Back in 2013, the Tomb Raider series saw a successfully radical reboot. Bringing us a new Lara Croft who was just surviving a terrible situation rather than raiding tombs, the reboot was a massive breath of fresh air for the series. A couple years later, this was followed up with the equally impressive Rise of the Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics has since moved on to a game based on Marvel's Avengers, and Tomb Raider duties fall to Eidos Montréal. Shadow of the Tomb Raider serves as the last game in the origin trilogy. Is Lara fit to be the Tomb Raider, or should this be the last we see of her?
Opening up some time after the last game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider sees Lara and her best friend Jonah on the trail of mysterious organization Trinity. Their goal is ultimately to interrupt whatever Trinity's plans are, and Lara manages to accidentally trigger the end of times along the way. Now she needs to solve ancient riddles, discover lost civilizations, and plunder tombs to try and fix her mistake and stop the world from ending.
Unfortunately, Shadow of the Tomb Raider suffers from the exact same writing problems as the first two games. Outside of Lara herself, all the characters feel poorly written. This especially holds true with the main antagonist, the totally forgettable Dr. Dominguéz. He's out to "remake the world" like every other generic villain with a big global conspiracy. Every character has one thing they need to do, with their entire personalities built around that one thing. It doesn't help that there isn't much going on with the actual plot itself. It's clear this is supposed to be a character-driven drama, but that falls flat whenever there are no characters to drive it.
As mentioned before, the exception is Lara Croft. We've seen her grow from survivor to Tomb Raider for three games now, and it seems like we're finally hitting the end of that arc. It's really interesting seeing Lara have a near breakdown from killing her first human back in Tomb Raider, to now mercilessly picking up a knife and running a man through without a second thought because she thinks her best friend is dead. I'm not entirely sure Lara has grown in pleasant ways. Still, it's impossible to deny her changes and I'm really interested to see how she grows further from here.
The basic gameplay loop sees you performing platforming feats, solving puzzles, and fighting off enemies. Lara has basically all the same abilities and items that she did in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and they all work really well. In a way, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is like a Metroidvania where you can backtrack and keep finding new places to explore, although it's not as in-depth as a game totally devoted to this. All the backtracking leads to optional crypts or tombs for Lara to explore. You will find a set of new passive skills by going out of your way, but nothing that totally changes the way you play.
When you're ready to have Lara leap across a chasm, you can use several abilities to assist her. Some are as simple as being able to push upwards from a wall to extend her jump, while a grappling hook allows her to swing across gaps. There are a few new options open to Lara as well. She gains the ability to rappel, which allows her to descend from a cliffside to the relative safety of the floor below. Sometimes she can use the rappel to run along walls as well, letting her get further horizontally and to new areas. It's a neat little feature and helps the platforming stand out that much more. She also eventually gains the ability to use her pickaxes to hang from the ceiling. It opens up a few new locations to go to, but mechanically it's no different from climbing a wall.
When compared to the Uncharted series, a natural comparison considering how close the two series' platforming are to each other, I always felt like I had more to pay attention to. I can't just hit jump and watch cool things happen. Instead I had to time wall jumps, grappling hooks, and using Lara's pickaxes to hang onto a surface to avoid plummeting. It's simply satisfying to watch Lara slide down a cliffside, jump over spikes, and swing from her grapple to safety.
Lara can't solve every situation by just jumping over it though. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has quite a few clever brain teasers that I had to sit down and think about. One puzzle saw me moving aqueducts around so I could turn water wheels, while another had me recreating the Stations of the Cross using a religious pamphlet as a guide. More importantly, I never felt like there were any puzzles that were super easy to figure out and just required me to waste time solving them. By the end of the game, I felt there was more than enough to keep me thinking.
Since a global terrorist organization with apocalyptic goals has our hero in its sights, she can't keep her hands clean. While Lara has fighting skills and a varied arsenal, direct combat is rather rare. I can only count a handful of fights that spiraled into cover-based shooter gameplay. When it does happen, it's at least fun. Lara controls well and has enough interesting weapons to keep me happy. For example, fire arrows always set enemies ablaze, something that often brings a smile to my face in games. Lara can also shoot flare rounds from her pistol to blind baddies before relocating. However, this isn't really how you'll be dealing with most enemies.
Instead, Shadow of the Tomb Raider focuses more on stealth, which is fitting considering the title. Lara can hide in tall grass and heavily vegetated walls to avoid the enemy's gaze. She has the ability to tell if an enemy is being watched by others, so she knows the perfect time to take them down. Her sneaky skills include hitting them with a rope arrow and hanging them from a tree branch. The latter especially comes in handy when literally driving fear into the hearts of your enemies. Taking a page out of the Arkham series, Lara can use fear to cause enemies to make dumb moves. Paranoid enemies can be tricked into shooting at cans, and well-positioned can tosses can lead to satisfying friendly fire incidents.
