Lara the Spelunker
From the moment I first played the 2013 reboot Tomb Raider, I was in love. I loved the exploration, the tombs, the combat, the platforming, and the aesthetic. Thus, I was looking forward to the third and final installment in the reboot trilogy: Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I knew going into the game that things would be slightly different given the fact that Shadow was developed by Eidos Montreal and not Crystal Dynamics (the studio behind did the first two in the trilogy). I wasn’t worried, however, since Eidos Montreal developed two of my favorite games of the last decade: Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Although I enjoyed their last two games, I was a little disappointed with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Don’t get me wrong, Eidos definitely improved some of the aspects of the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider formula but, at the same time, the studio left out a few things that made the series great to begin with.
Let’s start with the exploration. Just like the past two games, Shadow of the Tomb Raider features large hub areas that are connected by narrower paths. Each area is filled with things to discover both on and off the beaten path. Documents, survival caches, murals, monoliths, and artifacts are all ready to be found within the world. Documents, murals, and artifacts provide historical context and additional details about the world at large. Survival caches and monoliths, on the other hand, grant the player crafting resources which can be used to craft clothing items and to upgrade weapons (more on that later). It’s always fun for me personally to seek out these additional items as I like to learn more about the area I’m traversing. One thing I noticed in Shadow is that Explorer’s Maps (which reveal the locations of documents and artifacts) were fairly easy to find. From what I can remember, it was much harder to locate these maps in Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Crypts, now called Sarcophagi, make a return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The concept of sarcophagi has been greatly improved upon when compared with previous entries. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the crypts were fairly straightforward: you walked into a cave and it was essentially “Whoop, there it is” and that was that. In Shadow, you have to actually work to complete a sarcophagus. It usually involves climbing, swimming (there are actually many swimming sections, not just in sarcophagi), or rappelling down cliffs to get to your objective. I really enjoyed the improvements that were made for the sarcophagi as they were more engaging and fun to complete. Once completed, the sarcophagi give Lara a formula to craft new clothing items.
And, of course, tombs are here in all their glory. Unlike previous entries, the tombs are fairly massive affairs and, for the most part, are challenging to complete. It took me a reasonable amount of time to figure out a few of them but that made them that much more enjoyable. I will say that, if you have the difficulty on certain settings, Lara will continually give hints every time Survival Instincts is used. This can get annoying if you use Survival Instincts since Lara will repeat the same hint over and over again. There were many times where I yelled “Thank you, Lara!” or “I get it, Lara!” when she repeated the same line for the fifteenth time. It’s a small gripe I had with it but I feel the need to share it with you all. You’re welcome. By the way, Survival Instincts, if you don’t know, allows Lara to see certain items in the environment with which she can interact.
One drawback to the exploration that I would like to mention is that platforming and a few of the climbing mechanics didn’t work very well in certain sections. I remember one tomb in particular where I knew where I was supposed to go but Lara never grabbed onto the ledge. I tried several times, growing more frustrated each time, until she finally deemed it necessary to latch on. In addition, there was a jump near the end of the game where you have to throw a rope to latch onto the ceiling of a ledge but it took several tries before the throw actually worked. There are a few more instances of this but these two were the most memorable. I also noticed that several ledges throughout the game were kind of far apart and it seemed that Lara would simply glide to wherever she needed to be at the end of her jump. It was kind of weird to see it happen and it leads me to believe that the platforming needed some more work.
Side missions make their return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and they are hit and miss to be honest. The first few missions mostly consisted of going around a hub area, talking to people, and then reporting back to the person you initially talked to. These were the most boring missions I have ever seen in a video game. Especially considering the fact that Shadow is an action-adventure title. A few of the later missions did take it up a notch as they required you to explore the world and one or two of them led you to tombs or even sarcophagi. As a whole, the missions were a mixed bag but I do appreciate the fact they tried to diversify them a little bit.
Now we come to the combat. There are a variety of weapons that Lara can use throughout her adventure: bows, rifles, shotguns, handguns, knives, and the old trusty ice pick. Each weapon Lara finds can be upgraded at campsites using materials found throughout the world. Each weapon also has special ammo, e.g. fire arrows, explosive rounds, etc. These special ammo types can be crafted on the fly during combat if you find yourself in a sticky situation and need a certain ammo type to turn the tide in your favor. I’m glad Eidos Montreal kept these aspects of the combat intact for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Perhaps the best way to survive a combat encounter is to use stealth. Several additions have been made to the stealth mechanics that, in my opinion, make Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s stealth-based gameplay the best in the trilogy. To start with, there are more places to hide than there were in the previous two entries. In addition to tree branches and bushes, Lara can now wipe mud on her face and blend in with vines that grow on certain walls. This makes it easier to sidle up to an enemy and take them out unawares. It’s made even easier by the fact that, when using Survival Instincts, Lara can see which enemies are in the line of sight of other enemies. This makes it possible to cull the herd as enemies will be out of sight of their allies and thus Lara can quietly take them out without raising the alarm. In addition, fear arrows (which cause enemies to shoot their allies) and the ability to string enemies up in trees make stealth that much better. Stealth is highly recommended in Shadow since it has been vastly improved upon and it makes for a fun playing experience.
