Lara Croft is one of the most enduring figures in gaming. Since her debut in 1996, she has taken gamers on unforgettable adventures through stunning environment and treacherous obstacles to find lost relics. As gaming technology has improved, so too have Croft’s games and they have remained the go-to titles to showcase what modern systems are capable of.
Things are no different with the latest trilogy which returns to Lara’s roots and retells her story from the beginning. Each title in the trilogy is a must-play that takes advantage of the newest advancements in gaming while staying true to the golden Tomb Raider formula that has served gamers well for decades.
In this list, I will be ranking the Tomb Raider trilogy in order from my least favorite to my most beloved. Of course, this list is entirely subjective and is based on personal opinion so do not fret if your favorite game is not in first place.
3. Tomb Raider (2013)
Despite its age, the first entry in the trilogy holds up remarkably well and serves as a wonderful introduction to the franchise for newcomers and a grand return for series veterans. Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix, the game brings our favorite tomb raider into the modern gaming scene with stunning visuals and fast-paced gameplay.
Lara, young and naïve, finds herself stranded on an island off the coast of Japan. However, it soon becomes clear that all is not normal in this strange place. As she begins exploring the island and looking for a way to escape, she discovers that it is not abandoned, and that it holds many mysteries.
Of the three games, it is this one that has the campiest story. Lara is at her most relatable and grounded. The narrative is not bogged down in complicated details and is much easier to follow than its successors.
In terms of gameplay, Tomb Raider (2013) has one foot in the past with its semi-linear set pieces but still manages to feel like a modern game thanks to the base camps and hubs. They allow for different portions of the map to be revisited, allowing you to search for hidden tombs and resources at your leisure. There is also a fairly intricate RPG system where earned skill points can be spent on upgrading weapons and obtaining new abilities.
There are a few other features that appear that do not make it to its successors. While I would have loved to see some of these features implemented in later games, having them find an exclusive home in this title does give it its own unique feel.
One of the coolest of these features is the voice commands which can be used to do a host of actions, including: pause, resume, bring up the map or switch weapons. It adds a fun twist to gameplay to bark out commands to Lara during combat.
Other features that are born and die in this game are less favorable, including the inability to see Lara’s outfits without the laborious task of selecting the outfit in the menu at a base camp, then exiting the entire menu and returning to gameplay. Fortunately, later games allow for previews.
A common criticism this title has faced is that it is littered with far too many quick-time events. During my own playthrough, however, quick-time events upped the adrenaline during intense moments and made split-second decisions feel much more impactful. Due to negative feedback, the quick-time events received far less screen time in subsequent games.
My own biggest criticism goes to the fact that the game can feel like it holds your hand too much. There are constant hints, even when playing on the hardest difficulty, and there is no way to turn off Survival Instinct (an ability which highlights useful objects around you). Most of the first few hours of the game feel like an extended tutorial that introduces mechanics such as scavenging and spending skill points, which should be obvious to anyone familiar with modern video games.
Despite being a little rough around the edges, this is a Tomb Raider title that goes above and beyond proving itself as a formidable action-adventure game. Although it is outshined by its successors, it still manages to stand tall on its own and present a wide range of appreciable features while giving the series plenty to build on.
2. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
There are a lot of things different with the last title in the series. For starters, development shifted from Crystal Dynamics to Eidos-Montréal. While the studio is known for the Deus Ex franchise and Thief, Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be their biggest project to date. Despite the game being put in new hands, it does not disappoint.
Easily, this title has the most beautiful environments in the trilogy. Set in South America, the game features luscious rainforests with thick foliage and terrifying wildlife. The open world hubs take place in vibrant villages where you can talk to the locals, pet a llama, or watch kids playing around. It is near unparalleled in its detail and density.
However, do not be fooled by all the beauty. As the title might suggest, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is considerably darker than its predecessors. In this installment, Lara must come to terms with the more questionable parts of her tomb raiding as she discovers that sometimes acting with the best intentions can still bring about the worst outcomes. This occurs when she takes the Dagger of Chak Chel, only to discover that she has set off a deadly apocalypse.
