Promised to be the end of the beginning, the conclusion to Lara’s origin trilogy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes Lara Croft on a treacherous new journey in the Peruvian jungles. Unlike its predecessors, Lara Croft’s curiosity and obsession with an ancient artifact leads her to not only threatening her life and the lives of her friends, but of the whole world. She sets the apocalypse in motion, so she takes this journey to set things right before the power to destroy and recreate the world falls into the hands of the mysterious Trinity leader.
This review will be exploring the various aspects of the game, including some plot elements, and will refrain as much as possible from major spoilers.
World / Exploration
Unlike its two predecessors, Shadow of the Tomb Raider introduces a vibrant and diverse new world featuring a variety of towering heights, and shallow depths, treacherous explorable rivers, lakes and submerged ruins, deep branching caves, climbable trees and branches, and most importantly; a large number of ancient ruins, which Lara will be moving from one to another.
For the first time in the reboot trilogy, the world is much more inviting than ever. Exploration is encouraged, challenge tombs are well-hidden, puzzles are more expansive then before and players will feel lost at multiple points due to the intricate nature of the jungle, despite being linear most of the time, which is an advantage because it makes exploration more enjoyable and make the linear nature of the game feel more challenging and complex to navigate, rather than a straight path with obvious marks and signs.
Another welcome return to the franchise is the larger number of ancient ruins that aren’t necessarily tombs all the time, but Lara goes from one ancient structure to a jungle to a mountain cliff to a cave and then another ancient structure, river/lake and then back to the jungle, and remnants of ancient civilization can be found everywhere, whether it’s hanging from a mountain helping Lara swing across or hidden within the caves or embedded within walls..etc. and there’s little to no massive enemy camps, which is a plus because the previous two games were infested with large enemy camps and soviet installations, now the focus is on ancient structures and they offer different things to do. Whether you merely pass through, climb on top of these ruins, explore them deeply or solve a puzzle within them, the variety makes the journey miles more enjoyable than its two predecessors.
On the other hand, the world of Shadow of the Tomb Raider suffers from one similar issue that its predecessors had and was pretty evident during the promotional campaign, which is the lack of globe-trotting, a trait that differentiated the Tomb Raider franchise from any other at its time, and is one of the reasons that made it quite appreciated by players. The parts of the world of Shadow of the Tomb Raider that players have seen in the promotional campaign are about 75-80% of all that they’re gonna see in the game.
There isn’t a drastically different level from the rest of the game like Syria was to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which too was very short and minimal. A creative decision that the reboot trilogy suffered from is the focus on a continuous hub-based world, which is neither a more diverse linear world that takes Lara to completely different settings around the world (classic Tomb Raider games and Uncharted) nor a vast open world that allows Lara to explore more open areas with much more freedom and a more slower pace in exploration (Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher and Horizon Zero Dawn), either of which could’ve benefitted the franchise more than the hub-based system, not to mention that a story revolving around a global catastrophe should’ve offered more insight into what’s happening around the world, rather than a small radius (compared to the entire world) around the area.
However, Shadow of the Tomb Raider still excels over the worlds of Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider, with more variety within the given setting itself, and by being a more honest creation of a tomb-raising experience than its predecessors, even though it’s not on par with what the classics and the Legend-Anniversary-Underworld trilogy offered in terms of raiding tombs and finding artifacts in a story-driven narrative.
In terms of character growth and development, Shadow of the Tomb Raider finally starts showing improvements to the new take on Lara which started in 2013. What once was a scared inexperienced victims of her environment, unexpected circumstances and unforeseen dangers, is now shaping up to be a much more experienced, angry, tough, stubborn and at times vengeful version of herself, and signs of growing humor and wits, with the evolution showing up on her personality, tone, decision-making and body features and even the game’s cinematography.
She’s not classic Lara, she isn’t shaping up to be anything like classic Lara, and at times, she feels quite similar to herself in Rise of the Tomb Raider, while in other moment, she’s a much more evolved variation. Her new features are circumstantial, so you don’t see her angry or dark most of the time, but rather reacting realistically to each situation. She also shows great consideration and respect for the cultures she stumbles upon, which is a welcome feature in a story that emphasizes on modern human take on an explorer named Lara Croft.
