Lara Croft has officially become the Tomb Raider. For the third time in five years. You’ll have to excuse my fatigue, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve played Shadow of the Tomb Raider before. Twice. Shadow‘s predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, wasn’t a bad game by any stretch, but it wasn’t a particularly good one either. The same obvious deficiencies are on show again, such as a personality-devoid protagonist and a boring story. Thankfully, Shadow doubles down on the excellent puzzle tombs which are even better this time around, especially when using the optional hard mode to remove most of the clues. The quality of the tombs was high enough that, on balance, I didn’t hate my time with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but it won’t stick long in the memory either.
That’s not how I expected to start this review after playing the strong opening few hours. Picking up shortly after the events of Rise, you begin with Lara heading to a hidden city in Mexico while hot on the heels of Trinity (you know the deal – mysterious corporate group, lots of hired mercenaries, taste for treasure, and ability to get massive tanks into seemingly impossible to reach areas). Lara ignores all the warning signs (to be fair, they’re usually just bluffing) and takes a mysterious dagger that, when combined with a special silver box, has the power to reshape the world. This time the warnings weren’t just there for decoration and to scare off kids. Removing the dagger kicks off a tsunami that destroys a nearby town, with the threat of more tsunamis to come. We get a glorious set piece as Lara outruns the tsunami while watching hundreds of innocent people die in a tragedy she caused.
The lack of character development for Lara has been one of the most frustrating parts of this reboot trilogy. Unlike Nathan Drake, Lara isn’t one for wise-cracking to herself, which is fine, but it does mean that she needs someone else to bounce off. When Lara is with Jonah, or other major characters you meet along the way, she shows glimpses of a personality I’d love to see more of. She’s kind, considerate, and (occasionally) funny. It’s, therefore, a mystery why the developers separate Lara from other people as often as possible. Judging by what we see in the game, Jonah is a far more competent adventurer than Lara because he always ends up in the same place as Lara and usually gets there quicker. It becomes an unintentional joke by the end. Every time Lara and Jonah are together, they inevitably split up under the flimsiest of circumstances.
One scene is particularly ridiculous. It happens near the end so I’ll keep it vague to avoid spoilers. There’s another tsunami similar to the one in the opening act. Lara and Jonah are together when it all kicks off. Lara opts to go after the Big Bad because “he might not get far,” while Jonah stays behind as per usual (he had a bit of a fall, bless him). This probably sounds fine, however one important detail is that the Big Bad not only has a head start on Lara, he also happens to be in a bloody helicopter. Lara goes after him on foot while the world collapses around her. Obviously, she doesn’t catch the guy flying away in the helicopter. Lara barely survives and makes it to the ocean where she is rescued by Jonah in a boat. What did she hope to achieve here? Why not just stay with Jonah? None of it stands up to even the slightest scrutiny. Honestly, I’m convinced that 95% of Shadow was made before the writers were even allowed to see any of it and they just desperately threw words at a page hoping the action would move too fast for anyone to notice.
For a few hours it looked like Shadow had successfully fixed Lara’s personality deficiency. Lara feels guilty for destroying a city but the only way she knows how to handle that is to keep going and find the silver box that goes with the knife she stole. Her reliable friend Jonah gives her a much needed talking to and it looks like Lara might finally face up to the consequences of her actions. Will Lara finally change and become someone we actually care about? No, of course not. Before you can say “I’ll meet up with you on the other side, Jonah,” she’s off to another hidden city, Paititi, to try and get the silver box before Trinity does.
Overall, the story does the absolute bare minimum. There’s a couple of hidden cities (that aren’t hidden in the slightest), warring factions, mystical powers, and more plot holes than a script for The Last Jedi that’s been stored in a termite nest for three months. Side quests don’t even reach the already low standards of video games. These optional quests pop up in the small villages you reach between tomb raiding and most of them just make you talk to the locals. One quest required me to go and talk to six people before returning to the quest giver and then being sent out to dig up a nearby artifact. A quest for a missing person couldn’t begin until I’d moved some kids from a nearby grave which in turn needed me to dig up some crap from twenty yards away. It’s clearly padding, as are the numerous collectibles dotted around. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is hardly the first game to include more collectibles than it needs, however the problem is even more apparent here because the world isn’t open. With the exception of a couple of small villages, the entire game is fairly linear so collectibles end up being on the beaten path. You literally have to walk right past them which largely negates any satisfaction from finding them.
