Let’s Chat: Saying Farewell to Max, Chloe, & Life is Strange

– This article was originally posted on 2nd April 2018. It, and other articles, are being archived and updated here for continuity and collection, which is why parts of it may seem out of date. –


The episodic Life is Strange series recently wrapped up the story arc that covered the original game and prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Bonus episode Farewell gave us a peek at a fateful day in the history of main characters Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, uncovering a new layer of their relationship whilst also giving them a final send-off (bringing back original voice actors Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch). Ash Harrison and I – both huge fans of Life is Strange – have now played the Farewell episode, so it is time to talk about our impressions!

-SPOILER WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LIFE IS STRANGE SERIES AHEAD-

William Robinson: I took my time – though it’s nothing compared to my still not playing Super Mario Odyssey – but I finished the Farewell episode that concludes the Max Caulfield/Chloe Price story in the Life is Strange universe. There’s no way we can do this without spoilers, so let’s get that warning out of the way… We’re both pretty massive Life is Strange fans here, so this felt like the end of a long journey. It’s amazing when I think back to the first time I played Episode 1 back in 2015…

Ashley Harrison: Has it really been that long? Jesus. It feels like Life is Strange has been around forever, but only just came out at the same time!

WR: I know the feeling. So, after the main game and the prequel Before the Storm, what did you make of the Farewell epilogue?

AH: Honestly, I’m still unsure. There were parts of it that I really enjoyed, but I didn’t click with the episode as much as I did with the others.

WR: The premise is pretty simple, really; we go back to a much younger Max and Chloe and play through a particularly fateful day; Max is telling her best friend that she is leaving Arcadia Bay for Seattle, which cruelly coincides with Chloe’s father passing away in an accident. There is a balance of them being two kids playing around and also dealing with deep issues, which is very much on style for Life is Strange. The main thing that hit me was how sorrowful the ending was – I thought they might end it on a higher note, but bittersweet is perhaps the nicest way to interpret it.

AH: I was ruined by the ending. I didn’t tell Chloe that Max was leaving until the end of the episode, so Chloe sort of found out her best friend is leaving (she already knew beforehand) and that her Dad has died in a car crash in the space of 30 seconds. I should’ve seen it coming, given that’s how Life is Strange does things, but at the same time I was so unprepared and felt like a massive d**k for doing that.

WR: I tried to tell Chloe in her bedroom, but Chloe distracts you and you can’t do it until the end anyway, so don’t worry too much. Poor Chloe, she deals with the Max thing so well, but then gets the news about her father… Knowing what else happens in her life after this makes it especially heartbreaking.

AH: She does? That’s a slight relief, at least, but doesn’t change how bad I feel. But yeah, Chloe really doesn’t have a great life at all, does she? Poor woman, always gets hit with more when she’s down.

WR: Do you think part of not clicking with it is that it’s been so long since we’ve seen those two together for a significant period, and then we’ve been dropped into this 1-2 hour episode?

AH: Possibly, but I also think there’s the fact that we knew where the whole path goes before we even start the episode, unlike with Before the Storm where, although we know how it turns out, we didn’t know anything substantial about Rachel beforehand.

WR: Also, whilst they’re the same characters, these aren’t the exact versions of the characters I love so much from the original game. I’d almost prefer this being a side story that we didn’t see during the timeline of the main game… I still enjoyed this a lot, but I felt it didn’t connect with me like other episodes have.

AH: I have to agree with you there, a side-story would’ve been a better choice than this prequel.

WR: What did you make of the actual gameplay? The whole treasure hunt quest.

AH: I guess it suits the younger characters better, having something as innocent as a treasure hunt be the main objective of the episode, but ehh… I’m not sure. It feels too light-hearted for the Life is Strange series.

WR: That’s sorta what I meant with them not being at the age we see them in the main game. I did really like some of the new things they did though, like the Choose Your Own Story that made me engage with a reading item in a way games don’t normally do. In addition, there were some profound moments, like Max saying we are scared of being hurt when we’re young, and scared of hurting others when we get older. Would have liked more of that.

