Humanity defines Lara Croft’s latest adventure. With more fleshed out character interactions and stronger narrative pacing, Eidos Montreal’s effort offers the rebooted franchise’s deepest look into Lara as a human being. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a remarkably balanced sequel hurt only slightly by a lack of polish.
Trinity, the token bad guy organization introduced in Rise of the Tomb Raider, returns. This time, the centuries old cult seeks to remake the world in a cleaner image. Lara races to prevent Trinity from performing the ritual to destroy the world in the name of ridding sin.
Don’t be fooled by the formulaic plot synopsis, though. While it’s true that Shadow of the Tomb Raider leans a little heavily on established adventure game conventions at times, it also rises above them. Its bare-bones plot is used as a means to push character development.
Shadow‘s “Become the Tomb Raider” marketing campaign, which initially seemed absurd, makes sense within the final release’s context. Becoming the tomb raider means more than just developing combat and traversal skills. It’s about more than expanding gameplay mechanics.
Becoming the tomb raider relates to self-discovery. Modern Lara hasn’t changed much since her 2013 debut. She’s remained the same clumsy archaeologist whose fixation with ancient discoveries comes at the cost of those closest to her. Her mother and father died. Even Ana’s death at the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider occurred because of the Croft family’s obsession with cognizance.
Finding Her Footing
After Lara steals a sacred dagger from a Mayan tomb, she sets off a chain-reaction of events that thrusts the central narrative into motion. Without the silver box in her possession, Lara has inadvertently begun a slowly ticking apocalypse characterized by the sun’s death. Her intensive curiosity leads to the collapse of an entire Mexican city. After narrowly escaping the tsunami, Lara kneels on the ground, absorbing the destroyed scenery.
This singular moment forces Lara to confront her selfish nature. She shows true remorse, immediately identifying what she did wrong. Jonah also plays a larger role in the adventure, providing a grounded anchor for Lara to stand on. Eidos Montreal humanizes its characters much more effectively than Crystal Dynamics ever did.
It isn’t the most brilliantly written video game. It’s merely above average, but even that bar powers past its predecessors by miles. If you’ve played the last two games, Shadow of the Tomb Raider honors your investment in the franchise with a satisfying conclusion that leaves players with a more mature Lara Croft.
What About The Gameplay
While the dramatically improved storytelling stands out, Shadow of the Tomb Raider deserves equal praise for refining the series’ formula. Tomb Raider is built on three core pillars: combat, exploration, and puzzle solving. Combat has always been the series’ weakest link, yet that dainty pillar has held a considerable amount of weight.
Tomb Raider suffers from outdated animations and horrendous shooting mechanics. Even in this third entry, with Lara at her supposed apex, firing a fully upgraded weapon feels wonky. The lack of feedback, coming from a combination of factors from weapon handling, to the paltry hit reactions from enemies, has been combat’s biggest hurtle. This lack of force feedback extends to melee combat, whereby connecting hits feel incredibly floaty.
While not the most elegant solution, Shadow of the Tomb Raider remedies this through redistributing its core pillars to more accurately establish the series’ strengths. If I were to guess, exploration and puzzle solving take up 40% each, with combat eating up the remaining 20%. Maybe even less.
Tomb Raider Refined
With the freshly defined focus on puzzle solving and exploration, Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes all in on both fronts. While tombs and crypts are still entirely optional, most are more intricately designed and interesting to interact with. Completing crypts and tombs results in more tangible rewards.
Many skills from the game’s overhauled, and more malleable, skill tree can only be unlocked by completing tombs. In addition, finding crypts yields outfit rewards. Outfits with gameplay benefits aren’t a new concept to Tomb Raider. However, in addition to entire outfits, upper and lower body accessories can be equipped to provide any number of benefits.
One pair of boots may increase experience for stealth kills while an upper body piece decreases the AI’s awareness level. The game does contain matching sets of accessories, though you can mix and match them to your heart’s content. Combined with a less linear skill tree, Shadow of the Tomb Raider allows the series’ greatest degree of flexibility.
