Tomb Raider was rebooted for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2013 and has been in an unfortunate situation ever since. In trying to modernize the series Crystal Dynamics had to shed some of what made Tomb Raider a force in the action-adventure genre in the 90s while also having to play catch up to series like Uncharted that ironically owe much to Lara’s adventures. Lara was no longer a badass adventurer with nothing to say, but was a person that might react emotionally to some of the more traumatic events she’s thrust into. When she crashed on an island and had to fight and kill to survive, it took its toll on her. After two games developing Lara, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider she is no longer someone doing what has to be done to scrape by, but rather a force to be reckoned with—a predator to be feared. What we get in this third entry is a character—and game—that knows exactly what needs to be done to succeed and gets down in the dirt and does it.
Lara is now on the trail of Trinity in Mexico searching for an ancient dagger that may or may not have powerful consequences if found. Her search for this object will lead her and her old friend Jonah, as you might expect, through perilous situations and beautiful locales. More importantly, though, this game begins to see Lara wrestle with her own past and how much she is merely following in the footsteps of her father versus becoming her own person. Where early stories had her very keen on living up to the lofty name on the gate of her family mansion, she now starts to realize her own identity. It works as the finale to this story that has not necessarily been about the Tomb Raider but about how Lara Croft becomes the Tomb Raider.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also includes an excellent vignette of Lara as a young girl. We get to see her exploring her absurd palace of a home and it highlights the formative years of Lara as the thrill-seeking adventurer. What at first seemed unnecessary ended up being one of the most memorable scenes in the game. It was extremely well-done considering how easily it could have been a throwaway and extraneous scene.
That scene is not an outlier either; the game’s acting is almost universally well-done. Camilla Luddington returns as Lara Croft and her performance along with Earl Baylon as Jonah are top notch. That is only bolstered by incredible facial rendering. Emotional scenes are made more potent by small touches like the flaring of nostrils or the Adam’s apple protruding for a noticeable gulp. Shadow of the Tomb Raider may relish in its grand vistas and sprawling Mesoamerican temples, but it manages to maintain a visual fidelity in its characters that adds to an already impressive experience. Don’t expect that voice acting to carry across all the game’s characters though. While the important story characters are all well done, some conversations with NPCs sound like they are being read by someone who has never read words out loud before, which often made me wish I could skip some of that dialogue.
This time out Crystal Dynamics has taken a step back and is in more of an advisory role and instead Eidos Montréal has taken the reins. How this has specifically changed the game is maybe difficult to nail down, but crucially it seems their expertise in making large and interesting hubs for Deus Ex has made for an exciting change to the Tomb Raider formula. This time around there are various hubs that Lara will come back to and accept side missions or talk to NPCs. It has been seamlessly meshed with the existing routine of exploration and puzzle solving. There are no loads once you’re in the game, but you can expect to slowly crawl through some narrow space as you enter any new location to mask the loads. I had just as much fun poking through every nook and cranny of the beautiful city of Paititi looking for treasure, chatting with citizens as they go about their lives, or trading with merchants as I did picking off paramilitary goons or raiding the game’s many intricate and deadly tombs.
Speaking of tombs, it is important to mention that the tombs in Shadow of the Tomb Raider do not disappoint. Where recent games lacked some of the more robust puzzle-based tombs from the series’ past, this entry has an impressive variety of tombs that are all visually interesting and full of bespoke puzzles to solve. There are tombs and crypts that are mostly optional that offer either new upgrades on your skill tree or new outfits that confer different bonuses. I took every opportunity to track these down and I can’t wait to get back into the game now that I’ve finished and find what I missed. The puzzles in these tombs were often actually quite interesting and involved. I never had an issue completing them, but I did always have a great time figuring out the solution and executing it.
While there are definitely some large-scale puzzle environments that will pop up in the course of the main storyline, having them be optional speaks to some of what was so great about this game: the choice you have in how you play it. There is a much greater split this time out between combat, exploration, and puzzles. I went for hours on end without ever encountering a combat situation (which might be for the best, but more on that in a bit). This is emphasized before you even start the game when choosing your difficulty setting. Eidos Montréal has brilliantly allowed for difficulty changes to each specific facet of the experience. This means if you want to ramp up the challenge in the combat, but you maybe aren’t interested in the puzzle solving, then you can adjust accordingly. I personally had the best time turning up the difficulty in the puzzles and exploration and keeping the combat to a normal difficulty. In the puzzles this means that Lara will offer fewer hints about what to do next if you seem stuck, and while exploring it means that noticeable white marks on ledges and interactable objects are removed.
