When it comes to reboots, 2013’s Tomb Raider will always be fondly remembered as one that got it completely right. Blending an open world style map with enthralling puzzles and fun exploration, this was only heightened further by the follow-up, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I must confess is one of my favourite games from this generation. Shadow of the Tomb Raider sets out to conclude the story of this version of Lara Croft, with a grittier and more violent tone this time around. While it renders her as a little less likable, it feels like a fitting end to the trilogy which began with Croft agonizing over her first kill five years ago.
The story picks up two months after the end of Rise, leading her to a hidden tomb in Cozumel, Mexico due to her obsession with the evil villainous corporation Trinity. Upon finding a mysterious dagger on a pedestal, she chooses to grab it (I feel like this is Tomb Raiding 101 not to do this), which sets off a series of supernatural-tinged events, forcing Lara to, yes, save the world from the apocalypse. With the stakes set higher than ever before, the idea here is that Lara must tap into a more brutal side to achieve her goals – and this mostly works.
In reality, we’ve been crafting Molotov cocktails and burning through waves of enemies with Lara for a while, so it’s not a stretch that we’re doing it again here. Where previously she would question her actions with an “is it all worth it?” style of reflection, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider she taps into her most badass qualities with reckless abandon. It does feel slightly at odds with the hero we know and love, but I can’t deny how satisfying it is just brutally taking down mobs of unsuspecting foes in violent ways, lurking in the shadows covered in mud and blood.
One scene in particular where Lara goes into full beast mode is memorable if not a little bit contrived, but the game does a decent job of building to this, as you acquire more predator-style skills as you progress. “Fear Arrows” are incredibly helpful when you’re outnumbered, as they cause bad guys to lose their minds and start shooting their friends, evening the odds. More fun is lingering quietly in the trees for an unsuspecting victim to walk below, giving you the opportunity to ruthlessly string them up, leaving their body hanging.
Apart from being a stealthy killing machine, you can still craft explosives on the fly and juggle between assault rifles and shotguns quickly when in combat. The more intense tone continues to grow as you end up battling an inhuman threat, using some effectively horrific and gory environments, really forcing you into close quarters as visceral screams ring off in the distance.
The story does wrap up rather quickly, though, to the point where I wonder if there could have been another chapter that further dives into the apocalyptic conflict occurring around you. Character motivations are relatively two-dimensional, but I did appreciate the playful flashback to a young Lara growing up in the mansion, giving direct contrast to the savage warrior we see today.
Stealth plays a large part in Shadow of the Tomb Raider when it comes to dealing with enemies, and considering I’m not a huge fan of stealth at the best of times, even I found it to be a little too forgiving. Firstly, Survival Instincts can be used at any time to instantly get notification on which enemies are safe to kill quietly and which ones are best lured away first, by highlighting them in yellow and red respectively. An ability you can acquire then allows you to chain together two stealth kills back to back, making the process even simpler.
“…its true strengths are in its puzzle design, all incredibly unique and devilishly tricky…”
If spotted, simply breaking line of sight and finding some long grass to hide in is usually enough to leave enemies confused, and there were moments when I brutally took down somebody with their pal just a few metres away, blissfully unaware of my existence (even as the bodies piled up around them). Then when it’s all said and done, you can simply blast them away with a shotgun if you prefer, even though the game definitely wants you to take the more subtle approach. It’s just not a particularly complex combat system overall.
You’ll also find yourself swimming underwater more than ever in this iteration, and while normally I sigh heavily with resentment of underwater sections of games, I found them to be pretty tolerable here. I can (proudly?) say that even though there was always a threat of running short of breath, I didn’t drown even once in my play through. That being said, if I never again see a school of piranhas float past me while I’m trying to achieve underwater stealth of all things, I’ll be incredibly happy.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider finds its true strengths in its puzzle design, with several of the best ones interwoven with the narrative. Separate from those are the various Challenge Tombs you can find hidden in the world, all incredibly unique and devilishly tricky. It’s always a seamless blend of the games trademark traversal and platforming, usually with a new concept to learn, requiring you to figure out how each section ticks just right before figuring it out.
They’re so enjoyable that I found myself giddy and instantly distracted from the main quest-line. Often times you’ll spend several minutes stuck on a section, carefully analysing your surroundings and exhausting all possibilities, climbing to new areas and activating switches until finally everything falls into place for the solution. I applaud the team at Eidos Montreal for not reusing ideas frequently; I’d actually just love a game full of Challenge Tombs and nothing else to satisfy my brain-teaser itch (and with more coming in the future via DLC, I may just get my wish).
Side quests in Shadow of the Tomb Raider are unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as the other diversions on offer. Talking with villagers often leads to forgettable fetch quests or “kill a bunch of enemies” type scenarios that aren’t exactly captivating. Weirder still is the games default “Immersion Mode”. In theory, it means that people talk in their native tongue as you walk past them in the world, which is fantastic – but as soon as you interact with them, Lara will continue to speak in plain English. It just comes off feeling really wacky, where conversations occur and both parties understand each other perfectly but still talk in their own language. Not what I’d call immersive.
The jungles of Central and South America are dense and gorgeous to explore; I’ve spoken very highly of the amount of detail in previous two Tomb Raider games and this is no exception. Lighting effects are stunning and walking through populated towns bustling with villagers is a joy, including an early colourful scene during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The vast landscapes are beautiful and begging to be explored with a tonne of small touches that make for a living, breathing world, causing hidden secrets to be even more tantalising to seek out.
Despite a few stumbles, when you’re dangling dangerously from your climbing axe, peeling back the layers of a complex tomb filled with secrets or narrowly escaping death during a high-energy set-piece, the game never fails to get the blood pumping. This is where Shadow of the Tomb Raider is at its absolute strongest. It’s these moments I’ll remember fondly, and they’ll keep me coming back for more as I chase that elusive 100% game completion and push myself on the harder difficulty settings.
The Bottom Line
While I feel the story perhaps skipped a few beats that would have helped tie it all together and I question some of the thematic choices made, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a satisfying finish to this modern trilogy. As always, the negatives of a flimsy stealth system and forgettable narrative are hugely outweighed by the rewarding exploration and fulfilling puzzles that really are the franchises bread and butter. While the game might be the most violent and divisive we’ve seen when it comes to Lara herself, the treasure-hunting tomb raiding heart that the series is built on still beats stronger than ever.