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5 minutes to read

Mini-reviews: Rise of the Tomb Raider and Firewatch

Good storytelling trumps impressive graphics any time.

My game backlog continues to shrink (albeit slowly, having had to prioritize other stuff the last few months), and two more games can now be struck from the list. With one of them being depressingly boring and another being quite short, I opted for one more round of mini-reviews – which, looking at my current backlog, will probably be the last pair of mini-reviews in a good while.

This time it’s Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider and Campo Santo’s Firewatch that get a closer look. While these are very different games and in no way meant to be directly compared in this review – they just happened to be the last two games played by yours truly – they do serve as a nice juxtaposition to prove a point about thoughtful substance vs. empty spectacle.

Lara Croft in front of ruins
This is the one really good memory I have from the game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider was so boring I almost didn’t finish it. That about sums it up for me.

The first half hour feels almost magical. The visuals, the cinematography, Lara’s voice acting, the level design when you approach your first ruin (depicted above) – it all comes together into a greater whole that made me think that this could become my favourite Tomb Raider game.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the game follows a strongly formulaic design, and more to the point, that this formula is almost identical to its predecessor, down to the last decimal place. Whether you are chasing macguffins or killing loads of bad guys from some sect in order to unravel some mystery or another – and there truly are a lot of macguffins to chase and bad guys to kill – it feels exactly like Tomb Raider from 2013, from the plot beats to the skill tree.

Lara Croft hiding on a branch with a knife
While it can be fun to sneak up on enemies, it does get old, and so much of the game is full-on combat in linear environments anyway.

In fact, I wish I wrote a review of Tomb Raider so I could just link to that and be done here. No, really. It’s only been two months since I finished Rise, and I have a really hard time remembering anything at all – aside from a few boring hub areas, the only memories that come to mind are from its predecessor.

I’m a bit annoyed at the general direction Tomb Raider has taken. In Legends and Underworld, you frequently explored breathtaking ruins and solved puzzles that, while normally not that elaborate, at least occasionally tickled your grey cells in a satisfying way. If oriental ruins hidden in lush jungles is what you crave, Rise’s predominant wintertime Soviet installations will leave you somewhere between thoroughly bored and downright depressed. At the end of the day, Rise and its predecessor are mostly hand-holding corridor shooters with boring kitchen-sink-designed hub areas that use a tedious form of ability gating to funnel you in the right direction.

In short, Rise of the Tomb Raider is all spectacle and no substance. I was thoroughly bored; your mileage may vary.

Sunset over lake
Firewatch has wonderful art direction, no doubt about that.

Firewatch

Firewatch is undoubtedly a far more interesting game. If I had to place it in a box I would label it “first-person mystery-esque relationship-driven conversation and hiking simulators” (probably singular since I have yet to come across more of them), which probably isn’t very helpful, so let’s dive into it.

A very short text-based “pick your adventure”-style intro sets the tone and establishes the backstory, and as the game begins proper, you (Henry) head into some Wyoming forest toward a lookout tower, ready for a summer as a solitary fire lookout, at least partly to get a break from problems at home. Your boss, Delilah, calls you up on the radio from a neighbouring tower and explains your responsibilities.

The game is chopped into various “chapters”, each representing a specific day in your employment. Your duties has you walk around the forest at the behest of Delilah, but this is no walking simulator in the style of Dear Esther or Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. Your constant chatter with Delilah keeps the momentum going and is very much the core of the game. Henry and Delilah’s continually evolving long-distance relationship as you chat over the radio about the escalating events is the driving force here, and your dialogue choices are what determines this evolution. Do you tease Delilah for her terrible joke? Do you reveal more about your rocky past? How do you navigate through her deflective sarcasm? The natural feel of the conversations and the lack of any “optimal” choices facilitates the immersion that this kind of game needs to succeed.

Henry talking to Delilah
Your dialogue with Delilah is where the core of the game is found.

This could never work well without interesting and relatable characters, and Henry and Delilah are masterfully brought to life both by the script and by the excellent voice acting. Both struggle with their own demons and come across as believable people with complex emotions. No matter how you choose to play Henry – guarded, forthcoming, sarcastic, or otherwise – the conversations with Delilah feel very natural, and I could not help genuinely getting to like her as I gradually got to know the woman below the emotional armour. The narrative pacing is also better than most other games I have played, with tension, thrills and witty humour being put to good use throughout the game, occasionally within minutes of each other.

While the plot can’t quite match the quality of the characters, I won’t hold that too much against the game. Firewatch is an examination of two adults growing to trust and care for each other, and with each line being delivered with emotional nuances, I found it a genuinely interesting experience. Whereas Rise of the Tomb Raider is all spectacle, no substance, Firewatch is very much the opposite, and Henry and Delilah’s sincere and delightful relationship demonstrates that good writing and voice acting can trump impressive motion-captured animations and realistic graphics any time.

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