Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third entry in Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics’ series. Together, the studios have spent 5 years crafting a new and improved Lara Croft for fans. In Shadow, the studios go further than ever before and deliver a heartfelt narrative through solid gameplay and exploration. While much of the game is business as usual, small improvements on the formula keep it feeling fresh.
What it Means to be the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes place shortly after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara is hot on the heels of Trinity, the organization which is responsible for her father’s mysterious death. Lara now scours the globe attempting to thwart their plans and dismantle their various cells.
It is during one of these missions in Mexico that she comes across Dr. Dominguéz, the current leader of Trinity. Trying to one-up him, Lara unwillingly sets off the apocalypse as it was foretold by the Maya. When she finally comes face to face with Dominguéz, the story’s antagonist expresses only pity and resentment, not anger.
Having set the apocalypse in motion, Lara must now stop it. The story centers on Lara’s attempts at chasing Dominguez to the “hidden city”, a mythical haven nestled in the jungle of Peru.
It becomes clear early on in Shadow that Lara’s haste and lust for revenge will need to be atoned for. This is a very compelling hook for the game’s story. You’re still coming face to face with an organization rooted in pillaging and murder, but you’re set as the fool in a much greater game. While Tomb Raider (2013) established who Lara could be, and Rise defined what it meant to be a Croft, Shadow will focus on that critical moment when our heroine becomes the Tomb Raider.
A Macabre and Engrossing Presentation
The first few seconds of the game are absolutely brilliant. To the sound of a thundering heartbeat, you witness a new and improved Lara attempting to level a nosediving plane. It is incredibly tense, and it does wonder to set up this entry thematically. When the story cuts back in time to Mexico, the player can only wonder how Lara came to be in such disastrous circumstances.
It also highlights the beauty of the game’s models and environments. Early segments make sure to flaunt all the lighting improvements the studios have packed into the game and the attention to detail. This is apparent both in city areas and in the jungle regions that follow. The denseness of the landscapes feels as close to reality as we’ve gotten from the series. Scanning the distant treeline is surreal.
The bulk of the game takes place in Mexico and Peru and inspires itself from South-American mythology and cultures. While this influences the tombs and overall lore of the game, it also plays a key role in establishing its visual presentation. From the early environments in Mexico to the jungles of Peru, the spaces which Lara traverses feel dense and foreboding. Lara comes off as an outsider, a virus in an ecosystem that routinely attempts to get rid of her.
The early exploration of the jungle is frightening for just that reason. You’ve just crashlanded into a jungle, and you’re immediately thrust into danger. How you come to live within these ecosystems, adapt to them and use them to overcome your foe feels like a natural progression.
Gameplay to Match
By now the formula of these games is rather set out. Environments are presented in a linear fashion as you make your way from campfire to campfire. These save spots, which often provide introspective dialogue from Lara, allow you to upgrade her skills, change and upgrade equipment as well as change your characters costumes.
A few notes on these mechanics. Weapon customization is more extensive than it was in Rise and costumes, in particular, have come to be much more rewarding. While there are a good number of purely cosmetic ones (featuring some nice retro costumes for the veterans), there are also some additional “top” and “bottom” vestige outfits which can be crafted from rare animal hides. These outfits provide buffs to Lara’s abilities or additional XP when performing an action (such as a stealth kill).
While the changes to costumes were appreciated, a good portion of the game happens in a space where changing between them is rather limited. As this is done for ‘lore’ reasons, it’s hit or miss. Some players will love the commitment to the game’s themes, others will feel constrained. Players should also take note that there is a LOT less combat in this game than in Rise. This might rub some people the wrong way, especially given the fact that so much of your time goes into customizing weapons.
Combat itself is still solid, with a much heavier emphasis on stealth. Crafting improvised explosives from cans you find in the environment and covering yourself in mud to evade heat sensors is just some of the sneaking you’ll be doing. It’s much more guerilla in nature, and it fits the series crux quite well. While there is still much suspension of disbelief in just how much of a killing machine one person can be, Lara’s evolution in Shadow is so much fun to experience. Her late-game appearance is so reminiscent of the Terminator it may just make you squeal.
More Skills, Fewer Problems
Skills have been beefed out quite a bit in Shadow. Choosing between the ‘reward’ focused Seeker, the crafting and poison enhancing ‘scavenger’ or combat ‘warrior’ skills feel rewarding. It’s possible to acquire all of them, but it takes time. Figuring out how one will approach the game can make all the difference. This is especially true if you’re planning on playing the game on higher difficulties. These skills will allow Lara to interact with her environment in new ways, and craft deadlier and more effective potions and poisons from herbs and insects. These include ‘perception’ potions which highlight resources in her environment and poison extraction for arrows.
Traversal elements, which are central to the games formula, are better than ever before. While Lara is equipped with her bow and climbing axes quite early, there is a good amount of additional equipment to find during the playthrough. This helps keep her rock-climbing and zip line weaving gameplay feeling fresh, even if it’s been at the heart of three games now. The one major addition is the use of rappelling gear at will. From any rockface Lara is climbing, R2 can be pressed to have her descend and even swing from the mountain. This means our heroine isn’t forced to fall everywhere now. That kind of vertical control is a welcome addition to her arsenal.
Another pretty big change to the formula of the game is the customizable difficulty. While Rise of the Tomb Raider also had these, the changes between the modes either felt unnecessary or un-impactful. Shadow changes that by allowing players to customize an “overall” difficulty, or to modify the individual difficulty tied to puzzles, exploration and combat.
While combat difficulty is rather easy to understand, changes to puzzle elements and exploration are quite exciting. Harder difficulties will ask players to look for much smaller scratch marks on the walls when looking for indications as to where they can climb. The deadly obsession difficulty also asks players to find materials to light base camps and prohibits saving anywhere else than at those points.
