Play as Lara Croft finally stepping into her iconic role in the final installment of the truly consistently great Tomb Raider series.
Traversing perilous landscapes, scaling cragged rock cliffs, creative, brain teasing puzzles, and a dynamic, adventurous storyline that rarely hits the brakes. Tomb Raider is back in its third installment and delivers exactly on what its predecessors have familiarized the player with, for better or for worse. Shadow of the Tomb Raider caps off Lara Croft’s trilogy through a story of loss and sacrifice, pitting her against the evil organization Trinity once again as well as a new breed of enemy. As someone that has followed Lara on this journey through 2013’s reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider, I can say that this game remains consistent with the quality of the series and is through and through a Tomb Raider game.
The Beginning of the End
Tomb Raider’s roughly 12 hour story begins in a befitting dark, claustrophobic, cave. After Lara Croft crawls her way into the light, the player is greeted to the breathtaking scenery of South America. Even when playing this on the base Xbox One, I could see that Crystal Dynamics were truly pushing the hardware capabilities of this five-year old console. The emerald greens of the jungle, the dark shadows that conceal deadly predators such as the jaguars, and I have never been so eager to dive headfirst into a pool of crystal clear water. Lara Croft’s facial animations, and Camilla Luddington’s performance continue to impress. She flawlessly conveys the introversion and borderline mentally unstable state of Lara, especially after one of her adventures kicks off a race to end a world-ending threat. It’s here that Lara comes face to face with the consequences of her obsession with the past. Her stubborn cling to it causes her to be at odds with her friend Jonah and herself. Both deliver outstanding performances, but sadly, the supporting cast have the depth of a plank of wood. The one exception is our villain, Dominguez, leader of Trinity, whose motivations managed to convince me that Lara Croft is far from a hero that always has the world’s interests in mind. After a traditional fight battle that is all too familiar in this series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider ends Lara Croft’s origin story in a way that sets her up to be the bold heroine we all know and love. I can name one particular moment in the story that perfectly pays off a six-year buildup of her character and had my jaw on the floor.
Same Old, Same Fun
For the first time in this series, this game prioritizes stealth and exploration rather than going in guns blazing. The difficulty options even allow you to set separate levels for combat and traversal, making players like me who aren’t the greatest at shooters to optimize their playthrough. The gameplay remains the same so there wasn’t much of a learning curve. It’s still a semi-linear world that has you jumping from cliff to cliff, swinging on ropes, sliding on tethers, and impossibly outrunning a wave of destruction behind you. This time around, there has been some freshness injected in the form of some new mechanics. Rappelling and foot climbers have added some verticality, though they don’t nearly have as much presence as I would’ve liked. Climbing more or less has remained the same, and that’s a positive because the series’ game’s design never misleads the player off the correct path, and rarely do I attempt to interact with part of the environment that can’t be climbed. On the few times you do encounter enemies, you’re encouraged to stealthily and intelligently take them out as Lara goes down in relatively few shots. Hanging bad guys from a tree branch, hallucinogenic arrows, and camouflaging mud walls, plus the return of old methods like craftables and the classic silent arrow give the player a plethora of options to avoid a firefight. Still, the only real difficulty from the combat is from whatever ammunition the enemies carry. They shoot from afar, lob grenades to force you to move, and occasionally rush you. Standard fair from the series, and as is tradition, introduces you to a new enemy type halfway through the game in the form of the lost tribe, the Yaaxil. The atmosphere they exude adds a horror element that reminds me of the 2013 game that I have sorely missed.
A Hollow South America
The player has several options on how to divy up their time in this game. There are several pseudo hub worlds scattered over the map filled with NPC’s you can interact with, however shallow those interactions may be. Some of them offer side quests you can partake in though the rewards are hardly tangible to the world, and therefore not a great incentive to complete them. Doing additional tasks, however reward you with points to spend on the slightly revamped skill tree, and it’s this tree that opens up your playstyle through many ways. Even doing minimal quests, I found myself unlocking plenty of skills to add to my arsenal. Shops let you purchase new guns and upgrades, but consequently, your upgrades don’t transfer to whatever new weapon you purchase. As always, the best parts of Tomb Raider are the tombs. Challenge Tombs return better than ever. No longer are they a single room, but a more expansive chamber that offers challenging puzzles. They demand ingenuity, patience, and maybe some trial and error. The entrances to these tombs are more off the beaten path, and many require backtracking after obtaining late-game skills and equipment, so they are always a nice break from the main story.
A Full Journey, and Hope for the Future
As the last game in an almost six-year long series, I only wished Shadow of the Tomb Raider could have innovated on the platform it built for itself. What I can’t fault the game for though is consistency. I’ve always enjoyed travelling the world as Lara Croft, uncovering treasures and hidden civilizations, and discovering all the different ways I can get brutally murdered by predators, traps, or simply pressing the A button at the wrong time. The game gives me more of the same, which may not be a selling point for everyone, but it is for those that have been a fan since the beginning. If anything, this game sets up an opportunity to introduce us to the classic Lara Croft in a revitalized entry down the line.