The one complaint I have regarding the combat is that there are very few combat encounters throughout the whole game. I can count on one hand how many times I actually fought Trinity (the bad guys). Even when there were combat encounters, they were not as memorable as the fights from Rise of the Tomb Raider. There was one cool sequence in the game where Lara had only her combat knife to use against her enemies. This one encounter was reminiscent of the past two games but then it was quickly over. It seems that Eidos Montreal designed Shadow mostly with exploration in mind and decided to phase combat out. This was a detriment to the game, in my opinion, and it was sorely missed.
And now we come to what is the most disappointing part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider: it’s story. Lara, once again, finds herself following Trinity as the organization is trying to find two ancient Mayan artifacts. These artifacts have the power to both destroy and remake the world. Lara finds one object first, the Dagger of Ix Chel, and takes it thus triggering a series of natural calamities. This is about as interesting as it gets since Dr. Dominguez, the main villain, doesn’t really have that much of a personality and doesn’t play that big of a role in the story. Commander Rourke, head of Trinity’s security forces, was a compelling character but Lara only goes head-to-head with him once. Compared with the antagonists from Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, the villains from Shadow of the Tomb Raider were kind of boring. The lack of strong antagonists didn’t engage me with the story all that much. Perhaps the worst part about the whole story arc was the fact that even the people allied with Lara on her journey weren’t all that interesting either.
Indeed, the lack of interesting characters was all the more apparent in the biggest hub area of the whole game: Paititi. Paititi is where you’ll spend most of your time while playing and the fact that most of the characters there aren’t interesting is a problem. Lara and her friend Jonah find themselves embroiled in the civil war brewing in Paititit between two factions. Although Lara allies herself with the side that is against Trinity, I personally didn’t feel too attached to anybody on that side of the conflict. I found myself not caring about what happened to anybody in the story and I didn’t even really care about the fate of Paititi. These feelings are in stark contrast to how I felt while playing Rise of the Tomb Raider. That story had me engaged for the entire playthrough and I never felt that way while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It is a real shame from my perspective because I know that Eidos Montreal is capable of making engaging narratives since they did it with their past two Deus Ex games.
The final nail in the coffin for me was the fact that the supernatural enemies Lara comes into contact with (this isn’t really a spoiler since supernatural enemies are a part of the past two games as well) aren’t really given a reason for existing. Maybe there was an explanation in one of the documents but seeing as how I finished the game with a 90% completion rate, I highly doubt it. All in all, almost everything about the story was a disappointment.
There was one bright spot story wise, however, and that was the friendship between Lara and Jonah. Jonah is present or close at hand, for once, during the entire journey and there are many moments when Lara and Jonah talk with one another. The scenes that occur early on in the game are especially worthwhile as they add some new depth to their relationship. Jonah can even join in Lara’s monologues whenever she is at a campsite. One of these talks between them leads to a flashback where Lara is a young girl exploring Croft Manor. That was my favorite moment of the whole story as it added some emotion to Lara’s backstory. Eidos Montreal did a great job of making me care even more about Lara and Jonah but it’s a shame the developers didn’t accomplish that with the other characters.
I do want to end this review on a positive note, however, and that is the fact that there is a plethora of different customization options available for every aspect of the game. In addition to the overall difficulty level, exploration, combat, and puzzle difficulty can all be changed to fit the needs of the player. There are three levels of difficulty for each category and each option changes aspects of the gameplay. In addition, if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, you can choose 4K resolution (or close to it) or a High Framerate option is available. I’m sure you can do the same thing on high-end PCs as well. You can probably do both. Another option I found interesting is that you can have all NPCs speak in their native tongues or in your native language (English in this case, obviously). I chose to play in all English since it was weird to have one person speak in one language and then have Lara respond in English. In any case, I appreciate the fact there are many options so everybody can play the game in the way they want to play it.
Although Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not the best of the reboot trilogy, it is certainly the most interesting. Eidos Montreal has improved and built upon the exploration, combat, and stealth aspects that the series is known for but it failed to provide a compelling narrative, interesting characters, and memorable combat scenarios. It really is a Tale of Two Cities since whenever it seems that the game takes two steps forward, it takes two right back to where it started. It makes for an unsatisfying end to what was (and mostly is) a great trilogy.
Final Score: 6.5/10
- Tombs are expansive and challenging
- Expanded stealth mechanics are a treat
- Plenty of customization
- Very few worthwhile combat encounters
- Story and characters aren’t very interesting
- Platforming mechanics can be hit or miss
Thanks for reading!