There were some profound moments, such as Max saying we are scared of being hurt when we’re young, and scared of hurting others when we get older.

William Robinson

AH: Oh man, that comment. I genuinely don’t think I’ve resonated more with a comment during the game than I have that exact one, especially since I’m pretty much living that reality myself right now…

WR: That ability to resonate with our actual lives is a big part of the magic of Life is Strange. Despite flaws, are you satisfied with the Max and Chloe story being concluded like this?

AH: Not really, to be honest. Whilst I enjoyed playing as Max & Chloe for a final time, I feel like it was unnecessary after seeing how events unfold in Season 1 and Before the Storm.

WR: Oh, so it’s more that it felt unnecessary rather than being bad?

AH: Reflecting on it now whilst we’re talking, I feel so, yeah. There wasn’t really much story that needed telling, as everything was covered in Season 1 and Before the Storm.

WR: Maybe it’s better to view this as just another little glimpse at their history, then, rather than the final, ahem, farewell. To me, the ending of the original Life is Strange is still their final narrative moment and the proper way to think of the story being finished.

AH: Definitely. Even though it is technically the ending of the series in the game’s chronology, it’s the only one to me that feels like an actual ending.

WR: Kinda apt to think of the series in different time orders, anyhow. You could argue playing them backwards (FarewellBefore the StormLife is Strange) makes the most sense.

AH: It does, but at the same time, I think given the story basis of Season 1 in finding out about Rachel and Jefferson killing everyone, the only way to play them is the order in which they were actually released.

WR: With the tease of Jefferson at the end of Before the Storm, I actually think it would work, but in a different way. Speaking of, what’s your opinion on the general package of Before the Storm now it’s all out?

AH: I genuinely feel like I enjoyed Before the Storm more than I did Season 1, I have to admit! I don’t think there was a single bad episode out of all 3 of them. My only criticism is that it was a little bit too fast-paced, and would’ve benefited from a fourth episode.

WR: I think it was only the third episode that really suffered from that. It did seem to lose some of the drama at the end, which I think is because they split Rachel and Chloe up in that episode and lost their relationship, which is the best part of Before the Storm.

AH: Yeah, Chloe and Rachel’s relationship is undoubtedly the best part of Before the Storm. I dunno about you, but it felt more natural than Max and Chloe’s, even with the weird way it started.

Yeah, Chloe and Rachel’s relationship is undoubtedly the best part of Before the Storm.

Ashley Harrison

WR: I can see why you’d think that, but I think Max and Chloe are my favourite pairing. They have so much more history and layers to their relationship over the course of the first game. I’d say they’re the main two characters of the series, but I wouldn’t say that for Rachel. I think Before the Storm, including Farewell, is a really great package that adds a lot to the world of the game. This doesn’t feel like a case of an unnecessary prequel.

AH: It’s definitely a great sequel that does well to feel fresh whilst re-stepping old territory without feeling unnecessary, and is well worth playing if you haven’t already and were a fan of Season 1.

WR: Of course, we know this is only the end of the story of these characters, not the series. We recently got official word that news of a sequel to Life is Strange isn’t far away, and given that Before the Storm was announced last E3, I’d say another E3 reveal makes sense.

AH: Yeah, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to get news of Season 2 at E3. It just makes me wonder, with the Microsoft conference giving us Before the Storm last year, will it happen again with Season 2, or will the news come during the Sony conference this time?

WR: It was genuinely the only thing I was excited for at Microsoft last year. Between this and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Square Enix has my money this year.

AH: I think this is the only money I’m giving Square Enix this year, assuming Season 2 does begin before the turn of the year, of course.

WR: Do you have faith that a completely new setting and characters can work? It’s a tough ask when we have had such an attachment to the previous story. Telltale’s The Walking Dead had a big focus on new characters in Season 3, but ultimately I only really cared about Clementine from the previous seasons.

AH: I think that’s something DONTNOD need to tread very carefully with. As we’ve said before with The Last of Us being the story of Joel and Ellie, Life is Strange is the story of Max, Chloe, and Rachel to me. I’m willing to give Season 2 a shot, but I’m going into it a lot more cautiously than I did with Before the Storm.

