Way back in the late 1960s there were a number of new products determined to take advantage of the then-burgeoning age of female empowerment. One of those was a "cigarette for ladies" that sported the slogan "You've come a long way, baby."
Jump ahead half a century, and that catchphrase seems appropriate for a different breed of empowered gal: a video-gaming icon and all-around hard-hitting adventurer named Lara Croft. From her digitally blocky, impossibly proportioned beginnings to her Angelina Jolie-starring movie turns to this brand-new reboot—Crystal Dynamic's simply titled Tomb Raider—this British, high-kicking spelunker has indeed leaped into many a dark cavern and crawled her way through a lot of changes.
A Crofty Beginning
This ninth franchise installment tells the origin story of a young Lara, just out of college, who sets off on her first artifact-finding excursion. She's more frightened academic than fearless archeologist as things start out. It doesn't help that she and her crew of adventurers are soon shipwrecked on a creepy island that was once home to the feared kingdom of Yamatai—a land ruled by a mysterious queen rumored to have supernatural weather-controlling powers. Now the island is overrun by an equally mysterious and supernaturally engulfed cult of murderous thugs.
Lara is plopped down in the middle of all that, pretty much on her own.
No Barbie doll proportions, hot pants and thigh-strapped pistols here, though. This Lara is as girl-next-door realistic as possible in an M-rated video game. She's simply a scared young women thrown into a hellish situation. She shivers in the cold, cries in despair and is forced to keep moving, keep fighting … or die.
So we watch as we play, inch by inch, minute by minute, this defenseless pretty girl get scarred, beaten and slowly evolve into the puzzle-solving, tomb-plundering, bad-guy-blasting heroine we've come to expect her to be. It's a gaming adventure that plays out like a 20-plus-hour movie and packs more thrills, immersive motion-captured acting, stirring character development and cheer-worthy heroism than any of the Lara Croft games or movies have even come close to in the past.
A Tomb-Like Conclusion
All that immersion in the very realistic grit and grime of terror-filled action, however, comes at a price. Just like those Virginia Slims ads implied a nicotine-laced reward for distance traveled, so too does Lara's new destination come with some serious dark downsides. At first we feel protective of this young woman in our gaming charge. But very quickly—as Lara is frozen, frightened, manhandled, chased, pounded, burned, thrown of cliffs, scraped, stabbed, shot, torn and battered—we start to feel like a heel. Like a big cad who somehow gets his kicks participating in malicious misogyny.
It's one thing (and bad enough) to see a hardened superwoman face these pains. It's another to involve oneself in the suffering of an innocent. And that's if Lara actually survives her numerous travails. If your button-punching rhythms are off, or your Lara-leaps miss their mark, you watch the fragile-looking girl die a multitude of painful, bone-snapping, sword-to-the-jugular deaths. One fall in a fast-rushing torrent, for instance, splashes Lara into a flotsam-strewn tumble and ultimately leaves the girl impaled on a giant spike that jams up through her chin and out the top of her head. It's a grisly, realistic-looking demise that must be repeated over and over until the right pattern for a successful escape is found.
In fact, as you progress through the game it becomes clear that this is easily the most fierce, violent and gruesome Tomb Raider to date. Not only is Lara torn and wounded repeatedly—having to bind and cauterize open bloody wounds—her foes are brutally felled with everything from a climbing ax to a splattering shotgun blast to an arrow to the head. Blood spurts, coating walls and floors. And some scenes are well beyond simple gore. One example: a room full of hanging, dissected, disemboweled corpses.
As you gradually "acclimate" to all that sanguine slop, you also find yourself wincing less and less at other nasty bits in the gameplay—from dark cultist creepiness to language laced with f-words, s-words and misuses of God's name. Not a great thing, of course, this creeping desensitization.
At one point, Lara sighs, "I hate tombs!" Considering her many tomb-pillaging conquests to come, that line is obviously played out as an ironic chuckle. But after watching her getting ground to a pulp in and around those musty mausoleums filled with M-rated mess, I was feeling pretty tomb-queasy too.