Myths, legends, and fairy tales have always been a fertile ground for video games to till, and the Tomb Raider series has always had an eye on the past when telling modern tales. Usually, however, it’s been in a casual way, without much attempt to really delve into what makes the old tales so lasting. The earlier Tomb Raider games included elements from Greek and Egyptian myths, for instance, but mostly as an excuse to include ancient-looking architecture.
Then the straightforward multiplayer-centric action of Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris managed to make excellent use of classic Egyptian lore, including characters and legends from the old religion. 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot actually took its cue from obscure Japanese (and Chinese) history and lore for its ultimate antagonist, Queen Himiko.
Himiko’s actual history is shrouded in mystery, but by most accounts she was a powerful shaman queen who ruled over one of the ancient kingdoms of Japan. Himiko has actually made some kind of appearance in a few Japanese games, but her use in Tomb Raider was a distinctly western take on the character. Still, it seemed as if developer Crystal Dynamics was set on a path to really let Lara mix it up with some of these fascinating and ancient mythologies and legends.
That’s part of the reason why Rise of the Tomb Raider was at least slightly disappointing with its generic set-up about ancient nameless cults and bland, pseudo-religious secret societies. It stepped away from actual history to create a rather uninspired amalgam of clichés, set against its gorgeous Russian backdrop and frenetic, exciting game play. So when publisher Square Enix announced the next downloadable add-on for the game was Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch, I got a little excited.
Russian lore is especially perfect for dark and gritty supernatural-themed games. Their fairy tales and old myths (often the same thing) reflect their harsh culture and mindset, and they had an incredible array of spirits, monsters, and god-like beings to keep the fearful peasant population in check. Baba Yaga is certainly the most famous and readily identifiable of these characters—an elderly witch who loves to chew on human bones and travels in a hut that walks on chicken legs.
Yaga is a complex character in Russian lore. She was possibly the remnants of an ancient goddess before Christianity was forced on the people and possibly a title bestowed upon multiple women over the years. Slightly similar to the Norse god Loki, Baba Yaga wasn’t strictly good or evil. In some tales she’s a monstrous entity the protagonist must overcome and destroy; in others, she helps the hero triumph over evil. In some stories she serves both roles.
It’s a shame that Crystal Dynamics didn’t really include any of these elements here.
STARRING: ACROBATIC GRANDPA
The setup is interesting, even if Temple of the Witch reveals its cards way too early. Lara rescues a young girl from soldiers, only to find the girl is on a quest to rescue her grandfather. This amazingly spry old man has somehow made it through a dangerous mountain pass to reach the cursed White Vale. Superstitions abound about this place, where the natives believe the witch Baba Yaga resides.
It seems decades earlier the witch killed grandpa’s beloved wife and now he finally wants revenge. Ignoring the fact that the place is virtually inaccessible to anyone besides acrobatic adventurers, it’s as good a reason as any to do more exploring with Lara. The path leads to an unfinished temple, but getting there requires passing through a cave filled with a plant with extreme hallucinogenic properties, ans—well, if you like to search for all the hidden diary entries in these games, you know within the first 20 minutes what’s really going on.
That’s a shame, because Temple of the Witch has one brilliant sequence that shows off just how versatile Lara and her open world can be. Under the toxic spell of the mystery pollen, Lara becomes trapped in a nightmarishly bleak fairy tale forest, being pursued by the witch and ghosts of her past. It’s a grim, stylish, and beautifully atmospheric passage that rivals anything in an actual horror game. Though painfully short, this passage lets us glimpse just how amazing these games could be if the developer really gave in to the supernatural side of Lara’s world.
Instead we merely get teased with the possibilities. Temple of the Witch comes with the game’s downloadable content season pass or can be bought separately. Viewed on its own, it’s a short and unfortunately slight addition to the overall game, with some decent puzzles and an interesting end boss sequence. For those who just want a little more time in Rise of the Tomb Raider (and who can blame them?), it’s probably worth it, but don’t expect to see Lara actually tussle with ancient fairy tale forces—not in the way I’d hoped, at least.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
RELATED: What’s Next for ‘Fallout 4’? That and More This Week in Gaming with Andrea Rene