WR: It’s so hard to do. Especially resisting the temptation to make references to the characters we know; in a way, the best way is just to do what they seem to be doing and almost completely disconnect from it.

AH: For sure. They’ve got to get as far away from the characters we know, whilst also keeping the Life is Strange feel. It’ll be interesting to see how they pull it off.

WR: DONTNOD having been working hard on it, you’d think. They’ve got that Vampyr game coming, but Deck Nine were the developers of Before the Storm. I get the feeling they’re taking the time to do this properly.

AH: Oh, without a doubt. Let’s be honest; Life is Strange made DONTNOD a mainstream developer, so I doubt they’d want to mess the series up now.

WR: Are you happy it’s actually getting a new season? We’ve had this conversation about The Last of Us (and likely will again in a couple of months); would you rather Life is Strange was left as is?

AH: Yeah, I’m happy it’s getting a new season, but like I said, I’m cautiously optimistic about it.

WR: Until then, I’m happy to be left with the story of Max and Chloe – for me, one of the very best in gaming. I’m sure we’ll be back to speculate about the next Life is Strange!

AH: Indeed we will. Now you can go play Super Mario Odyssey, dammit.


Look. One day, I’ll play Super Mario Odyssey. Then, we will have a long-overdue discussion about the game. Until then, you can go back through our previous Let’s Chat discussions here!

Images from the Life is Strange Official Website

Gaming Photo Album: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game I personally adore (you can read my review here), and think is largely under-appreciated. While it certainly has a lot of fans, RotTR didn’t get the widespread discussion a game like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End did, largely due to the timed exclusivity with Xbox and PC. As a massive fan of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, I had to wait a year for the PS4 release; when it finally got into my hands, I spent many hours enamoured with the story of Lara Croft, the adventures she went on, and the overall beauty of the game. Arranged below are some of my favourite shots that I took whilst playing:


Lara Croft

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Explorer

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Adventurer

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Landscapes

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10 Hours With… Lost Sphear

My first 10 hours with on Nintendo Switch Lost Sphear felt pleasant but unspectacular. Just like the previous game from Square Enix developers Tokyo RPG Factory, I Am Setsuna (you can read my review of that here), it leans on a lot of classic JRPG elements, but the occasional moments of wonderful original ideas pulled me through. Don’t expect a revolution, but the small refinements made in Lost Sphear make it worthwhile for those who enjoy the genre.


I Remember This

Going into Lost Sphear off the back of I Am Setsuna, the expectation is for a similar style of game. Tokyo RPG Factory were built around the mission of designing JRPGs that harken back to the glory days of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. The systems of Lost Sphear are familiar for those who have played these types of games – played in third-person, you control your party of up to 4 characters as they travel, with combat encounters playing out in an ATB (Active Time Battle) arrangement.

This means that time doesn’t stop between turns, and characters move as their ATB gauges fill up – when full, you can either do a standard attack or use abilities. This latter option is customisable depending on which Spritnite crystals you give a character, and additionally, as combat progresses, a Momentum metre fills up. When this is full, a press of the Y button enables further effects like extra damage. This is all pretty much identical to I Am Setsuna, but there are some changes.

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I Am Setsuna designated where characters were positioned depending on the moves they made. Lost Sphear alters this, letting you move your character to the position you would like. This adds a bit of freedom and added control to proceedings, which is welcome. The combo attacks of I Am Setsuna, meanwhile, have taken a backseat – they are resigned to the Vulcosuits.

Vulcosuits are a new addition to the combat, introduced around the 8 hour mark. Equipped with the L button, they enable stronger attacks, as well as combo abilities when multiple characters are ready – moves use up an extra gauge which are tied to the Vulcosuits, but it depletes very quickly. Given that it uses up a move to equip or remove them, this makes it all seem unnecessary; visually they look clunky, too, and my reaction was to get out of them. Perhaps the usefulness of the suits will improve over time, but the initial impression isn’t good – it feels like the Vulcosuits were introduced just to add something, but they ended up just being unwieldy.