The evolution of Jonah from a mere NPC in previous games to an actual ally and companion of Lara is one of the highlights of the game. He joins Lara throughout the whole experience, either by exploring by her side, talking to her at specific points on the radio as they explore in their separate ways while at times, they’re completely cut off but they keep re-encountering one another every once in a while until the end of the experience. He’s not a mere side-kick but someone with a good role in the story with big impact on Lara.
Dominguez, the main antagonist is a much more interesting villain than anyone we encountered in the reboot trilogy. His true nature is ambiguous. He sounds righteous while in other moments he’s more of a typical villain. He makes human choices, showing compassion and trying to avoid bloodshed as best as he can in certain moments, while in others, he justifies harming others for a greater good. I think the game could’ve used more time to further explore who he is, but he’s morally gray. He’s not a typical bad guy and power isn’t his top priority, but the means by which he wants to achieve his noble goals might cause others to disagree with him, including Lara.
Other side characters are nice, albeit being more predictable. Unuratu, the rightful Queen of Paititi, a civilization that is cut-off from the rest of the world and the largest hub in the game, is another well-crafted side character who joins Lara in specific moments of her adventure. Personality-wise, she bares semblance to Sophia in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Another aspect which Shadow of the Tomb Raider shines above its two predecessors with is its gameplay. From puzzles that are quite diverse in their design and scale to the refined combat, to the higher emphasis on exploration of both nature and ancient structures, Shadow is a clear evolution and a sign that the dev team has finally decided to listen to the fans and their requests.
Instead of focusing on survival, Shadow focuses on upgrading herself with gadgets like the machete which she creates from plane debris and further upgrades as she progresses, and some of these upgrades are mandatory in order to progress further while others are optional to unlock specific chests. Lara can also create her own outfits that grant her various attributes and advantages, a welcome evolution to the mere cosmetic nature of outfits in the predecessors. Outfits can be created from hides and other components which she can find or trade.
The newly introduced skill tree is a more expansive version of the skill sets introduced in Tomb Raider of 2013, allowing players to evolve Lara in various directions; Warrior, Seeker and Scavenger with each segment granting her a series of abilities that help evolve her to be stronger in combat, more resourceful or more stealthy.
The addition of new abilities such as climbing, swinging and wall-running with a rope, and even hanging from ledges with it. This time, Lara is completely utilizing her skills and gadgets to be able to traverse the world with skill and seamlessness.
Another strong point is that contrary to its predecessors, enemies do not face Lara in massive hordes, an aspect that was strongly criticized by fans. This time Lara doesn’t have to invade large camps full of enemies nor be faced by a huge number of them in one spot, but rather to encounter them in smaller numbers where she uses her wits and skill to take them out stealthy or as a one-woman-army approach, depending players’ preference and skill.
In addition, the newly introduced complex and customizable difficulty system is one of the best new additions of the game, as it allows players to tailor the difficulty and HUDs based on their preference. For example; players can tailor the game to feature easy combat, where damage is less, normal puzzles where less hints are provided by Lara and the Survival Instinct regarding how to solve it, and a hard traversal difficulty removing obvious white ledges and any form of hints regarding where to go next with Survival Instinct.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, like its predecessors in the reboot trilogy, begins with another catastrophe, this time it’s a plane crash, and then we’re taken two days prior where Lara and Jonah in Cozumal, both tailing Dominguez, who’s after the same artifact that they’re seeking, the dagger. The events begin to unfold leading to triggering the tremors and the tsunami setting the apocalypse in motion. From that point, we go back to the plane crash and landing into the Peruvian jungle.
The story takes a serious tone, while maintaining some light moments of humor and a bit of peace at times. We encounter numerous characters along the way, some of whom lend a land to Lara and Jonah. As we progress we find the Trinity story intertwining with the newly introduced Paititi civilization through a newly introduced cult called the “Cult of Kukulkan” as well as Paititi’s mythological faction that plays a great role in the culmination of the story.
The strongest points of the story lie in the newly introduced elements, worlds and mythologies rather than the ongoing narrative about Trinity nor the end of the world scenario as the scope of the story makes it harder to feel the eminent danger on a global scale, nor any deeper insight into the rest of Trinity in the outside world, rather than Dominguez himself as the leader of the high council.
