Tomb Raider: Lara Croft and the Secret of the Tenth Death Totem

, | Game diaries


One of the many ways that Tomb Raider is as good as Rocksteady’s Batman games is that it’s sprinkled with collectibles. And not just haphazardly. It’s not “hey, go get me some feathers!”, a la Assassin’s Creed. Many of these are artifacts, modeled in 3D as they were in Uncharted, and sometimes worth turning over to discover a hidden bonus, all tapping into the game’s xp system and all arranged in themed groups relating to the game’s setting.

It’s easy enough to find the locations of most collectibles on the map, by either finding treasure maps, usually in tombs, or by unlocking the skill that lets you “ping” the area with Lara’s instinct mode. You can then go into the map and drop a waypoint on an artifact so that its location shows up in the world when you use instinct mode again. This is a great way to find stuff in the more vertical areas, where you’d otherwise go bonkers trying to figure out if an icon is something above you or below you.

But then there are themed collectibles that don’t show up on the map. These are called challenges. They rely on actually exploring, looking around, peering into places you wouldn’t normally peer, basically poring over the world the developers have created to be a place worth poring over. And at times, they’re really hard to find.

After the jump, the challenge of challenges

I just spent over an hour in the first section of Tomb Raider, called the coastal forest. I’d already played through it. It’s the first part of the game after the prologue. I’d found all the artifacts here (scary Japanese masks!), the GPS caches, and the documents that fill in the backstory, much like audio logs in a Bioshock game. But the coastal forest also has ten death totems dangling from the trees. Lara “collects” these by shooting them down. They look a bit like native American dreamcatchers, but they’re made with skulls. They’re tiny. You’ll see a few hanging from tree branches in conspicuous locations. You wouldn’t think anything of them unless you shot one down, at which point you would be notified that, hey, you’ve activated a challenge. Every area of the game has a challenge. Some have multiple challenges. You can see the names of these, but you don’t always know what they are. I still can’t figure out the “rest in peace” challenge in one area.

After playing through the coastal forest normally, you’ll maybe shoot two or three death totems if you realize they’re part of a challenge. After looking for relics for the xp bonus, you might find another two or three death totems. So that’s about five out of ten death totems. Whatever. You’ve got the rest of a really good game to play. Enjoy it.

But maybe you’re like me and you want to meet these themed challenges because you like when developers hide things to encourage you to look around, to explore without sticking your nose into a map screen or against a HUD. And maybe Tomb Raider is one of those all too rare games that puts you in a virtual place where you like being. More to the point, it puts you there with a character you’ve come to care about. More on that later in the week, but this Lara Croft is someone you haven’t met before, and she’s worth meeting.

So there I was, skulking around the coastal forest, slowly moving the camera around, pausing to trigger instinct mode, which makes the death totems easier to see, peering into the foliage, clambering up to high spots for a better view. All the while, I’m listening to the sounds of Lara’s breath, the idyllic gurgle of a creek, the rustle of rabbits and deer in the brush, and even the croak of a frog. I’d never noticed that before. I’d been through the coastal forest for two complete playthroughs and it was only once I’d decided to hunt down ten death totems that I noticed Crystal Dynamics had put frog sounds in the creek. That’s the kind of detail that makes hunting death totems worthwhile. I think I liked discovering those frogs even more than finding the last death totem.

By the way, Crystal Dynamics, you’re a bunch of jerks for hiding a death totem under a bridge. I’d been looking for the tenth totem for a while when it occurred to me, “If I was a game developer, would I go so far as to hide a death totem under a bridge where the player would never see it unless he went under the bridge?”. Sure enough, there was the tenth death totem.

Tomorrow: Miss Croft, I presume?