Don’t Forget

Doing a better job at setting Lost Sphear apart is the story. Main character Kanata is from a small, humble town, where the biggest threat is small monsters that are easily dispatched. Soon, though, he and his his friends Lumina and Locke come across a much bigger issue. Parts of their home and the world beyond are vanishing into the “White Fog”, making locations and their inhabitants disappear. Kanata is the only one with the power to restore these places by using Memories. These items can be found by exploring, defeating enemies, or by looking for key words in conversations.

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It’s a really nice set-up, and watching out for prompts in conversation adds to the general story rhythm of a JRPG; there is an extra sense of reward for completing tasks, especially when opening up vast parts of the overworld. The characters themselves are likeable and distinct, from Lumina’s composed attitude to the reckless Locke – an interesting undertone is that Kanata and company don’t have parents. It seems that they have been forgotten, even, which could lead to really powerful story beats later on.

As well as this, other more complex ideas are starting to be integrated. As the story goes on and people realise what Kanata can do, people of authority try to use his powers for their own gain. He and his friends must be vigilant of what they get themselves into; one scenario is particularly questionable, and the characters have to look at their moral standing. If the strong premise of Memories continues to be used in this way, the story could have a really effective arc.


Moon Rising

Overall, Lost Sphear isn’t blowing me away, and relies on a lot of mechanics that we have seen before in the genre. Yet, these are still solid and satisfying, and combined with an intriguing story makes for a charming and interesting JRPG. Other than the major topics above, there are plenty of little improvements that are noticeable after playing I Am Setsuna. That game lacked Inns, or any place to heal your whole party – in Lost Sphear, one of the first buildings you come across is an Inn in your home town. It’s the game immediately saying “we listened to you”. You can now move a lot faster around the map when in between locations, too – in I Am Setsuna, the slow movement speed could make getting around the map a pain.

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This was especially apparent when you were just trying to find your next objective. If you missed certain dialogue in that game, you could be left with little idea of your next move – the party chat option in Lost Sphear helps with this, where the characters remind you of the current situation. It is touches like this that show a willingness from Tokyo RPG Factory to improve on the problems of their past game. Just take the opening hours compared to I Am Setsuna – there are less walls of text early on in Lost Sphear. The intro has you learning from doing things rather than being told, and it’s much more accessible because of this.

Lost Sphear also has an appealing sense of polish to it, with visuals looking smooth and running well. It is also refreshing to move around a world tonally different to I Am Setsuna. That game was covered in snow, which was a distinct and magical look, but the bright, varied appearance of Lost Sphear gives it a different feeling within the same art style.


Lost Sphear supposedly takes around 30 hours to complete, compared to the 20 hours of I Am Setsuna. My current inclination is to finish this game, as the game is holding my attention well enough with the interesting story. If you are burned out on JRPGs, there is no hurry to get to this – if you aren’t, though, and are looking for one that is solid and well-made, the first third of the game indicates that Lost Sphear is a good choice.

I Am Setsuna Review

Developed by: Tokyo RPG Factory
Published by: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now


Tokyo RPG Factory, the developers behind I Am Setsuna, were created by Square Enix for one purpose – to make RPGs. In particular, ones that harken back to the classics such as Final Fantasy. For better or worse, I Am Setsuna really defines what that mission statement is; as the 20-hour story unfolds, the game simultaneously delights and frustrates in how it brings back RPG elements.


An Important Journey

I Am Setsuna is about sadness and the value of being alive. In this world of monsters, protection is only brought about by a sacrifice – a female who gives her life in order to keep them back. After a time, the threat rises again, and another sacrifice is made. The main player character, Endir, is an enigmatic warrior who ends up as the guard to the new sacrifice. Named Setsuna, Endir’s job is to see her to the Last Lands, where the sacrifice is made.

Along the way, you will encounter enemies, new comrades, and characters in need of your help. It all interweaves into the main story seamlessly, fitting into the overall themes. Characters like Nidr, who has a subtle but unspoken relationship to the sacrifice, are well developed; this combination of character arcs makes you care about the group as a whole. When it comes down to it, though, it is really a story about the pairing of Endir and Setsuna. Just seen like that, it is a really touching and poignant tale of how one person can influence another.

