Rebooting the iconic, original Tomb Raider - Indiana who? - couldn't have been the easiest of design briefs, with both history and fierce nostalgia weighing heavily on existing developer Crystal Dynamics and fresh scribing talent Rhianna Pratchett.
A change of focus permeates; pornstar busts and colossal caverns eschewed for vulnerable young ladies and Gears-besting body counts. Accept that this emotionally exhausting redux has germinated in - whisper it - a post-Uncharted petri dish and you'll appreciate it's a superb title on its own merits. It's just that you might have to squint a little, or at least venture off the beaten track, to find any actual tombs to raid.
A breathless narrative setup with a gobsmacking accompanying cinematic promises mystery and Heart of Darkness-style adventure in spades, with a reborn Croft a feisty young archaeologist's assistant aboard the good ship Endurance. Assailed by a fierce electrical storm that inexplicably explodes out of thin air, the vessel capsizes on a tropical island within the Bermuda... sorry, Dragon's Triangle. Split up from her pals, Lara has to battle for her life against hostile wildlife, daunting environments and... a blood-thirsty cult. Hang on; maybe this ain't so different after all.
For a while, the preview hype surrounding hunting deer, salvaging equipment and hunkering around campfires in a pseudo-sandbox holds true. With breathtaking artistic design, this mysterious, inhospitable island is a star in itself, frequently upstaging Lara with its craggy peaks, biting winds and howling rainstorms. The biggest shocks, mind, are to be found within the bowels of the earth, where some truly grisly scavenger encounters in charnel house-alike caverns push a vulnerable, sobbing Ms. Croft to breaking point. The storytelling tugs hardest when Lara is alone, afraid and self-reflective; shame her token ethnic mix of a party are such a stereotyped band of brothers (and sistas). They add little to the mix and should have been left in the cliché box.
It's impossible to play Tomb Raider without recalling Playstation's Uncharted franchise and, to a lesser extent, Far Cry 3, Resi 4 and even Just Cause 2 (remember spooky Hantu Island?) It's intriguing that Crystal Dynamics has chosen to ape Naughty Dog's series - albeit it in a far more gritty manner - rather than focus on Lara's heritage of platform puzzling, but it's absolutely succeeded in crafting set-pieces to rival the best that Playstation's biggest exclusive has to offer. Indeed, throughout a solid ten-hour adventure, Tomb Raider rarely feels anything less than exhilarating, even if the last couple of hours - which, in dumping the excellent stealth, become maddeningly combat-heavy - reduce the impact of the earlier chapters as primary antagonist Mathias falls flat and an increasingly erratic plot (double) jumps the shark.
Playing with fire
Certainly not the Metroidvania sandbox we originally envisaged, Tomb Raider adopts a bizarre approach to its hidden nooks and crannies with Lara constantly encouraged to push forward. The game never overtly requires you to backtrack, but take time out to savour the sprawling, multipath environments by fast-travelling between the numerous campfires Lara kindles, using Hunter's Vision to discover disguised ledges and stock up on salvage, relics and hidden weapon parts, trigger various mini-challenges and level up her skill tree. From building buffed up variants of bows, shotties, rifles and the like to developing your core abilities, these slight RPG elements do a nice job in conveying Lara's personal growth during this baptism of fire.