Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider (2013) are almost identical. They’re both reboots of a sort, concerned primarily with solidifying an interpretation of a character which exists more as a vague cultural icon, a combination of symbols and ideas which build an empty vessel to be filled when pen gets put to paper. They both centre on Lara’s origins, and they both end with a Lara Croft made whole, setting off on further adventures on which you will hopefully accompany her.
Obviously, the interpretation of both Lara’s character and the Tomb Raider form differ wildly. Legend presents a Lara detached and cool, Indiana Jones, James Bond and Bayonetta mashed up into one tomb raiding whole, and its play follows suit. The game is concerned with the relationship between player and space, and wholly unconcerned with the amount of violence Lara dishes out moment to moment. The lock-on reticule veers wildly off centre, and Lara is given free reign of movement during any combat situation; the bodies will fall without you even needing to turn to look. Sequences of combat speed past in a flash, whereas moments of awe and grandeur are slow and contemplative, the camera panning lavishly around each and every beautiful cavern.
The Lara of Tomb Raider is a far more fragile interpretation of the character. Gone are the days of outlandish antics without consequence, the new Lara must be one who feels, who suffers, imbuing her eventual triumph with weight and meaning. Before she fires her bow, she pulls it back, the player lining up the reticule just right, aiming for the head, watching her prey fall with a satisfying thwip. The sequences of exploration are far more scripted, cribbing from Uncharted to create a world in which every ledge crumbles at the last moment, every safe landing a near-miss, a miracle. Even the world itself wants Lara dead.
The new Lara is an unviolent character in world of violence, the old Lara is a violent character in an unviolent world.
Despite this polar opposite approach to both character and world, the games follow an incredibly similar structure and arc. Both Laras process their trauma by becoming empowered, and by the end are both forces of violence themselves, but the way the game frames violence throughout gives this eventual ending a vastly different context.
Tomb Raider’s Lara is a naive character molded by a cruel world, and in gaining strength is able to beat the world at its own game, to become stronger than every bullet, tree and cliff-face thrown in her way. Though twinged with the sadness of innocence lost, Tomb Raider is essentially a triumphant coming of age story, the audience meant to share in Lara’s catharsis as she saves her friend and picks up her second pistol. In this ending, the game finally leans into the iconic imagery of the franchise, and firmly makes its point: this is how Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was born, this is who she is.
Legend ends similarly: Lara gains hold of Excalibur, and goes on a supernatural rampage, cutting through swaths of helpless enemies, sending them hurtling to their deaths. But unlike the final fights of the later game, the empowered sensation lacks any real feeling of triumph, feeling hollow and empty. This final level is the only moment in the game in which Lara is a fighter first and foremost, the only moment in the game in which Lara’s relationship to the space is rendered moot as she engages in this arena combat. The climax of Legend is a very similar piece of play, but its point is anathema to what came before: this is not who she is.
These games are thematically and mechanically polar opposites, and I could end by telling you which I think is superior and why, but one, my stance is obvious and uninteresting, and I’d rather focus on their similarities in how they weave their story. Both of these games use the world itself to communicate the platonic ideal of their character and lay the groundwork for the narrative catharsis. As the credits roll, both Laras find themselves in line with the world they inhabit, Tomb Raider ending with Lara embracing her violent transformation and Legend ending with Lara stepping back from the brink.
For a franchise so often labelled as contradictory and dissonant, which both games are in many spots, they’re able to execute on the fundamentals of narrative coherence in an effective manner. They present different visions of both Lara Croft and Tomb Raider, but you walk away from each understanding exactly just what that vision is.