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The journey to the Last Lands is navigated through a mix of enclosed areas and a limited overworld. While you may freely navigate this mini-open-world, there is little to do other than find some items, recover your party, and move from place to place. Generally, this includes forests, caves, and dungeons between the multiple towns. They’re the kinds of locations you would expect from a throwback to the likes of Chrono Trigger. The towns in particular have a charming nostalgia, being places to buy and sell items, obtain new abilities, and chat to the townsfolk. Many intriguing characters end up being involved as you go.


Cold as Ice

One factor that helps your journey is the presentation of the game. The island land mass this game is set on is under snowfall, helping to give I Am Setsuna a distinct look despite the many callbacks to past games. Everything looks slightly magical under the cover of snow, and the sense of cold extends into caves and forests. Along with vibrant character designs, it all plays into a nostalgic appeal – where it comes unstuck is in repetition. It is noticeable that the dungeon areas, which appear more frequently in the latter half of the game, are all pretty much identical in presentation. While they are the exception, it messes with the pacing when you come across places very similar to ones you have already progressed through.

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On the other hand, the soundtrack is beautifully composed. It rarely intrudes on things, but if you listen for it, you realise that the carefully constructed beats are fitting into the quiet mystery of the world. A word that can describe a lot of I Am Setsuna’s presentation is “understated”. It’s not in-your-face, but has plenty of character if you sink into it. Well, once you are past the opening hours. It’s a shame, really – in the opening hours, I Am Setsuna barrages you with screens of text explaining the intricacies of the battle system.

Unsurprisingly, given the inspiration, the combat is the meat of the game. This is one of the biggest nostalgia plays I Am Setsuna has, bringing in time-based live combat. It is a style used in entries of the Final Fantasy series. To the uninitiated, this involves removing the system of characters taking one turn after another. Instead, the combat has a continuous flow of time. Each of your party of 3 has an ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge that fills over time, and when full, they may use a move. Time only stops when selecting your next action (unless you go hardcore and have time continue then, too). Under this is your expected HP and MP metres for each character.


Old RPG, New Tricks

However, I Am Setsuna does add a few ideas onto the combat. Spritnites are crystals that can be equipped to different characters, giving them different abilities. These are basically the source of your special moves. Spritnite becomes a strategic preparation tool, as a combination across characters can enable a combo attack if both ATM gauges are full. Discovering and using these extravagant moves is a fun part of the combat, but it also ends up being a major downfall as well. Spritnites may enable you to change your movesets, but some combos are so superior that you stop seeing the reason to change.

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Once into the rhythm of I Am Setsuna – and especially in the latter half of the game – my battle strategy focused around only a handful of moves. Battles between bosses (which are, thankfully, much more testing) became an almost instinctive set of inputs that would wipe out the enemies. The smaller enemies ended up just feeling like padding between tougher encounters. When the aforementioned dungeon areas were combined with this, it all ended up feeling especially bland. It’s only emphasised by the quaint, interesting areas of the rest of the game.

The other major addition is Momentum Mode, which has a much more subtle impact. Different actions in battle fill up the Momentum metre on a character, and when full, it allows for extra effects on your moves. This may mean added damage or critical hits, to name two examples. Continued use of Momentum can even add permanent improvements (Fluxes) to your abilities. In contrast to Spritnite, Momentum feels more refined in how it is included – even if it lacks the dynamic visuals of a Spritnite Combo. In general, the combat feels like it needed more time to fine-tune the balancing of certain elements.


Final Thoughts

I Am Setsuna is one of that increasingly-rarer species of game – a mid-tier title, both in production and length. The charming presentation and characters only make the 20-hours feel more appealing and palatable, and Tokyo RPG Factory use them to tell a sombre but hopeful story.

