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Game Reviews

‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ – A Grim, Violent, End to the Trilogy

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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part review. This portion focuses on the story of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. 

Lara Croft is one of a few leading lady characters the video game industry has produced who is not only a household name, but has starred in several games since her debut in 1996. There are twelve games in the core series, and along with a dozen or so spin-offs plus three Hollywood films, they have made her one of the greatest video game characters of all-time, regardless of gender. Like it or not, Lara was one of the first — and still only one of a handful of — female characters to helm an action gaming franchise, and despite her troubled past, the Tomb Raider series (at least the main entries) have more often than not delivered high-quality exciting adventures to gamers worldwide.

When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise, it was somewhat criticized that the studio took a page from the Uncharted series. It’s hard to ignore that Croft’s more recent iterations do indeed take a wee bit of inspiration from Naughty Dog’s extremely popular action series, if only for the cutscenes and action-set pieces alone, but let us not forget that while we can clearly trace the cinematic imprint that Nathan Drake’s adventures have had on Laura, Uncharted itself began as a Tomb Raider clone. I mention this because as much as I love Nathan Drake’s adventures (and believe me I do), Lara Croft is undeniably the original globetrotting Indiana Jones-like figure of video games, and thanks to the recent trilogy, she’s back on top. Lara may not be as charming as Nathan Drake, but I’d argue that this recent trilogy has so much to offer, and apart from maybe the story, it gives Uncharted a run for its money.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

The Plot

Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the first entry to be developed by Eidos Montreal (in collaboration with Crystal Dynamics), begins not too long after its predecessor ends. Following the events of 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is chasing down Trinity, a secret society determined on world domination via the acquisition of mystical artifacts. Her search for answers leads her to such an artifact, an ancient dagger (found at a Mexican temple) that acts as a key to set off an apocalypse. Staying true to her character, Lara carelessly seizes the dagger and unintentionally triggers a giant tsunami that destroys the small Mexican town, leaving behind the deaths of hundreds of innocent lives. From there it leads to a storm, later an earthquake, and eventually an eclipse that threatens the very existence of mankind. Fortunately, the dagger must be paired with a yet undiscovered silver box in order to set a doomsday prophecy into motion. Naturally, the only way for Lara to correct her mistake is to locate the box in question. She heads off to the legendary hidden city of Paititi, only to discover that a local cult has other plans for the apocalypse, mostly involving the ceremonial slaughter of their own people.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Plot Holes

With so much ground to cover, Shadow of the Tomb Raider might just be the most ambitious game in the entire franchise. There are enough plot twists, high stakes, and characters to fill an entire season of a television show, which should keep players more than busy throughout the game’s ten-to-fifteen-hour running time — not to mention an unexpected spin on Lara Croft’s character that sends her through a grueling emotional journey. As usual, the action is on an epic scale, delivered with breathless enthusiasm and much panache, but as far a story goes, Shadow of the Tomb Raider suffers from many of the same narrative shortcomings that plagued its predecessors. The plot makes little sense, and more often than not you’re left questioning various character motivations and the on-and-off reappearance of Croft’s good friend, Jonah, who randomly appears at the most convenient of times, only to disappear again minutes later.

This being a video game — or rather, this being a Tomb Raider game — none of the plot holes really bothered me, but I can’t go without mentioning how downright silly some it truly is. For starters, Lara travels to a Peruvian settlement populated by a large native tribe who have somehow never made contact with the outside world, yet inexplicably Lara is able to fluently communicate with them — and in English, no less. It’s absurd, especially since the game goes out of its way to encourage you to read about every artifact, tomb, and treasure you come across in order to increase Lara’s chance of understanding these ancient lost languages. Nitpicking aside, Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s biggest issue in terms of writing revolves around our heroine. Or does it?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Obsession

In the short time since the game was released, I’ve browsed about one hundred articles addressing the problematic portrayal of Lara. As the heir to her white, British, aristocratic, tomb-raiding parents, who spent decades collecting, destroying, or downright stealing the antiquities of entire cultures, Lara now spends her adult life — wait for it — raiding tombs. Shocking! 

Seriously though, put aside the earlier games, when Lara was grossly sexualized, and even the recent trilogy (of which this is the third installment) has never once attempted to change or hide who Lara really is. The difference here, however, is that Shadow of the Tomb Raider at least places Lara in a position in which she comes face to face with the reality that she is part of the problem. In Shadow the stakes are raised, as her reckless pillaging of a Mayan tomb kicks off a series of unfortunate events. And although Lara Croft is still trying to save the world, her obsession for collecting ancient artifacts is ultimately responsible for that which could bring the world to an end. It’s something she’s never taken responsibility for, at least until now.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

An Emotional Journey

Admittedly, Shadow of the Tomb Raider places Lara once again as the white savior, protector, and only true hope for the indigenous people she meets along the way, but give credit to its creators, who recognize the flaws of the series and at least attempt to not only address these flaws, but do away with them hopefully once and for all. It may not be perfect, but it is an admirable attempt to repair whatever they can without fundamentally changing the entire series or game. With Shadow, Lara meditates on the repercussions of her actions, and throughout her emotional journey she goes from brilliant archaeologist to a confused and beaten hero to a relentless warrior out for revenge. Give credit to voice actress Camilla Luddington, who fully commits to her role, carefully walking the tightrope between courageous, curious, adventurous, vulnerable, angry, and yes, downright over-the-top at times. It also helps that she shares great chemistry with series veteran Earl Baylon, who returns as Jonah, the voice of reason and arguably Lara’s emotional anchor.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

A Journey of Self-Discovery and Horror

It should be said, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an extremely violent and grim game. It has a higher body count than that of any other installment, especially when you take into account the number of innocent lives lost — sometimes as the direct result of the decisions Lara Croft makes, and other times due to a ritual human sacrifice at the hands of a crazed Purivian cult. Lara herself also shows a disturbing darker side. When compared to the innocent young girl in the first game and the accomplished archaeologist and adventurer of the second game, here Lara must literally crawl her way over hundreds of decomposing corpses, swim through rivers of blood, and bear witness to indigenous people murdered in front of her eyes. Her journey is one of self-discovery, but also one of horror. Once she gains the courage to see it through to the very end, Lara Croft rises from a blood-soaked flaming river to become a cunning and cold-blooded killer, bent evermore on survival, instinct trumping all. She’s on a quest for revenge and vindication. When it comes to gunning down her enemies, she doesn’t blink an eye. She’s brutal, to say the least, a resourceful deadly predator who is brought to life as a modern blend of Rambo and Ripley, with just a glint of psychopathy in her eyes.

In the final act, Lara Croft changes. For the better or for worse, she may never be the same, although judging by the post-credits cutscene, she may have finally exorcised her inner demons.

– Ricky D

Click here for the second part of this review.

 

 

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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