The debut of Rise of the Tomb Raider on the PlayStation 4 is worth celebrating just on the basis of it being such a technically polished port. It lacks the Xbox One release’s rampant framerate issues, all the DLCs are included, and out of the bunch, the Baba Yaga mission remains a brief but effective and moody standout. Not all of the added modes are winners, such as Lara’s Nightmare, a zombie-killing Horde mode, but the game’s final DLC, Blood Ties, makes the entire port shine brighter as a whole.
Blood Ties offers a simple scenario: Lara gets a letter from her elitist uncle Atlas that, in light of Lara’s professional and psychological issues in the wake of Tomb Raider’s Yamatai incident, informs her that he’s making moves to take control of her parents’ estate unless she can find something left behind by her deceased father that would render Atlas’s rights to Croft Manor null and void. Lara is then left to explore an empty mansion in disrepair.
While there are hidden secrets and chambers to be found, and annoyingly obtuse puzzles to solve, Lara spends much of the DLC simply reminiscing, picking up objects, speaking about her childhood, and reading diary entries. While the life that the Crofts led bears little resemblance to that of Gone Home’s Greenbriar clan (this is the decadent mansion of two British aristocrats/historians versus the suburban home of a floundering writer and a park ranger, after all), the same feeling that Gone Home provides of a girl gaining so much more understanding of who her family was as human beings with their own feelings and agency is replicated here.
Through documents found throughout Blood Ties, Lara’s parents are drawn as fascinatingly flawed people who lived in unique circumstances while raising a singularly precocious daughter. It’s a deliberately paced but compelling two-hour sojourn through the manor, an immersion bolstered when played in VR, though the Free Movement control scheme creates the worst kind of physically nauseating dissonance. More importantly, this material grants a depth and poignancy to Lara’s zealous chase across the globe to finish what her father started, two things the single-player campaign needed more of than simply running at 60 frames a second, and two things that we’ve never gotten in all 20 years that Lara Croft has been a part of the cultural landscape.
Which isn’t to say that the core game was ever inadequate. Though a tiny, welcome effort has been made to ease back on the implementation of Quick Time Events, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t see much in the way of change. Surviving the Russian tundra remains a fun, fluid experience, full of all the thrilling gunplay, puzzle-solving, and open-world exploration we expect from the series, with a few dizzying set pieces that hold up extremely well on replays, even in the wake of Uncharted 4. The game builds a rock-solid structure on its predecessor’s foundation. Now, though, when the main plot kicks in, we’re not left to wonder why Lara can’t let go of her father. We’ve met him, through his writing, and through Lara’s memories. The innate curiosity of the man’s voice shines through every new tomb that Lara raids. It’s a powerful thing, being able to complete her father’s work so spectacularly.