However, the smaller scale does lead to some repetitive environments and enemy encounters, particularly as the game gets into the final act. The combat has plenty of interesting ideas, and nicely calls back to classic RPGs, but feels unbalanced in the implementation of Spritnite Combos. Yet, if you can get past these flaws, I Am Setsuna is rather engrossing. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and beyond some obtuse issues, you’ll discover a touching game about the value of life.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Review

Developed by: Crystal Dynamics
Published by: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Stadia
Release Date: Out Now


Lara Croft may go on a grandiose and thrilling adventure in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but the journey of the game to PS4 was arduous in its own way as well. Revealed at E3 2014, Rise of the Tomb Raider was presented as a game that would improve on the original in many ways and show us a more confident, complete Lara Croft (raiding more actual tombs, too, which is nice). Then Gamescom 2014 and the now-infamous “limited exclusivity” Microsoft deal happened. Mere months after the E3 reveal, PlayStation owners were left waiting an extra, agonising year for the new Lara’s second adventure. We got through that, though, and now it’s here. The big question? Well, that’s whether it was worth the wait in a year with titles like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End also battling for our attention.

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The Rise and Rise of Lara

As someone who immensely enjoyed the reboot, it delights me to say the answer is a definitive yes. Rise of the Tomb Raider takes the original and does what a great sequel often does – identify what worked, focus in and improve on those elements, and strip away the less successful parts of the original. In this case, that means taking Tomb Raider‘s biggest asset – the likable and well-developed character of Lara Croft – and giving her a sprawling and personal story with less intrusion from forgettable supporting characters.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a solid cast to back up Camilla Luddington’s once again fantastic portrayal of the iconic adventurer. The difference is that Rise identifies the characters that work and gives them much more development in a way that works within the story, rather than trying to force a wider group on us (ala the 2013 reboot). Jonah (Earl Baylon) is immensely enjoyable as Lara’s close friend, and it’s a joy when he comes on screen to back her up. The enigmatic Jacob, met a little way into the story, is an integral introduction who is very complex motivation wise. His actions and reasonings are not stereotypically good or bad, and the introduction of such a morally gray and complex character is very welcome. Most of all, though, what we learn about Lara’s family is what makes the adventure satisfying. These revelations gives us much more depth from the standout character that is our protagonist. Tomb Raider did a fantastic job of introducing this heroin, and now Rise delves into her backstory to really flesh her out in fascinating ways.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider is a vast story both in setting and what you come across, but really it’s an intimate story of a daughter chasing her father’s legacy. Lara’s quest takes her to undeniably beautiful locations, starting with a dusty and mysterious Syrian tomb (it’s great to get straight into tomb raiding) and leading to the frosty vistas of Siberia. At these locations, Lara discovers more about her father’s tragic search for the key to immortality. Her motivations are clear; these expeditions led to his death and years worth of questions for Lara. Naturally, after discovering the impossible in Yamatai in Tomb Raider, she now has reason to believe he may not have been searching for something that doesn’t exist. Underneath all the action and adventuring, Rise is essentially a story about accepting and understanding a great loss. It’s a gripping way to get us more involved with this character and those around her.


Croft Manor-isms

The story itself is well-paced in its execution, switching between high-octane set pieces and quieter downtime in a balanced way. The main obstacle in Lara’s way is Trinity, an organisation after the same key to immortality – but for less heroic reasons. Trinity has some interesting familial relations to Lara, which I won’t go too much into, but the leader Konstantin (Charles Halford/Zack Ward) also gets some decent screen time where you get to understand his reasoning. He isn’t just the standard I-want-to-be-immortal guy that you may expect in this kind of story; he goes through an intriguing state of believing he is to be the saviour. Halford/Ward do a good job portraying the character and his specific traits.

Cinematically, Rise is certainly pushing towards the top end of the spectrum, where the likes of Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us) reside. This ambition is great to see, and the adventure is often directed spectacularly. Performance capture for Luddington’s Lara in particular is very impressive, and her visual look has been strengthened just as well as her character has been. Environments are superbly detailed and laid out for multiple play styles, and the big set pieces are utterly enthralling when they happen. However, some moments – often the downtime between big action sequences – could still do with an extra level of polish compared to the Uncharted‘s of this world. The framing, cutting, and focus of some scenes occasionally don’t feel quite as engaging as others.

