It is difficult to know where exactly to begin with a review for a game I have such mixed feelings for.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the most intricate and expansive of the new games, full of gorgeous visuals and fascinating mythology and history. However, the story telling falters at times and it still does not feel as though Lara has been cemented as the Lara Croft. While this latest installation in the series has some unique new features that really elevate it beyond the last two games, there is much left to be desired. As the final part to a trilogy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider should have been more exciting and substantial.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider encourages a variety of play styles. You can adjust the difficulty settings for combat, puzzles and exploration separately. So, if you prefer easy combat and difficult puzzles, you have the option.
I was looking forward to the combat because I enjoyed it in the last two games, but this time it felt dulled and weak. The combat in the last two games felt smoother and more enjoyable. It was awkward using most of the weapons, but the bow’s stealth attacks are still fun. I was also praying for dual pistols, but no. It makes you wonder what the point of that allusion in the first game was, in which Lara awkwardly handles two pistols during the final boss fight for a moment. I think dual pistols are an iconic Tomb Raider weapon choice and such classic touches are important for a rebooted old character. I mean, at least give us a hair braid or something.
Melee really needs to be implemented better. You can unlock a skill point that allows you to do a melee attack after a dodge, but regular melee attacks are pretty pointless unless the game directs you to use them in certain situations. This takes away from choosing your own tactics. Note that I was playing on default difficulty, and you may have more freedom on harder difficulty levels.
I didn’t get many upgrades until the very end, but this is likely because I focused on completing the campaign and did not do side tasks. The game encourages exploration and there are many side quests and challenge tombs to complete, so focusing solely on the main campaign will not open everything up to you. As such, I missed out on some weapon upgrades and skill points that probably would have been handy. I really look forward to continuing the game with all the points and attributes I have now.
For the most part, the game is not combat-heavy but instead relies on puzzles, platforming and storytelling, which is a refreshing take for an action-adventure. The puzzles and platforming hearken back to the classic games, reminding us what this franchise is really about. While enjoyable, most of the puzzles feel more difficult than they are simply because of the large settings they take place in. However, certain puzzles really stand out, notably the one in the San Juan Mission tomb.
Although I did look forward to there being more combat, I think this is a very refreshing change that shows a real passion for Tomb Raider and storytelling on the part of the developers. The game really is a character exploration of Lara, less focused on action and more so on her development.
Story & Environment
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is certainly the most beautiful of the trilogy and the classic Tomb Raider influences are obviously there. The visuals are stunning and varied; we get the lush jungles of Peru, the vibrant night life of Mexico, the humble and poor towns, and the intricate detailing of Mayan and Incan relics, art, and architecture. Lara’s manor, though we only see it in a memory, is quite a sight as well: a vast, bright English garden in the countryside. Croft Manor’s display room is also full of beautifully detailed ancient work from all over the world.
Paititi, the hidden Incan city, is the final destination of this game, but uniquely it is not a lost and dead ancient city. The people of Paititi are very much alive and well. Paititi’s streets are bustling and colourful, all against the lush backdrop of the Peruvian jungle. There is a rebellion stirring as well, due to an ongoing political conflict with ancient and mythological roots. This is a unique departure from the usual method of having Lara entering a deserted, ancient, forgotten land, presented solely for her to roam and take from. Of course, she does still roam and take, but she engages with the locals and they play a large role in the story…to an extent.
While the game is respectful of history and myth, it is disappointing to see the lack of respect for the natives, particularly Unuartu. We are introduced to her and a few other very interesting women, but we don’t get much of them for long. Unuratu we engage with a lot but she is killed, and while her reign is passed on to her son, it is really Lara who must carry the torch. Furthermore, we see plenty of natives slaughtered in order for Lara to realize that her actions are wrong and have consequences. Their deaths are a device for Lara to have moments of personal crises. This is still one of the most clichéd and cheap tactics for character development in literature, film, and now video games.
The emphasis and dedication to storytelling is brought out through the many conversations Lara can engage in. There are a number of cinematics involving Lara and Jonah’s heated discussions, as well as memories of Lara’s past. As such, the game feels emotionally matured (relative to the last two), and even intimate; we get insights into Lara Croft and her history we have not before. In addition, Lara is able to converse with the locals in Mexico and Peru.
Although storytelling is the primary focus and Lara does develop somewhat as a character, it is not entirely meaningful or successful. In a way, the writers really set Lara up for a kind of failure and predictability. Lara feels guilty for the destruction and death she leaves in her wake, so we know she is not heartless; but of course, she must go on and that trumps everything else. She does not continue only because of her own curiosity, obsession, and need to make up for her father’s losses — although these feel to be her primary motivations at times — but because Trinity cannot be allowed to get ahead. We are thus forced to accept the lesser of two evils and justify her actions. By the middle of the campaign, Lara really begins to grapple with her selfishness and the fact that she has no other life beyond constant danger; this is an important and much needed thought process for her to finally have, but again, she must and will go on. She continues on “surviving”, taking artifacts for her personal museum (justified by associating the object with Lara’s personal sacrifice, so they can more rightly belong to her i.e. the Box of Ix Chel), while the natives are slaughtered as a result of getting caught up in it all.
After all of this, the “moral of the story” does not feel powerful or meaningful. We know she will continue on the same path, so what difference does it really make to hear her cry about leaving destruction in her wake? Given the nature of the entire story and game, it seems there is no other option. The writers are keen on throwing Lara (and the innocent people around her) in the most cruel and unscrupulous situations; of course she would end up leaving ruin in her wake. They attempt to have Lara grow and develop emotionally, as evidenced by her reflections, but what real change this has overall is something I am still left wondering about.
Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a beautiful, story-driven game, but is not captivating as a finale. It has yet to feel like Lara has become the Lara Croft we have been waiting for.