While Shadow repeats many of its predecessor’s mistakes, I’m pleased to say that it also doubles down on one of its successes: the puzzle tombs. The tombs were my favorite parts of the previous games so it’s great to see more of them this time. There are mandatory tombs on the main path plus some optional ones that reward you with blueprints for new outfits and additional resources. Puzzles are the one area that the new Tomb Raider games undoubtedly do better than the Uncharted series. In the Uncharted games, the puzzles are far too often just a case of rotating a few dials or climbing in the only direction it’s possible to go. In Shadow, not only do you need to jump and climb to the right places, you also need to use your arrows effectively to move things around or create new routes. It may not sound like a huge difference, but that extra level of complexity changes the experience for the better. A highlight is the Trial of the Eagle, with its multi-layered rotating mechanism that is challenging enough that reaching the top feels like an achievement worth celebrating.
I desperately wanted to go in these challenge tombs whenever I found them, however many of them are gated until you’ve reached certain story milestones and picked up special equipment. There’s nothing unusual about that, but as with much of the game, it’s been done with the least effort possible. I can live with doors requiring rope arrows or fire arrows to open, but I draw the line at not being able to get past a pile of roped up wood because the game insists that I come back with a reinforced knife. Yes, that’s right. Not just any knife will do for this particular rope (nor will fire apparently). You need a reinforced one. “No, not that knife. This knife.” I felt like I was in a bizarre version of Crocodile Dundee at one point.
One of Shadow‘s undoubted highlights is, ironically, the lack of highlights. There’s an option to change the difficulty setting separately for combat, puzzles, and exploration. Adjusting the exploration and puzzle difficulty effectively turns off all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) environmental signposting such as white paint marking ledges and highlighted objects you can interact with. Exploration becomes far more organic and you can’t just use survival instincts to highlight the right puzzle components. At least, you can’t at first. Even on hard mode, you can unlock additional survival instincts quite early on via the skill tree so it becomes a bit pointless. Even with exploration set to hard, the game has an annoying tendency to keep telling you where the grapple points are via big text prompts, which is probably a sign that the grapple points aren’t clear enough to begin with.
The difficulty settings can also change how survival instincts work in combat, at least initially. In hard mode, survival instinct doesn’t highlight all the enemies, nor does it tell you which ones are safe to takedown without being spotted. However, there’s a skill you can buy that lets you do just that, so much of the difficulty disappears once it’s unlocked.
The combat is a bit of a misstep all round. I always enjoyed using the bow to pick enemies off from afar, but there’s rarely an opportunity to do that. Encounters are clearly designed with stealth takedowns in mind and you’re always much better off covering yourself in mud and hiding in a bush before leaping out and taking your enemies unaware. On the few occasions that stealth isn’t an option, the enemies tend to rush at you which means you’ll be using weapons such as the shotgun and rifle at close range. I’m still amazed at how little I used my bow during the entire sixteen-hour campaign.
Another reason I didn’t use the bow much was the lack of hunting this time around. Whereas Rise was almost like a survival game at times, with large open areas for you to go hunting in for resources, Shadow is fairly linear, with the only open areas being the villages which don’t tend to have a lot of wild animals running around. You still need the odd skin here and there to craft new outfits but it’s such a minor part of the game that I ended up forgetting all about it. I didn’t even need to worry about my supply of wood and herbal medicine because I rarely used arrows and in the combat encounters you either stay stealthy or die.
While playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I couldn’t help but think that no one particularly wanted to make this game. Crystal Dynamics certainly didn’t. The developer of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider passed on development duties to Eidos Montreal for the conclusion to the trilogy. It’s like someone at publisher Square Enix felt an obligation to finish the story started in 2013, but no one had any real enthusiasm to do anything above and beyond making a functional game. There’s only one environment this time around and, as for new ideas, the only change of note is that you now spend a lot of time underwater hiding from piranha.
The lack of care is also evident in the skill tree which manages to be simultaneously a confusing mess and utterly uninteresting at the same time. Nearly all of the skills are absolutely useless and the only half-way decent ones are mandatory story unlocks. Even those are strangely spread out. Lara doesn’t get the ability to craft fear arrows until the final few hours and from that point on there are only a couple of chances to use them.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s sense of familiarity is so strong that it might have been better as an expansion along the lines of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. That game also took place largely in one environment and felt exactly the same as the game that preceded it. At least The Lost Legacy came with a lower price tag and online multiplayer and its shorter length made it feel less dragged out. Ultimately, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a by-the-numbers sequel to Rise of the Tomb Raider, capitalizing on the great puzzle tombs but failing to take any other worthwhile steps forward.