Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the third, and final, adventure in Lara Croft’s origin story as the renowned survivor, treasure hunter, and thrillseeker. I was hoping for this story, this finale, to not hold its punches, but instead, Shadow of the Tomb Raider decides to play it safe and predictable. It’s a fun and exhilarating adventure, no doubt, but Lara Croft deserved better.
In 2013, the idea of turning Lara Croft into a figure that could be humanized was an interesting concept. Crystal Dynamics made a Lara Croft who could be bloodied and beaten but was still capable of challenging and surviving the odds. In short, the two adventures that Crystal Dynamics gave us with Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider are among the famed heroine’s best entries to date.
For Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Eidos Montreal took the development reins from Crystal Dynamics. The development process, it’s been said, placed “growing pains” for Eidos Montreal, what with having to assume major development duties while Crystal Dynamics settled into a supporting role. Having played through the entirety of the campaign, you can tell that there was indeed a shift behind the scenes. That isn’t to say that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a bad experience. Not at all. It just feels like Shadow of the Tomb Raider did little to innovate or push the boundaries beyond what Crystal Dynamics shaped this series into. In other words, Lara’s final adventure didn’t seem to hold a torch to her previous exploits.
Where it chiefly falls flat is its story. Lara and Jonah, the pair of friends who have been adventuring together since the first game in the trilogy, have tracked Trinity’s latest suspicious deeds to Mexico. Trinity, as you may recall, is the antithesis of Lara Croft. The militant organization has butted heads with Lara who has thwarted their every attempt at world domination. Led by Pedro Dominguez, the head of Trinity’s High Council, the mercenary group paints Lara in a bad light when she pulls the Dagger of Ix Chel from its ancient resting place, triggering the start of a Mayan apocalypse and the ushering of an eternal solar eclipse. Now the race is on to locate the Silver Box of Chak Chel that, in combination with the dagger, will not only stop the eclipse but can also allow the world to be reshaped should the holder of the ancient artifacts will it.
For a glimmer of a moment, it seemed interesting that Lara herself would be the cause of this game’s dilemma. Players would then have to spend the game correcting her mistakes. Every trial and tribulation would finally forge Lara Croft into the Tomb Raider. I can honestly say that there is a great moment in the game that gave me shivers, where Lara skirts close to a merciless by-any-means-necessary approach to ensure her own success. It was brilliant, but the plot would again fall back into themes we’ve seen before. This is especially true of the relationship between Lara and Jonah. Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon again do their characters justice, but my criticism stems from how often the pair separates from each other (again), where apparent death fakeouts never once got me to believe the character’s fates were held in limbo.
Furthermore, the main villain of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Pedro Dominguez, comes off as unoriginal to the “adventurer vs. mercenary” motif. He shows up at the beginning of the game, takes your dagger, and instantly has the “bad guy” label slapped on him. Again, for a moment, I thought it would have been brilliant to let Dominguez chastise Lara over her obsession that resulted in the process of destroying the world. Instead, he wants the Silver Box before Lara can get it so he can stop the apocalypse but annihilate the world anyway? That’s about as interesting as the guy gets.
Another aspect of Shadow of the Tomb Raider that doesn’t show much growth is the game’s weapons. Weapons such as the bow, shotgun, and assault rifle, can be acquired around pivotal story events. Various resources, such as scrap metal, cloth, and animal fat, can be taken from your environment to upgrade your weapons. Eventually, merchants will add firearms of differing kinds for purchase from their shops. If there’s a play style you prefer, like running and gunning or stealth, merchants will carry auto shotguns or sell suppressors for certain rifles that can pair with your mentality. That’s all well and good, but my main gripe with the feature is that it doesn’t feel at all rewarding. That is to say that I would go out of my way to compile resources to upgrade these weapons and I wound up not only buying out the merchant’s stock, but I would max out the stats of each of those weapons in seconds. So while I could essentially turn Lara into Rambo, it felt far too easy and came far too fast. It would have been a far worthwhile approach to make resources less plentiful, thereby making me think carefully what upgrades to apply to a weapon before stumbling on the next base camp.