And More Refinement
While combat itself has seen no real improvement, stealth offers a little more freedom. With some new abilities and mechanics, Lara’s transition from prey to predator symbolizes her growth as a character. Concealing oneself against a mud-covered wall, waiting for the right moment to strike feeds into a power fantasy the Tomb Raider games have never quite captured.
Unfortunately, the admittedly cool mud-concealment makes very few appearances, never expanding beyond hiding against a wall. Hiding under vehicles or slowly trudging along mud-covered ground would have increased its number of use-cases, but as it stands, stealth is still the more satisfying way to dispatch enemies.
Crystal Dynamics Who?
Eidos Montreal, best known for its work on the Deus Ex reinventions, knows its way around intricately detailed hub-worlds filled with character. Rise of the Tomb Raider attempted to one-up the first game by introducing larger hub areas. It felt like a feature to tick on the back of the box as level design suffered dramatically in this move to become the “bigger and better” sequel.
Tomb Raider (2013) featured well-designed semi-open spaces connected by clearly defined choke points. This offered two main benefits:
- Players could explore every nook and cranny without feeling overwhelmed.
- It kept a consistent sense of pacing
Rise of the Tomb Raider eschewed this in favor of stating “Hey, our game is bigger. That means it’s better, right?”. Each hub area felt like a hodgepodge of various artists’ ideas in a single environment with minimal collaboration. The logical flow from space to space got lost amidst the bland clutter. Very few of Rise‘s hubs looked like tangible spaces.
In Eidos Montreal We Trust
Eidos Montreal’s experience with Deus Ex pays immensely in this regard. Paititi, one of Shadow‘s many locations, is the franchise’s largest hub to date. It is a massive city teeming with life and architecture. You could easily spend over 6 hours in Paititi alone before exhausting its content and lore.
Despite this gargantuan level of scale, though, the city never looks incorrect. Unlike Rise of the Tomb Raider, I never found myself questioning why this thing is right here or why that location is placed next to this location. The city’s design mirrors the attention to detail poured into the Deus Ex games.
The same holds true for the other hub areas. Shadow of the Tomb Raider even goes above and beyond with fully-realized side quests. While Rise attempted side quests, failing miserably in the process, Shadow‘s side quests often feature interesting self-contained storylines and cinematics that further contextualize the world.
I’ve been gushing about Shadow of the Tomb Raider almost non-stop. In fact, it came so close to game of the year material, but sadly, its lack of polish dampens the experience. The few set-pieces involving harrowing escapes don’t engender a sense of impact or agency, largely down to the outdated animations. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the team is still recycling a large chunk of animations from the 2013 reboot with few concessions made to improve existing assets.
While the game does look visually stunning on an Xbox One X, it’s hard to look past those last gen animations. Without competent animation blending, Shadow of the Tomb Raider in motion looks like a middle-of-the-road 2008 game rather than a Triple-A 2018 release from one of the industry’s most defining intellectual properties.
Even more low-key animations like climbing take you out of the experience. Half the time that Lara pulls herself up onto some platform, her right arm twists and snaps into place. With the high bar for animation set by Naughty Dog in 2016 with Uncharted 4, little things like that are no longer acceptable. Tomb Raider is one of gaming’s most iconic franchise’s dating back to the 90’s. It deserves the amount of love and care Naughty Dog pour into their projects. A few extra months of development time and a slightly larger budget could have gone a long way to elevate the experience.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the rebooted trilogy’s best entry. With competent storytelling and a brilliant redistribution of its core pillars, it improves upon the series’ formula while expanding upon some of its more limited aspects. The well-designed levels make exploration feel more organic than ever. Clocking in at roughly 20 hours, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is also the longest game with the least amount of fluff. All it needed to be one of the year’s best games was a little more time in the oven. If Square Enix passes the helm to Eidos Montreal again, Tomb Raider has the potential to reach Uncharted levels of critical and commercial success.
DISCLAIMER: Review code provided by publisher
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- Trilogy's best storytelling
- Great level design
- Redistribution of combat, puzzle solving, and exploration
- More fleshed-out side quests and world-building
- Could have used more polish
- Still not excellent storytelling