Lara Croft has come a long way since triangular prism boobs and locking butlers in walk-in freezers. She’s fought a tyrannosaurus rex with nothing but handguns and a can-do attitude, faced a disturbing skinless doppelganger version of herself, and even died and lived to tell the tale. Yes, she’s done it all. So one of the greatest surprises of 2013 was when Square Enix successfully managed to reboot the icon heroine for the modern age. We were given a new Lara, as fierce as ever but with a decidedly human quality that made her infinitely more likeable than popular wise-cracker and occasional bloodthirsty killer Nathan Drake. So here we are two sequels later with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Has the legendary Lara Croft managed to maintain her momentum, or is this a sideways flip off a cliff into a pit of Bengal tigers?
It’s a jungle out there
The story of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is desperate to strike a dramatic tone, with the player quickly confronted with the consequences of one of Lara’s most recent tomb raiding escapades. Turns out removing a ceremonial knife from its resting place is enough to trigger an apocalypse, and soon enough a series of calamities are unleashed upon the world. The earth is torn asunder, the immediate area is racked with violent storms, kids fall into big chasms created by said earthquakes and storms – it’s just a bad time for everyone. While the game was sold on the idea of a darker and grittier Tomb Raider that sees Lara painted as a villain of sorts, the reality is that the setup lacks punch and is essentially a pretence for yet another race against time to find a magical macguffin that will save the world again.
We’ve got a well-meaning megalomaniac, some shadowy Trinity involvement and hidden civilisations that have miraculously remained untouched by the outside world but yet whose citizens have a masterful grasp of the English language. This is a by-the-numbers adventure game, with a narrative that serves the moment-to-moment gameplay, even if it is overwhelmingly silly and lacks the self-awareness to pull it off.
Gameplay-wise you’ll be doing what Lara does best – climbing, running, brutally murdering nameless goons from the shadows, solving puzzles, and scouring the environment for treasures to claim and tombs and crypts to plunder. Your adventures take you to several small open-worldish sections around South America, and there is an absolute ton of secrets to uncover and checklists to tend to. Mechanically, the game is still a fairly well-oiled beast, although climbing can feel a little wonky, and I occasionally found myself leaping comically to my death rather than grabbing a ledge or zipline that seemed to be well within reach. Luckily the checkpoint system is extremely forgiving, and death is more of a low hurdle than anything to be too worried about.
Stealth combat is back but has certainly taken a back seat to exploration and puzzle solving (as it should). Given the amount of tools you’ll eventually have at your disposal, combat becomes a fairly easy affair (the final boss for instance is a laughable walk in the park), and it becomes less about rising to the challenge the enemies pose and more about disposing of them in the most creative ways possible.
What’s most striking about Shadow of the Tomb Raider is just how damn similar the game is to 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. The look, the feel, the gameplay systems, right down to the UI, it’s as close to a carbon copy as you can get. Worst still, by riffing so hard on the formula that’s been established in the rebooted Tomb Raider games, the weaknesses of this formula are truly starting to come to the fore. You’ll find yourself looking for the same collectibles, seeking the same challenges, and completing the same climbing and physics-based puzzles you’ve already completed in Lara’s last outing. This isn’t not to say that it’s unenjoyable, and despite the overwhelming familiarity of the gameplay it’s still engaging, but there’s a real issue with how meaningless jumping through Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s hoops can feel in the bigger context.
The quest for the silver poop emoji was fraught with danger
A Spanish Galleon? At this time of year? In this part of the country? Localised entirely within this cave?
It’s like you’re caught in an odd situation where you know the carrot on the stick is the limp and slightly black thing you might find forgotten in the bottom of the veggie crisper, but the act of chasing it is enjoyable enough that you do it anyway
Lara does a great job of blending in
You’ll consistently earn experience points for absolutely anything and everything (my favourite is getting 5 EXP for every bug you harvest for poison arrows, but getting 15 EXP for opening the ubiquitous little vessels that basically blanket every area gets a shoutout too), but the skills you end up unlocking don’t feel at all substantial or essential to success. It’s like you’re caught in an odd situation where you know the carrot on the stick is the limp and slightly black thing you might find forgotten in the bottom of the veggie crisper, but the act of chasing it is enjoyable enough that you do it anyway. Tombs and crypts are the biggest offenders in this regard, as traversing them is often a whole heap of fun, but the rewards they offer are either a meaningless bit of clothing or a perk that provides a minor boon you scarcely need. It’s a problem that lies of at the core of this rebooted series, which has effectively painted itself in to a corner in this regard – while the act of actually completing the game’s challenges is compelling, the reason for doing so is most certainly not.
As is tradition with Tomb Raider games, the game is no slouch in the visual department. Environments in particular have an impressive amount of scale, and feel lush and dense with tiny details that make them pop. Lighting use can be incredibly beautiful, particularly in underwater sections, but sometimes the modulation between light and dark sections can feel a bit awkward and takes too long to adjust. Character models are also not quite as solid as they have been in previous titles, and for minor NPCs and enemies it feels like a limited number of facial features and styles are repeated. In particular I think I’ve seen enough very similar looking Peruvian bowl cuts to last a lifetime.
Rise of the shadow of the war of the dawn of the tomb raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider does nothing to innovate or even iterate on Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I can’t help but feel that the woman that helped shape the third-person adventure genre as we know it deserves a game that pushes the envelope a bit more. While it’s fun, mechanically solid and visually superb for the most part, an empty progression system and a weak and silly story that’s more Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than Temple of Doom means this is one sequel that’s only barely treading water.