It's a celebration! 20 years of Tomb Raider! Lara, it's your birthday! Time to throw on some gladrags and... Lara? Oh no. You're moping again, aren't you?
Being altogether a bit dour is hardly a problem exclusive to Lara Croft when it comes to our modern-day action heroes - hello Nolan Batman, hello hello Season 6 Buffy, and most recently hello joyless Adam Jensen 2.0 - but I sorely miss the more enthusiastic, unflustered Lara of yore. I'd hoped that the 20th anniversary add-on for Rise of the Tomb Raider [official site] might hark back to that, both as a link to the past and because nu-Lara has earned her stripes now.
Of course it doesn't. The rebooted Tomb Raider stars a Lara Croft who forever sounds like she's just been told to go to bed early, and the Anniversary add-on recently added to it retains the same dour spirit despite being themed around a return to the famous Croft Manor. Lara's sprawling homestead was absent from 2013's hard reset Tomb Raider, but is now the centrepiece of the new 20 Year Celebration DLC.
It appears in two flavours. One is Lara's Nightmare, a fairly routine zombie-shooting survival mode, and the other a standalone adventure called Blood Ties, which leans towards a point and click adventure/mystery game in almost a Broken Sword flavour.
It's not actual point and click, of course, but the principles are there: find objects, open doors, glean clues from notes. There's a little bit of crate-pushing and a couple of walls get smashed with a crowbar, but otherwise action it is not. It's slow-burn and hung around gradually gaining access to locked-off bits of the manor. Why Lara does not simply kick down the doors in a place that is already in a terrible state is a question that is never posed nor answered.
Blood Ties is conceptually interesting not just because it tweaks the Rise formula into something new, but also because it's preoccupied with Lara's own history and identity.
Croft Manor's latest iteration is that of a stately home gone to seed, abandoned for years following the death of Lara's parents and her own decision to take up a life of adventure. The artists go to town with spooky halls, musty wine cellars and ancient oaks collapsed through plate-glass windows. The Manor shifts between spooky and sad, clearly influenced by the unsettling homecoming of Gone Home, and perhaps very quietly having something to say about how much legacy was thrown out of the (tree-damaged) window with 2013's Uncharted-inspired do-over.
I must admit to being somewhat distracted by curiosity and some outrage about how such a prime piece of real-estate could possibly remain unsold and uninhabited in these property-starved times, but I suppose the Tomb Raider series stems from a time when wealthy figures were considered aspirational rather than hateful.
Perhaps this is why Blood Ties gives us a ruin, instead of seeing Lara living in extreme opulence attended by her very own manservant. In 2016 we can empathise with her when she's wearing torn clothes and making things from sticks and stones, but perhaps not if she's Richie Rich.
I get it. It's a smart enough reinterpretation of Lara's relationship with her homestead: she has left an old life of comfort behind in favour of the hazard-strewn road. The problem, for me, is Lara herself.
The new games have repositioned the character as a relative newcomer to Indiana Jonesing, and as someone uncertain of herself who steadily grows in confidence the more buildings she falls off. Perhaps sensible, in an age which seems to demand origin stories rather than ready-made heroes, but I'm not convinced it requires her to be quite as dour as it does. As with Rise, the new Blood Ties is preoccupied with Lara's orphan status, and her drive to follow in her father's footsteps.
This means that she remains rueful and doubtful, something that a strong voice actor could probably lend gravitas and charisma to. Sadly the current Lara voice does not, seeming to be stranded in a bored-sounding half-whine that is a massive disservice to the strong, capable, adventurous character it's attached to.
I honestly couldn't say whether the problem is the dialogue, the actor or the direction (or some combination), but I can only pray that something dramatic changes when the inevitable sequel wheels around. We're told time and again that this Lara is a badass, and she endlessly demonstrates that in her main-game actions - I just wish she sounded like it too.
This made it very difficult for me to feel involved in a family mystery that is too thinly-sketched from the offset as it is. This tale is fleshed out by a glut of over-long written letters which fail to provide the pulse already lacking from the dialogue. Short and punchy would have made them work, but a wall of text from unseen characters does not. There is tragedy here, and familial love too, but it's drowning in a sea of drabness - a missed opportunity to tie all the threads of this character together, and to the series' past.
As for the puzzle side of things, it's effective in ushering you around a huge and atmospheric house in stages, but it's all fixed to a small set of objects and found letters, many of which require using Lara's convenient puzzle-o-vision to identify, so there's none of the organic exploratory quality of Gone Home. You bounce from specific clue to specific clue, with a bit of gentle maths required to put a couple of them together. All told it comes across as though the elaborate manor location was made first, and then some sort of game stuck onto it afterwards.
I appreciate the effort and ambition to make something very different from the base game - there's no quicktiming or rockclimbing or headshotting, and it's all contained within the one large location - but its mechanical nature and drab VO rips away both the mystery and the joy it really needs. The extra zombie-blasting mode, while diverting enough in a fairly familiar COD zombies sort of fashion, heightens the suspicion that this might have been a level no-one quite knew what to do with.
I'm probably guilty of hoping that, now that the nu-Lara groundwork is established, Tomb Raider might now feel more free to re-embrace the tonal qualities that we loved the original games for. 'Celebtration' or no, I shouldn't realistically expect add-on content for a game which very deliberately employs a dour vibe to somehow depart from that. Happy 20th birthday, Lara. I hope you find your way home one day.
The Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Pack DLC is free to season pass owners, or can be added to the standard edition for £6.99/$9.99.