Through her story, the game attempts to grapple with the fact that the relics and artifacts she comes across are not just items to be carelessly taken, but rather are cultural pieces of art that carry special meaning to many people. This cultural sensitivity extends into gameplay where there is the option to play the game in Immersion Mode which causes village locals to speak in their native tongue.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s gameplay is arguably the most refined of the series. One of the greatest areas of improvement can be found with the stealth system. Members of Trinity, the main enemy organization you are up against, can put on goggles that help them spot when Lara is hiding in the bushes. However, she also has a new trick up her sleeve. By covering herself in mud, she can evade detection and hide against walls too. This makes stealth an integral skill to learn when dealing with human enemies.
Mirroring the story, gameplay takes on darker tones, too. Some parts of the game are genuinely scary and can rightly be categorized as horror. Encounters with the supernatural will have you curling your toes and squeezing your controller.
Unlike prior games, this one places a heavier focus on tomb exploration and, consequently, there are far fewer combat sequences. While some might be upset by this, others will be delighted by the opportunity to put the guns away and slap on their thinking cap instead. As you can expect from the franchise, puzzles are complex yet satisfying to solve.
Although the finale of series manages to perfect a lot, it also seems to regress in some areas. For instance, the skill tree is an unintelligible mess that was far easier to figure out in earlier titles. Easily, the biggest issue has to be the difficulty system. In some ways it is the best in the series, as it allows you to separately adjust difficultly for combat, puzzles and exploration. However, if you play on the hardest difficulty – Deadly Obsession – things start to get a little unbalanced.
The issue with the hardest difficulty is that it does not autosave, meaning that you can only save your progress at base camps. These are few and far between, meaning that you better be ready to play for long stretches without dying, or you will lose all your progress. When a simple slip of your grapple hook or a misaimed jump can mean death, it does get frustrating. Of course, you can skip this difficulty altogether, but for the completionists out there such as myself, you know that is not an option.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a triumphant end to the trilogy. It has the most breathtaking action sequences and features Lara at her grittiest. While, in my own experience, it fails to surpass the highs of another title in the series, it still provides a consistently entertaining experience that is hard to fault.
1. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Released in 2015, Rise of the Tomb Raider represents the best of what the series has to offer. It combines a compelling story with tight gameplay and impressive visuals that never fail to immerse you. Like the first game, it is developed by Crystal Dynamics.
Lara’s story continues from Tomb Raider (2013), and she is clearly shaken by the events of her previous adventure. However, she is not about to settle down for a quiet life just yet. Like her father, she is obsessed with uncovering secrets and exploring the stories of ancient civilizations. She travels to Siberia where she hopes to uncover the key to immortality. But she cannot do it at a leisurely pace, because Trinity is after it too, and they have no good intentions.
Gameplay leaves nothing to be desired. There is an abundance of tombs, enemies are numerous, and the stakes are high. Thanks to smooth character movement, easy controls and an engaging environment, exploration and collectible-hunting is exceptionally enjoyable.
The guns in the game are plenty, varied and fun to use. From rifles that train your marksmanship to shotguns with meaty blasts, for every job there is an appropriate tool. This is a good thing, because there are more than enough excuses to pull the trigger. Combat is plentiful, and enemies will force you to be both crafty and resourceful. When you are not running into fights with your guns blazing, you will be hiding in the bushes, waiting for the right moment to stealthily take down your opponent. Although stealth here is not quite as refined as in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it is still brilliant to use.
Rise of the Tomb Raider contains some of my favorite puzzles and tombs in the series. They feature enough complexity to have you scratching your head, but they are all ultimately logical and once you figure it out, the solution seems obvious. A particular standout is Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch, which is a DLC for the game. After exploring an abandoned mine, Lara is exposed to hallucinogenic pollen that turns her exploration into a psychedelic adventure.
A seldom discussed but important part of Tomb Raider games is Lara’s outfits. The second title in the trilogy does not disappoint in this department. Whether its classical clothes or new gear, Lara will be looking her best in this outing.
Although gorgeous, perhaps the biggest letdown the game provides is the lack of varied settings. Almost everywhere you explore is a white snow land. This is to be expected in Siberia, but it does leave you wishing there were more interesting areas to venture through.
There Is No Bad Choice
The trilogy offers a reimagined Lara Croft with far more complex motivations and ambitions. However, long-time fans of the series will still find her incredibly familiar. All three games in the reboot series maintain the high bar the franchise has placed in the past and remind everyone who is the queen of action-adventure gaming. Although Rise of the Tomb Raider manages to rank ahead of its peers, all titles in the trilogy are spectacular installments that are essential experiences for both newcomers and old-timers.