Shadow is greater as a standalone experience than it is as a continuation to the overarching narrative or a end of the world story. It is a step forward in terms of writing quality, pacing and suspense from its predecessors in the reboot trilogy, and the fact that it does its best to conclude the overarching story puts a lot of burden on Shadow to flesh out their story, showing the glaring narrative short-comings of its predecessors in delivering a proper narrative in a trilogy that wanted to differentiate itself from the rest of the franchise by focusing on the narrative with a story that was merely a little above average. Yet this is why Shadow excels, it grabs the most remarkable elements from the story of Lara’s parents to Trinity and giving them a proper satisfactory conclusion that opens the path for Lara, whether it’s the same canon that will carry on to future games or not, to put all her fears, all her family affairs and all the obstacles that she faced behind her to finally start becoming an explorer and a Tomb Raider, playing for sports rather than always being the unwitting star in someone else’s schemes.
One of the positive aspects ofShadow of the Tomb Raider is its visual fidelity, which greatly helps in presenting this vast, lush and vibrant world in the best way possible in a Tomb Raider game with cutscenes and gameplay looking visually stunning, and the newly introduced “Photographer Mode” will allow players to take advantage of the beautiful setting and visuals to take screenshots, and apply a multitude of lens effects and filters to them.
Since the game features more swimming than any other in the reboot trilogy, the underwater parts are deeper, more dangerous and much more detailed than before, though it must be noted that while the underwater parts are well-crafted to look vibrant rather than dark and indistinguishable, the swimming itself at times feels like Lara is swimming in the air rather than underwater. Other than that, the world itself features a wide range of colors and a vast amount of details, another aspect which puts this game miles ahead of its predecessors.
In addition to the numerous features that Shadow excels in, the music too is at its best among the rest of the trilogy, capturing the ambient sounds of the forest and the unmistakable tunes of South American culture and Mayan civilization with great honesty and depth, working hand-in-hand with the stunning visuals and design to enhance player immersion and the authentic representation of the themes players would expect from a Mayan and Inca-inspired experience.
While the Tomb Raider origin trilogy is infamously known for dividing players regarding whether some would embrace a new take on an iconic hero, also known as the Queen of Gaming, Lara Croft, or not. The trilogy has had its pros and cons, it gained the franchise some new fans and also led it to losing old fans for various reasons. Among the positive aspects of the reboot trilogy is that it helped put the franchise back in the the spotlight with higher sales than the later years before it. The modernized play style and world has been one of the pros of the games, while the focus on action combat more than Tomb Raider was one of the downsides. The characterization of Lara has been the most controversial aspects and the element that divided players the most.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a continuation of the reboot trilogy, so if players are expecting a return to form in the style of the classics, then this not the game. It may bare a more obvious amalgamation of classic elements like the blue tank top, but it’s an evolution for the reboot, rather than the franchise as a whole nor a return to the roots, either.
Shadow does a brilliant job in fixing most of the shortcomings in the reboot trilogy, despite still giving the feeling that it’s more of the same thing. It enhances Lara’s personality, expands the lore, emphasis on puzzle solving and exploration, alters the combat to be more suitable for an action/adventure game than a third person shooter and adding a multitude of customizations, crafting options, skill trees and new assassination techniques that create an enjoyable gaming experience, it improves the visuals, presents a much more vibrant and diverse world to explore, a world that is rich in secrets and dangers, it also brings closure to a lingering plot line from the previous two games with a satisfactory conclusion that is significantly better than its predecessors.
For players who enjoyed the reboot games, this game will exceed their expectations because surpasses its predecessors by every mean. As for players who could not get to the reboot, but generally prefer action/adventure games, this game can still be an enjoyable experience for them as it echoes numerous elements, themes and the general feel of modern action/adventure games such as Uncharted. Shadow can still be a good entry to the franchise, because there’s an original plot line in this game and the overarching narrative can be easily understood from the conversations in the intro levels of the game and its flashbacks, so it shouldn’t be hard for newcomers to enter the franchise with it.
Special thanks to Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal and the Official Tomb Raider Fansite Program for providing me with the review copy on September 1st to bring you this detailed review.