Side Note: Following the recent trend of AAA titles embracing options for disabled gamers, Shadow of the Tomb Raider also offers an impressive range of helpful accessibility options. From granular changes to subtitles, to changing repeated button presses to holds, or moving gun aiming off the right stick it seems to really go the extra mile in this regard, and it was appreciated.
That was interesting because the game takes place in extraordinarily dense jungle environments but the detail is such that removing those markers in the environment never made it impossible to navigate. The environments are actually deceptively linear at times, or at least less open than the jungle might have you believe. You can navigate through the canopy or even swim in the myriad underwater areas. There is plenty to explore, but finding that ledge or climbable surface is just a matter of keeping your eyes peeled.
Keeping your eyes peeled is generally good advice as this time out there are threats in the jungle that extend beyond Trinity. You’ll rarely encounter human threats in the jungle, but that doesn’t mean you’re always safe. Each area has different wild animals roaming around for you to hunt that can range from the more timid capybaras to deadly jaguars. The increased focus on wildlife is a great return to form for the series. Fighting off jaguars was thrilling and tense, and stumbling into a cave full of hungry wolves was properly threatening, but I do wish there was a tad more of this in the game as these animal encounters were the best combat instances in the game .
When you do come up against human foes and start using more powerful automatic weaponry the combat falls apart slightly. The weapons pack a satisfying punch and you do feel quite powerful, but in instances where I was in a full-on assault it never felt dangerous or challenging. Rather, I was simply mowing people down on my way to the next set of enemies. Thankfully those encounters were sparse, and instead most encounters had me stealthily slimming their ranks. These scenarios were much more thrilling as Shadow of the Tomb Raider gives you a host of options in how you want to pick off your foes, and it makes you feel like yet another predator of the jungle. You can hide in tall grass, among the vines on a wall, or you can take to the trees and stalk your prey from above. And crucially, you can enter her Survivor Instincts Vision to highlight enemies and let you know at a glance if they are out of sight of other enemies. My favorite part was that if you saw a puddle of mud on the ground you could go and smear it on yourself which makes you harder to spot and lets you sidle up to muddy walls to hide. The enemy AI is nothing special though. They are all perfectly willing to run up to a pile of bodies near a thicket to naively investigate only to obviously be immediately murdered. It felt good, though, to plan your attack and not have overly nosey guards get in the way, so it’s a fair trade.
At its best, the stealth sections are highly reminiscent of the Rocksteady Batman games, but the game imbues Lara with less of the attitude of a judicious vigilante and more of the reckless and violent abandon of Rambo when she mercilessly eliminates her threats. Even as rewarding as those encounters may be, what I had the most fun doing was simply exploring the world, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to properly portion out its disparate parts in favor of its better elements. That’s not to say the stealth was bad or detracted from the experience, but that Eidos Montréal put in just enough for it to not overstay its welcome.
Exploring the world and finding secrets was always fun, but what you’ll learn all too quickly in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that if you want to stay stocked on arrows, upgrade your weapons, or craft new outfits, you’ll need to be collecting a huge array of different resources. There are nearly two dozen different resource types, and it can feel overwhelming. I adapted to it by constantly clicking on anything and everything I saw to keep stocked on whatever resources I might need, but it often felt like needless busy work in which I rarely had any real control over the resources I was collecting unless I needed to hunt an animal or two.
Lara Croft has finally reached the goal that Crystal Dynamics started five years ago. We finally have the grisly and brutal action hero of yore, but one that might stop after the violence dies down and question her nature. She is a much more emotional character and, for the most part, it works. Sometimes the over-the-top nature of her character sneaks through the facade of the grounded heroine, but I was willing to take it in stride to see her journey to its end. And importantly, beyond Lara breaking out from under the shadow of her lineage, this series finally breaks out from under the shadow of Naughty Dog’s rollicking adventure series to really stand on its own merits. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an impressive addition to a storied franchise and crowded genre that you shouldn’t miss.
Now if you’d like some additional thoughts on the game, Abram Beuhner has his own impressions after playing through the PS4 version of the game. You can check out his take here.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft is no more, and the Tomb Raider takes her place. This latest entry is a wonderful cap on this rebooted series that delivers on both the promise to refresh the character of Lara Croft and to bring the action of old Tomb Raider games to the modern era. It was a fun and visually stunning game from beginning to end.