Once mechanics, presentation, and overall flow are established for a franchise the question then becomes - how long until all of that no longer feels fresh or engaging? Looking at a wide range of genres and titles over the years, the answer to that varies and often comes down to how much is changed, what new features are added, and often none of the above if all of that and the story is good enough to begin with. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third release in the chronological reboot of the popular franchise that began in 2013, which now sees an older and wiser Lara emerging as both a responsible and reluctant hero.
But, with the same open-but-linear levels to explore, tombs to discover, rock formations to climb, and enemies to stealth kill. It’s certainly more of the same, but the foundation is still strong – as long as you press ‘X’ before Lara loses her grip.
Ambitious in its narrative scope, with often brilliant moments of scripted action and contemplative and treacherous exploration through a jungle and its ruins - Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a fitting end to an origin story, one that has been a personal favourite for several years now. With development now split across multiple studios, Deux Ex Mankind Divided developer Eidos Montreal takes the lead from Crystal Dynamics to inject what is at times a new feel to the series. The tonal shifts don’t always work, sometimes they’re messy, but there’s a sense of fun and excitement and horror in the same way that series outcast Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom delighted and frightened kids the world over in the 1980s.
The tonal shift is best represented by the overarching plot set around an upcoming apocalypse which introduces themes of hopelessness and recklessness and even vengeance in ways that are both new and familiar. In the sense that we can still remember that bit in Tomb Raider (2013), where Lara emerges from a pool of blood to make her way through skeletal remains and all sorts of nastiness. Drawing on Mayan and Aztec mythology there are moments along those lines here, thanks to the truly awe-inspiring art direction and locations to discover, but it’s with the human interaction where things go a little crazy.
Instead of emerging from a pool of blood, a vengeance-obsessed Lara instead borrows a cue from Apocalypse Now as she covers herself in mud and armed with only a large knife emerges from some murky water to take on a squad of Trinity troops with steely and icy determination. How that section of the experience plays into the overall story being told, feels integral and important. Which is also cleverly contrasted by the opposite side of the same coin - which leverages Lara’s humanity and connection to the world in which she explores. More so than any Tomb Raider we’ve played.
On paper, the large Hidden City of Paititi may represent an actual digital city and the largest open-area environment in the series to date, but in exploring its farmlands and speaking to both cultists and rebels it adds a layer to Lara’s humanity that aims to increase the overall emotional impact of the ending. Now, it doesn’t always succeed and often this interaction boils down to optional side-quests, a few of which are kind of dull, that have you running from one side of a map to another to find that one thing or speak to that one person. A style of play that never quite gels with the exploration side of Tomb Raider. But still, a new dynamic that doesn’t feel tacked on just to have a town with shops and quests.
There’s a reason for all the new stuff to be found, but none of it drastically changes – to borrow a phrase from the intro to this review – the underlying mechanics, presentation, and overall flow. Shadow is less of a bold new leap for Tomb Raider as it is one that mostly plays it safe by continuing along the same trajectory as the last two titles. New elements, which includes traversal tools like being able to repel using rope and swing from platform to another and expanded underwater locations – increase the verticality of many of the locations. And again, the foundation is still strong, and Shadow regularly slips into the realm of greatness thanks to the various tombs, crypts, and moments when Lara is alone and exploring.
In a way, it’s a side of Tomb Raider that has always brushed up against this new trilogy’s addition of action. Where bow and arrow combat paves the way to blasting enemies with an Auto-Shotgun. One that can be upgraded at a camp-site if you have 4 x Spare Parts, 2 x Measurements of Oil, and, err, 3 Jaguar hides. Built on the foundation of the first two adventures, Shadow of the Tomb Raider sees Lara take a slight side step away from the role of action-hero and embrace the calculating nature of the silent assassin. With Deus Ex studio Eidos Montreal at the helm, we get some of the best stealth combat so far for the series, and in a way that is often as brutal as it is exciting.
Lara can not only use mud to sneak up on unsuspecting members of Trinity, but she can also hide among the trees to string-up and hang enemies as they walk nearby. Part Batman Arkham series, part Heart of Darkness there’s an edge present in Shadow of the Tomb Raider that is surprising in its intensity and viciousness – but thankfully it only represents a small part of the experience. If you were to describe most of one’s time spent with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, spending most of it in the jungle looking for ruins and figuring out the locations of long-lost relics would be near the top of the list.
For any third release in a series, it’s always great when the division of things to see and do feels in line with what worked in past iterations versus elements that never quite gelled in the first place. With Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the very idea that we get more Challenge Tombs and Crypts to explore than ever before is definitely-cool in and of itself. But it’s how the puzzle design and scope of their size plays into the new movement and traversal, which adds an additional sense of awe over the already cool stuff found in both the original and in Rise.
Shadow also knows how to leverage its setting to create wonderfully detailed environments rich in both technical detail and artistry. Beautiful and terrifying and strange and mysterious, the environments in Shadow of the Tomb Raider excel on this level long before you add the visual flourish that comes from 4K resolutions and HDR-lighting. The apocalyptic theme also plays into the ruins you explore and the ancient puzzles you come across, which incorporate traps and machinery built to stop intruders like Lara. The lengthy and genuinely fun underwater sections, which harken back to Tomb Raider’s ‘90s roots, serve to not only add another world to explore below the surface but also introduce giant eels, piranha, and small claustrophobic caverns designed to keep you on edge.
Full of contemplation, this new layer of urgency and being careful of where you step is an exciting addition to classic Tomb Raider action - which usually involves Lara and some sort of ancient giant puzzle box. Okay, so traps aren’t exactly new to the series, but the design of the Challenge Tombs in Shadow are not only exceptional and some of the most memorable in the series but they’re also brimming with character, detail, menace, and wonder. The only downside is that in keeping in step with the core plot, one that deals with a race against time to stop an apocalypse and the death of the sun – taking the time to explore or discover what’s around a corner or up on a ledge, can feel like you’re playing a separate game.
Throw in the hundreds of collectibles which have not changed in terms of quantity since Rise, and a skill tree that feels overly complex with poisons and explosives and other survival elements that never become a part of the story itself – it’s easy to get lost in the messiness of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. A scripted action adventure, a third person shooter, a stealth combat room simulator, a puzzle game, a quasi-RPG with towns-people fetch quests, and crafting everything from weapon modifications to different types of, well, potions.
Now, these criticisms could also just as easily apply to Rise of the Tomb Raider, and even the original. And in the end, none of it is handled poorly or noticeably worse here. Even if you’re not a fan of Lara grabbing an assault rifle and hiding behind cover to shoot at snipers on a rooftop, those mechanics are solid. Across the board this is true, with only minor issues at best. That and stuff like having only certain walls climbable is starting to feel a little dated.
As much as a radical shift would have been interesting for the Tomb Raider series, there’s no denying that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is another excellent adventure starring a troubled Lara Croft. A title that plays to the series strengths, whilst also indulging in its weaker aspects. Visually spectacular from beginning to end, the jungle backdrop and Mayan apocalypse setting serve as the perfect stage for a conclusion to an excellent trilogy. One that we hope next time – will dare to be a little more different.