Back in 2013, when the Tomb Raider franchise was rebooted, it was sitting at a kind of low point for the series. The last game before that was Underworld, in 2008, which seemed to jump on the Call of Duty craze at the time to try and make our beloved Lara Croft more of a run and gun type action hero. Underworld was not a bad game, I actually enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what longtime fans expected from a Tomb Raider game – or what we have experienced over the many years exploring tombs with this series.
So when the developer said they were rebooting the franchise, it was kind of a subtext that what they were actually doing was trying to get back to their roots. Of the three games in the most recent trilogy, Tomb Raider in 2013, Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2016 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider now, this most recent entry goes the farthest in sending us back to those glory days.
Of course, your enjoyment of this game might depend on how much you like atmospheric puzzles compared to combat shooters. For the latter type of player, Rise of the Tomb Raider was a somewhat open world with lots of combat. The main challenges there involved taking out heavily defended Trinity outposts. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, you instead have a mostly linear environment, with about 20 percent or less of the game involving combat and the rest being exploration or some type of puzzle solving. Again, your preferences matter. I don’t think too many people who really enjoyed Rise will love Shadow, and vice versa.
The plot of Shadow is just a little bit far-fetched. I don’t really hold this against the game, but I personally had a hard time suspending belief on this one. In the earliest tomb that you raid, Lara grabs a sacred dagger (this is a cutscene so you have no choice) because she is afraid that Trinity is closing in, and she doesn’t want them to have it. Only, what she does not know is that taking the dagger without holding another artifact at the same time triggers the end of the world courtesy of a Mayan apocalypse. Yes, the ancient Mayans were so powerful that if you stole a dagger from them there would be earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, a permanent solar eclipse, and pretty much the end of the world, all starting about five minutes after you swipe the weapon. Okay, sure. Let’s just assume that is somehow true (rolls eyes) and move on.
When Lara comes out of the tomb, the Trinity leader is like “Silly girl, you killed the world.” But he has a helicopter, so he just flies away. And then the first tsunami hits. This triggers one of those endless running sequences where you have to jump or swim or climb while water or fire is chasing you, and if you make a wrong move you end up falling to your doom and have to repeat the sequence over again. Sadly, this is really poorly done. At several points, my Lara fell into what was clearly open water, only to be shown a cutscene of her landing with a squish on a pile of rebar. It was almost a comically bad cutscene. South Park came to mind.
Anyway, after that you eventually leave the tutorial part of the game and begin your quest to set things right and save the world before the Mayans can destroy it, or something. Ignoring the plot, the gameplay is really good, assuming you enjoy puzzle solving like old-school Lara used to do. The world for the most part is very linear, but I didn’t really mind because it kept me moving from one of those big figure-out-the-ancient world type of puzzles to the next, with minor puzzle solving in-between.
As with Rise, Lara has a skill tree and multiple paths she can take regarding leveling up. However, I would caution players to mostly focus on the exploration or mobility perks, things like holding your breath underwater for longer or having more time to complete an action sequence before triggering one of those rebar-from-nowhere cut scenes. Crafting matters very little in this game from what I could tell beyond the basic tiers, and there is so little combat that maxing out the warrior path just seems wasteful. You won’t need it.
Interestingly enough, the best content in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is contained in the optional areas. The game is filled with so-called challenge tombs. These are completely optional tombs that you can explore. They are not placed on your maps at first, though the game alerts you when you are near one, so you can start the hunt for it. Given the linear nature of the levels, uncovering them is not too difficult. If you are on the main path and see another way you can go, odds are there is a challenge tomb at the end of it.
All of the challenge tombs are pretty much miniature games in themselves. Their environments are unique, like a little microcosm where it’s easy to get a feel for the people who built each one, and after some exploration you start to almost get a feel for their thought processes in terms of how they design their traps and protect their sacred artifacts. Honestly, if the game was just a series of these amazing challenge tombs strung together with some type of a thin plot, it would probably be a much better game. But if you are playing Shadow and like old-school Tomb Raider games, do yourself a huge favor and find every challenge tomb that you can.
A lot has been said about the graphics of Shadow, and it’s all true. This is one of the most gorgeous titles I have ever seen. There are moments when I was just powerless not to stop and look around, almost stunned. Shadow is just ridiculously good-looking compared to almost everything else. It reminded me of the quantum leap in graphics that appeared when I first played Splinter Cell: Double Agent back in 2007. We may be talking about pre-Shadow and post-Shadow graphics in the very near future. On the PC, I played the game on Steam, that means you need a ton of hardware. I happened to have a hardcore gaming system in for review at the time, and even it had some problems with the highest settings. But if you have the horsepower, Shadow is amazing.
Beyond just the quality of the graphics, the game has a lot of nice little touches, like having Lara get mud and other substances on her arms and clothing. I found myself diving into every pool I could find in the Amazon jungle just to wash it back off, which the game also lets you do. So very cool on that.
The music and sound effects don’t quite match the quality of the graphics, not that almost anything could. But still, some type of an orchestral or otherwise grand score might have made things even more enjoyable. The voice acting is good, but the script is questionable. Camilla Luddington does a wonderful job as Lara Croft, but some of the things she says does make Lara seem kind of weak. This is not the actor’s fault, but more so the script. I realize that Lara is not yet the badass that she will grow into, but still, I thought she seemed a little too unseasoned, especially for the third game in the trilogy. We did kill hundreds of, basically, terrorists during the Rise game after all. That should count for something, if not a blemish on the old psyche.
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Shadow can seem a little bit short, assuming you ignore those wonderful challenge tombs. If you just play the main plot and ignore all the (again, amazing) optional content, then you can probably finish in about 25 to 30 hours. Playing all the optional content can stretch that out by half or more again, and likely add tremendously to your enjoyment.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good game. It’s not quite the epic finale that I think the new series deserved, but it is enjoyable, and a nice throwback to the puzzle solving, tomb raiding days of the past. It is strange that the different games in the new series are so dissimilar to one another, especially Rise and Shadow. I suppose that means that there is something for everyone, but also, that there are very few players who will completely love all of the new series. In terms of Shadow, play it if you like the puzzle-solving style of the classic games, but be sure to track down all of the optional content for maximum enjoyment. Shadow of the Tomb Raider earns 4 GiN Gems out of five.