On the other hand, crafting new outfits is one of the game’s best features. This mechanic also goes hand-in-hand with hunting. There are wolves, jaguars, and birds that will yield furs and feathers that can go toward creating hides and/or leg wraps that have gameplay-amplifying properties. For instance, a torso piece can shield you from enemy detection longer than usual and simultaneously lower the damage received from enemy gunfire, while a leg piece can net you more resources found in the environment. It’s a good system in two ways: it’s cosmetically pleasing to try new looks on Lara, but you can also mix and match to find an ideal configuration for a multitude of situations.
New abilities to Shadow of the Tomb Raider include mud camouflage and fear arrows. However, it seems the use of mud to blend-in with swampy surroundings is more a situational commodity than it is an active ability. Mud can only be found in moments of the game that require an absolute stealthy approach. Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to dispatch an enemy from an outcropping of roots and twigs like some prowling beast. Fear arrows are another variant like the fire arrows, and explosive arrows, in that the poison they put it an enemy’s system will cause them to unleash friendly fire before the poison takes them out. It’s a fun way to freak out the bad guys if you’re feeling particularly macabre.
During my playthrough of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I would find myself going the stealth route, predominantly. I came to find that close-quarters combat would go awry when the climbing axe wasn’t cutting it, especially when all it takes for a whole group of mercenaries to rain hellfire on you is one enemy calling for help when they spot Lara. There’s a climbing axe upgrade to improve these encounters, but it comes at a point in the game where I felt it wasn’t worth dumping skill points into.
As with the games that came before it, another strength backing Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the occasional “escape” sequence. These moments are defined as when Lara has to make a mad dash away from danger as her surroundings crumble around her, or when she needs to run away from overwhelming odds. While I did experience a few deaths here and there, I felt it was on me for timing a jump too late, or my eyes didn’t catch a foothold I could’ve used for support. In any case, the thrill and excitement of trying to make it through unscathed, and the cinematography of it all, makes me wish these segments could be replayed over and over again.
What’s interesting to note is that Shadow of the Tomb Raider allows players to adjust difficulties for action and puzzle solving independent of each other. Those who are more in it for the adventure can let the game’s puzzles come with a decent amount of tips to surpass. Truly, the exploration of crypts and challenge tombs is another great aspect of the game. Very often would I find myself exploring away from the next story checkpoint to tackle some brain teasers. There are quite a few that made me stop and think about what I was doing. Complex and ancient machinery can make for an ambiguous start to problem-solving, until you do begin to understand how all the pieces work in tandem. For every crypt and tomb completed, you’re rewarded with exclusive gear and skills.
There are numerous side missions to undertake while you’re exploring for challenge tombs on the map, but several are hardly fulfilling and can instead be chocked up to fetch quests. Go here and find this person, give (or take from) them this thing, and then come back to me; it all gets a little old fast. While it does give you a little something extra to do, you’ll easily forget the majority of the side missions you decide to undertake. Perhaps one of the most disappointing missions is when Lara is tasked to retrieve a Champion’s Bow. No doubt it’s played up real nice when you locate the item, and there’s a rather cool fight in this mission. I thought I’d get to keep the bow as a rite of passage, but I didn’t and got a trophy and a tunic instead. What a tease.
We can’t neglect the fact that Mexico and Peru are beautiful expanses to behold. The nation of Paititi really lends the imagination to a primitive culture, given that the people thrive by aqueducts, stone weapons, and the strength of their own backs. There’s a great deal of underwater segments in Shadow of the Tomb Raider than ever before, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of them could go hundreds of feet deep all while the scattering of light at the water’s surface looked so shimmering and ripply. It’s quite a magnificent view while playing on a PS4 Pro. No two areas seem alike, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider does a fantastic job of making you feel that any corner you turn, any leap or dive, could mean mortal peril.
What Shadow of the Tomb Raider lacks in storytelling and innovation is still kept afloat by the series’ namesake. I only wish that the narrative could have at least stood on equal footing as the elements of exploration, locating crypts, and solving tomb puzzles does the character of Lara Croft justice a lot more. We knew for some time that this chapter was to be Lara Croft’s swansong, but she could’ve used a little better. Nevertheless, gamers can still look forward to great setpieces, instances of action, and some real good tomb raiding.