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This is speaking to Naughty Dog’s insanely high level of quality more than it is Rise’s shortcomings, but for a game so clearly influenced by Nathan Drake’s cinematic stories, that level of consistency is what Crystal Dynamics can aspire to. In the same way, the story occasionally drops into a feeling of slight predictability where certain characters are concerned (again, no spoilers). This isn’t too much of a regular occurrence, though, as the focus of this game is squarely on Lara. As long as her carefully crafted development is the focus, the story remains absorbing and enlightening.


Dynamic Adventuring

In much the same way as the storytelling does, the gameplay of Rise of the Tomb Raider has taken what worked from the previous game and accentuated all the great elements. Of which there are many! There has been referencing of Uncharted throughout the review so far, which is natural given their circular influence on each other. Whereas the storytelling of Rise is certainly aspiring to be up to Naughty Dog’s standards, the gameplay is another story. Controlling Ms. Croft is a big part of what makes Rise such a special game. Simply put, it’s a joy, helped in a large way by the world design. While Crystal Dynamics’ take on Lara Croft is anchored by a linear story through planned routes, the element of freedom and exploration added in is what gives it a winning formula.

It is evident almost immediately. After surviving an avalanche in the initial beats of the story, Lara Croft is massively restricted resource-wise. Subsequent to finding your first base camp in the Siberian Wilderness, you have to gather materials for essential needs like warmth. This area introduces you to hunting with the now-iconic bow, gathering materials, and the stealth mechanics.  Initial encounters with enemy personnel – oh, and a real-life, massive bear – push Lara’s abilities at this point, in what is essentially an ingenious tutorial via limitation.

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Particular areas are more expansive than others, but almost every one can be returned to after your often-urgent first encounter. A great example is the Siberan Wilderness, actually. Revisiting it reveals a beautiful snowy area with caves, relics, and wildlife. It’s essentially a new area compared to the hostile, dark environment it is initially presented as. By the end of the game, there are at least three fairly large, standout areas that you can revisit. They become mini-open-worlds of their own, with missions, secrets, and tombs (!!) to find. Mild puzzling is worked into the areas at times, but is most prominent in the transitions between them. They’re judged well, too – puzzling relies on your knowledge of your skills and weapons, never becoming overly awkward and hurting the pace of the game. The tombs are where things get most complex, often requiring a clever use of the environment as well. Once again, they aren’t frustrating, but still very satisfying to conquer.

A Metroidvania style is apparent in Rise. For example, the introduction of fire and explosive arrows enables the breaching of blocked caves. Inside here, you may find extra items and skills to help you in general gameplay; Lara’s weapons and skills are upgradeable at Base Camps, using materials and XP respectively to slowly improve Lara’s range of abilities. Even being able to choose your outfit, which does have small gameplay effects, is a liberating choice. This feels like your version of Lara Croft, and therefore your own personal experience of her story.

The world is filled with many different items to collect. For example, Relics can be viewed, notes and audio logs read/heard, and materials gathered for crafting. Unlike a game such as Assassin’s Creed, there is a constant sense that what you are gathering is useful. Everything has a reason for being collected, whether it’s for getting better gear, learning about the world and its history, or improving your skills. Hearing Lara enthusiastically talk about found relics reminds you of her passion for what she is doing, so it becomes quite a charming and refreshing occurrence. The freedom of the open areas help to break up the intensity and drama of the main story, therefore creating a really well-balanced pace.

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None of this would be worthwhile if the systems weren’t as satisfying as they are. From traversal, to combat, to crafting, it’s a joy to control the modern Lara Croft. She never feels too weak or too strong, making her way through tunnels, over gaps and up the sides of mountains with confidence but certainly not without issue. The sound design, like the sound of your pickaxe crackling through the ice you are ascending, gives a wonderful feel to the game and makes even these relatively simple tasks enjoyable. These extra touches, like having to press square again to hold on after a particularly noteworthy leap, give a sense of interactivity and connectivity to the bravery happening on-screen.


