The new Tomb Raider has proven to be the best ‘reboot’ of a series since Resident Evil 4 kicked the entire shambling survival horror genre up its decaying arsehole a few years ago. It borrowed core components from a few of what would be considered its direct rivals, merging them into its own engrossing experience. It is a good game that will no doubt gain a few sequels that will hopefully improve on its few issues and make something truly remarkable in years to come.
Resident Evil has gone increasingly downhill since the fourth installment. Admittedly, following what many consider to be one of the finest games ever made was never going to be easy, but making a bunch of concessions to the current trend of co-op online gaming, turning the slow burn tension of Resi 4 into an also-ran third person shooter was never going the best way of doing this. The new Tomb Raider is easily a much better ‘survival horror’ game than the disappointing Resident Evil 6. Capcom can learn a hell of a lot from Lara Croft’s latest adventure.
First of all, what is survival horror? Let’s use that classic trope of the hack writer and consult the dictionary definition. Let’s pad that wordcount!
the act or fact of surviving, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.
[hawr-er, hor-] Show IPA
an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting;a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.
anything that causes such a feeling: killing, looting, and other horrors of war.
such a feeling as a quality or condition: to have known the horror of slow starvation.
a strong aversion; abhorrence: to have a horror of emotional outbursts.
Informal. something considered bad or tasteless: That wallpaper is a horror. The party was a horror.
inspiring or creating horror, loathing, aversion, etc.: The hostages told horror stories of their year incaptivity.
Being dropped into the start of Resident Evil 4 and suddenly having to deal with the legendary Ganados siege is the classic survival horror moment. You’ve got limited resources, limited experience with the game and what appears to be insurmountable odds. There’s actually no way to kill them all, you just have to stay alive until a bell rings and the onslaught is immediately called off. It is a real shock to the system, instantly dropping you in deep shit and forcing you to do everything you can to - you’ve guessed it - survive. Playing it is to know the very definition of ‘survival horror’.
Tomb Raider has Lara and her crew being shipwrecked on an island inhabited by a cult built up of other people who have found themselves stranded on the island, unable to leave due to mysterious forces. They’re held together by the belief that their sacrifices of the outsider will please the goddess of the island to allow them to finally leave, and will do anything to achieve these goals. Now, they’re not quite the semi-mindless Ganados, so they’re a bit smarter and attack in very different ways, but you’re still playing as one person against an army of murderous killers.
There’s a bunch of stuff at the beginning of the game about hunting for food, finding supplies and shelter and warmth, but after this bizarre tutorial section you’re no longer actually expected to do any of that, outside of a bit of achievement chasing. This isn’t a game about Bear Grylls style survival, this is Leon S. Kennedy-pushing-a-cupboard-in-front-of-a-door-to-prevent-his-head-being-chainsawed-off survival horror!
The game is broken up into areas, and they’re all fairly open in terms of how you can navigate around them. Enemies are dotted around them and the means of which you deal with them is up to you. You can sneak around, picking them off with your bow and arrows silently, and leave no trace behind, or, you can shoot your way through. At this point, the enemies are all made aware of your position, and will try and flank you, pick you off from behind cover or just rush you down in an attempt to kill you. They feel like the ganados at times. Big words, I know, but honestly, Resident Evil hasn’t had action sequences like this for quite some time.
There are some genuinely horrific moments in this new Tomb Raider. Throughout the game you encounter the dismembered corpses of souls unfortunate enough to have stumbled into the same situation you’re currently in. Piles and piles of discarded, nameless pieces that were once people. The island has its own dark history, and it is told to you from the placement of these corpses. In a tomb you’ll find the body of a WW2 soldier, a couple of previously unopenable doors and his discarded, used firearm. This tells a more horrific tale than the ones Capcom have been recently. Instead of the pomp and bombast of Resident Evil 6’s setpiece filled campaign, imagine a near silent walk through an infected city, with the dead piled high at the sides of the road, and you’re unaware of which ones could suddenly sit up and start moving toward you.
It’s really, really violent, too. There’s a realism to the brutality on display that makes you cringe, and not want to see it again. Take a look at a few of the ways Lara can meet her demise. Most of them can force an “ooof” from even the most hardened gorehounds. There’s the satisfying meaty ‘thwack’ of an arrow piercing an enemies chest, and the melee insta-kill where Lara cracks a cultists head open with her climbing pick. Genuinely savage stuff. Remember the first time you were unfortunate enough to end up on the business end of Chainsaw Man’s chainsaw? Shocking. Grim. Nasty. Didn’t want to see it again.
Indiana Jones was the obvious influence on the original Tomb Raider, and by the end of this game you’re still blasting bad dudes and leaping between collapsing platforms like it is a summer blockbuster. It doesn’t shed its skin entirely, and this Tomb Raider game is, fundamentally, still an action adventure game. At the start, however, there’s a touch of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes. A touch of Frontiers - dark, horror movies full of threat and the menace of dying a horrible death. Survival horror movies. Much like these movies, the protagonists undergo some nasty situations, and usually overcome them by becoming a monstrous killer themselves, which I guess is one way of explaining Lara gunning her way through the rest of the game. When you’ve got Lara, up to her neck in what appears to be mud, blood and shit, so she can sneak past a bunch of murderous cult members, you’re playing a much better survival horror game than anything Capcom have squeezed out in a few years.
Resident Evil has become a ‘directed by Paul W.S. Anderson’ action also-ran, when it was once a ‘directed by Tobe Hooper’ masterpiece, and a ‘directed by George Romero’ classic before that. Poor sales to expectations have put the series at a crossroads, and with Shinji Mikami’s recently revealed The Evil Within looking like it is going to be pushing extreme horror pretty hard, it is time for Resident Evil to have a real think about what it really is. If you’d told fifteen year old Andi that one day Tomb Raider would be providing a more intense horror experience than Resident Evil, he would have laughed. Telling twenty-one year old Andi the same thing would’ve gained you a disbelieving ‘fuck off’. I’m nearly thirty. What the hell is going on?