Not only does this allow players to tailor the experience they have with the game, it also builds on the new skills. As an example, some of the late-game skills will make Lara’s “survival instinct” much more potent. This simple change is nice because it allows players to experience the game while forcing choices in their character build. Seeing the change to your survival instinct as you progress in the game feels good, and you wonder how you’d been spamming it in prior entries.
Tombs and Collectables Galore
While the story takes you from one campfire to the next, there’s a good bit to do between them as well. Challenge tombs make a comeback in this game and they’re better than ever. While those in Rise were nothing to scoff at, those in Shadow are deadlier. They also felt much more unique in their layout and mechanics, in no small part due to the game’s themes. Everything is well polished, and in my playthrough, I can think of very few tombs which felt ‘lacklustre’. Each plays off of a good amount of puzzle elements and traversal, leaving the player quite satisfied when they’re rewarded with a unique skill or outfit piece.
Challenges are also present, as in previous entries. These small XP boosts will demand that players accomplish a certain task in a region before moving forward. Some are super simple, others ask a good deal of concentration from achievement hunters. While they’re not utilized enough in my opinion, their presence was always appreciated.
The game also incentives players to collect historical fragments and clues with a new mechanic, which we can dub ‘language proficiency’. Every artifact Lara reads or collects improves her fluency in one of three languages in-game. This proficiency with South-American dialects then allows her to investigate particular pillars which reveal riddles to acquire rare collectibles. It’s a welcome addition, encouraging players to take their time while exploring tombs and landscapes. It also provides yet another reason for player backtracking, especially for those who aim to one-hundred percent this entry in the series.
Completionists will also be happy to hear that the game now features a new game plus mode. Allowing players to keep acquired skills, weapons, outfits and gear will make your second playthrough much more fun. However, that’s not all there is to the game mode. Three new paths will be unlocked: The Jaguar, Eagle and Serpent. Each will provide new skills but also uniquely themed outfits for your chosen path.
As Lara, you thus traverse the landscape. Going from one clue to the next, and chasing Trinity and its allies ever deeper into South America.
Real Variety, for Better or Worse
My one gripe with Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that it’s plagued by the series linearity. The tombs are always easy to find, and never really far off the beaten path. While there are quite a few very distinct zones in the games, it often only works to made it evident that the game was ‘on-rails’. While individual environments could be explored, you often find yourself walking from one point to another on a map. You can return for some inaccessible tomb or uncompleted challenge, but that’s all the motivation there is for it. While previous entries in the title focused on a particular aesthetic and ran with it (think, mountain villages for Tomb Raider 2013), Shadow takes you very quickly from one engrossing vista to the next.
The game environments are beautiful, no doubt about it. But they also come to blend together in a way that makes routes forgettable. Fans of the series will have no problem looking past this point, but I can see it being a problem for those who aren’t used to the formula.
This gripe is, however, severely limited by a great decision to include ‘hub’ spaces. While previous entry’s in the series have featured robust secondary characters, they’ve never demonstrated such a willingness to create hubs for Lara to return to and interact with. There are two of these in the game, and both are populated by a good amount of NPCs who go about their business and can provide Lara with side-quests.
These side-quests are hit-or-miss, and I say this with all due respect for their implementation. Because of the lack of dialogue options, it often feels as if the stories they tell are unremarkable and just force the player to watch a cutscene, run to an NPC, watch a cutscene, and run back to another. It’s not particularly engaging and feels underutilized even if it is rooted in fascinating history and culture.
Worthwhile Silences and Serious Drums
The music for Shadow inspires itself heavily from the game’s themes, encompassing both emotional pieces and rhythmic drums for combat. Brian D’Oliviera (Resident Evil 7 ost), takes notes from Mayan and South-American culture to bring a vibrancy to the individual tracks. In tombs, I appreciate how the music channels the danger Lara faces. These heavy rhythmic pieces also scale rather well with the scenes in which they play out, rising to a crescendo during particularly serious gun-fights or tense situations. Shadow also makes good use of silences, letting the sounds of the jungle and light music speak for itself. Especially early on, that does a lot to immerse the player.
Voice acting is, on the other hand, rather hit-or-miss. Lara and Jonah’s lines, delivered by returning Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon are difficult to criticize. While the game and its story ask a lot of these voice actors, they always nail the desperation or anger in the characters voices. Luddington, in particular, delivers some very punchy dialogue that is given time to breathe and is more impactful because of it.
NPCs either sound convincing or entirely removed from the game. I found this to be the fact especially for enemy units, which is easy to forgive, but also for some major NPCs in the second hub. With a story that asks a lot of compassion from Lara and the audience, it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with the characters and that takes away from the experience. As a package, however, it’s as solid as the previous entries.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider and it’s conclusion felt like a worthy finale for this trilogy. It was emotional, grounded in realism and portrayed the cast at its finest. I can’t overstate how much fans will love the quality of life improvements. This is especially true of the changes to the skills and difficulty systems. If you haven’t played the prior games, it stands as a title of its own to be sure; but the majority of its hard-hitting moments won’t connect with you in the same way.
Shadow takes the Lara Croft we’ve come to love in the past two games and forces her to confront an interior recklessness that mirrors perfectly the impending apocalypse. While the side quest system didn’t always feel polished, those who wish to immerse themselves in South-American history and culture will love taking the time to listen to the citizen’s tales. This game feels like a love letter to the protagonist who was crafted in the prior two games, and to the series fans.
Review code was provided by the developer, the game was tested on a Geforce 1070 and the last gen i5.
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- Strong script
- Beautiful vistas
- Extensive customization
- Engaging tombs
- Linear environments
- Forgettable side quests
- Graphics / Sound10
- Lasting Appeal8
- Fun Factor10