Spooling Approaches

It’s a new game, and there is a few new tricks for Lara here too amongst her consistent arsenal of bows, guns and pickaxe. To name one, the introduction of the wire spool is a simple idea that adds a surprising amount. At its core, it’s effectively an extendable version of your pickaxe. Think along the lines of a grappling hook that can help you swing on metal structures to access new places. Yet, beyond that, it also switches up how you climb. Until this point in the game, if a climbable surface was too far off to jump to, you were stuck. The moment you acquire the wire spool (about halfway through the main game) you can suddenly use this item to hook onto ledges above you and ascend that way. A concise idea that adds a nuance to how you play. One such nuance? It’s really cool. That moment you leap off and trust the hook to get you to the next ledge is heart-stopping and utterly fantastic – it seems like Crystal Dynamics knew this, and some of the uses for it are heart-stopping moments.

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Combat has a surprisingly comprehensive range of options, too. Stealth and all-guns-blazing are both acceptable stances to have, though earlier in the game stealth may be a better way to go. As Lara’s range of weaponry grows, blasting your way out of trouble becomes much more possible. Using the bow and attempting stealth was my preferred way of approaching situations even at this point, though, as the feeling of silently getting past enemies was extremely rewarding. Using climbable trees, bushes, and stealth attacks, the environment offers a lot of potential for approaching situations – note that using guns and just taking everyone out has its merits, as the substantial-feeling guns help Lara Croft to be the action heroin she is. Also, to be honest, my stealth sometimes descended into this when things went, erm, a tad wrong.


Modern Woman

There really is just so much to Rise of the Tomb Raider. The feeling of taking what worked from the original and running with it is so prominent that you can’t help but just fall into the adventure. Take the multiplayer of the 2013 reboot – it was one of the main weak points of that game, not from being bad, but from being unneeded. So what did Crystal do in the sequel? Remove it, and replace it with Expeditions – the ability to replay single-player chapters with added perks, handicaps, and modes. This is linked to the collectible card system, which lets you redeem credits earned in both single-player and the challenge mode for more customisation options. I don’t know about you, but Big Head Lara is a VERY important addition in my book.

In the 20 Year Celebration on PS4, there’s just so much content included. Take the included single-player DLC set in Croft Manor, which enables you to spend several hours learning more about the history of Lara Croft and her family. It really is an extensive package; beyond the single-player campaign, which is already a substantial offering, Expeditions in particular opens up a whole host of options. Want a new, puzzle-focused challenge complete with infected soldiers? How about playing the included Cold Darkness DLC. Want more of the early-game survival feeling? Try Endurance (which is Co-op enabled, too), where sustenance and warmth are more crucial. Enjoying that gameplay? Try and battle your way up the leaderboards in Chapter Replay and Score Attack.

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What it all keeps coming back to is how well Rise of the Tomb Raider took the 2013 reboot and really pushed it on. That winning formula could have been leaned on too much, without overly worrying about the rough edges – but no. The worst parts were ripped off, and the best were taken and pushed to the max. The underlying feeling of commitment to making everything as good as it can be is magical. After the 2013 game, I was excited for more Lara Croft. Now, I’m excited for more of the entirety of this new Tomb Raider world. Her friends, enemies, and family – we know more now, and I want to know even more.


Final Thoughts

It’s so fitting that what may well be Nathan Drake’s last tale, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, released this year. The links between that franchise and the older Tomb Raider games are clear to see, as are the links between Uncharted and the newer Tomb Raider games. It’s a cycle of inspiration and great game design. Rise of the Tomb Raider is aspiring to the level of production quality seen in the likes of Uncharted 4, and is getting very close to it indeed.

It’s not all one-way; gameplay-wise, Rise has a distinct identity that really works, giving you extensive systems and a large, detailed world that grip you through Lara’s story of understanding and growth. As the 20 Year Celebration on PS4, it’s a fine starting point for a new, well-developed Lara Croft to tackle the world and the challenges it poses. As the face of adventure, Nathan Drake, steps down indefinitely, how apt it is that Lara Croft once again rises to the top.

9.5/10

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.