Fear isn't the only new mechanic in Lara's arsenal. Occasionally Lara can coat herself in puddles of mud. The purpose of this move is twofold. This helps Lara blend in with specific muddy environments, giving her even more places to take cover. Later in the game it also negates the effect of enemies using thermal vision to find Lara, giving her more reason to use it. It's a fantastic idea that adds a new element to the stealth when it's available.
While stealth on land is a lot of fun, this doesn't translate underwater. Occasionally Lara will enter areas that have piranhas or moray eels that she needs to avoid. You can do so by hiding in tall seaweed, but it feels awkward. Worse, piranhas are difficult to see and impossible to distinguish from any other kind of fish. At times it feels comical, with Lara slowly swimming behind a moray eel that doesn't know she's there.
Whether I liked or hated them, there was one constant among all these new ideas: they're not used very often. I covered Lara in mud only a handful of times during my playthrough, despite how many opportunities kept popping up. The rappelling saw the most use, but it still happens the least of all the platforming elements. Thankfully, I counted two instances of mandatory underwater stealth, with a few more if you explore optional tombs. It almost feels like Eidos Montréal was too afraid to branch out from all the great ideas of Rise of the Tomb Raider and kept falling back on them.
This all gives the unfortunate feeling that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is more expansion than sequel. Sure the stealth is fun, but it's all the same stuff the last game did. Yeah, I enjoyed shooting rope arrows across gaps to get across, but this is the third game I'm doing this in. At one point, I realized I was spending a significant amount of time just reacquiring all the upgrades I got in the last game. I really wanted the game to get brave and commit to new ideas, even if they don't all work out. Instead, it falls back to old standbys time and time again.
After you finish Shadow, you can replay in New Game + and keep your unlocked items. However, there's no competitive multiplayer like Tomb Raider, nor is there any customizable Expeditions as seen in Rise. There is a menu option for "Challenge Tombs", but this only brings up an advertisement to buy the season pass. While there may be more content added later, it's a shame that there's no reason to stick around after finishing the campaign. At the very least, the game is meaty and takes a solid twenty hours to finish. You may even lose an additional hour or two messing around with the photo mode.
This is because Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a noticeably beautiful game. This is partially thanks to some fantastic graphical work. There are lush and beautiful jungles, full of plants and animals that make them come to life. Character models are great, with some impressive details that make them feel lifelike. However, some real recognition needs to be given to the game's cinematography. Early on Lara has a run-in with a jaguar, and the shot of the two meeting eyes is simply lovely. A later scene saw Lara emerging from a burning oil field and almost felt like it was straight out of a horror movie. There's some beautiful art direction here, and I couldn't stop gushing over how pretty the game is.
There's also great voice acting to go with the beautiful game. More than that, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers up a fantastic option called voice-over immersion. When activated, characters in the game will speak in their native language rather than English. No longer will you wander around Mexican cities and wonder why everyone has perfect English. Instead, while Lara continues to talk in English with her friends, the NPC citizens you talk to speak in Spanish. It's a small touch but does a great job drawing me into the world just a little more.
On the other hand, the soundtrack seems to alter between missing and forgettable. One early scene saw Lara swept away in a flood, but I felt like something was just missing during this dramatic moment. Sure enough, there was no music playing, and because of this, the whole scene felt off. It slightly improves later in the game, but I can't say there was anything that stood out from the crowd.
Finally, I really want to just applaud the game's accessibility in general. There's some of the usual stuff, like letting players hold down buttons instead of mashing during quick time events. Beyond that, Shadow lets you individually adjust the difficulties of combat, exploration, and puzzles separately. With these options, every player can truly tailor the experience to their liking.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review | Final Thoughts
In a way, the entirety of Shadow of the Tomb Raider felt off. I wouldn't call it a bad game, in fact, I'd go so far to call it a great one. However, it's a great game because it takes everything that works from an excellent game and reuses it. If you want more high-quality Tomb Raider, then this is exactly what you're looking for and you'll probably enjoy it just as much. If you're looking for the next major change in the series, that's going to have to wait.
Our Shadow of the Tomb Raider review was conducted on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One.
- Lara Croft is Still a Great Character
- Smart Puzzles
- Fun Platforming
- Fantastic Stealth
- Dull Story
- Underwater Stealth is Bad
- Doesn't Utilize New Features Enough
- No Additional Gameplay Modes
- Forgettable Soundtrack