s a little hint that she might enjoy being a reckless daredevil more than she lets on.
Eventually, Lara sneaks into some kind of trophy room set up by her adventurer father, a man who has been searching for archeological proof of an immortal human soul—it’s a whole thing—and the room has a couple of odd puzzles hidden among a series of historical artifacts (Lara acknowledges that it’s all very strange). There’s no narrative reason to do it, but you can have young Lara offer her best guess at what each artifact is, with her explanations being slightly more hesitant and unsure than they are when adult Lara does the same thing as you find collectibles in the rest of the game. Once you solve the puzzles that Lara’s dad built into the room—a clever nod to the kind of distant weirdo Richard Croft was in Lara’s youth—Lara finds the ultimate treasure: a sealed, forgotten room where her mother used to paint.
This sequence doesn’t provide any kind of huge lore payoff to the player, and the reveal of Amelia Croft’s room isn’t a stunning twist of any kind. However, this brief sequence lays the groundwork for everything that happens in the rest of the current Tomb Raider series. It establishes Lara’s acrobatic fearlessness, knowledge of history, and talent for solving puzzles, all without directly telling the player that they’re experiencing her origin story. It’s a refreshingly smart character study that plays to the strengths of video games as a medium, but it’s also one that the rest of the game struggles to live up to. Cutscenes show adult Lara acting more grim and cutthroat, a side effect of that whole “causing the apocalypse” thing, but Lara still stops her adventure dead in its tracks so she can help a kid find a lost toy. It makes the game’s assertion that this is a dark turn for Lara feel hollow, since—unlike the kid sequence—it’s telling and not showing.
Shadow Of The Tomb Raider’s roughest patches push Lara around for the sake of the plot, reducing her to little more than the flat video game avatar she was in the ’90s. For one brief moment, though, while she’s standing on the roof of her home and wondering why she puts herself in such ridiculous situations, Lara Croft actually feels like a real person.