The last time I played a Tomb Raider game, I was five or six years old and Lara Croft still looked like this:
Having now played Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I can say with confidence that there’s been some pretty significant changes. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third and final installment in the new Tomb Raider trilogy. As you may have gathered from the introduction to this review, I haven’t had the pleasure of playing the much-acclaimed previous two games in the origin saga before launching into this one. Regardless, games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, and others of their kind are made to be accessible to the newest of players. While Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t go into great detail about who any existing ancillary characters are beyond “this is Jonah, he’s your best friend,” you don’t really need that background to fully enjoy the game. Likewise, the game introduces you very quickly to Trinity, the villainous organization responsible for Lara’s father’s death. There’s some history there, but you don’t need an in-depth knowledge of the Tomb Raider lore to understand that they’re the bad guys. So if you’re reading this review and wondering if you can pick up here without playing the others, you sure can.
In this installment, Lara and Jonah are hoofing it around South America and Mesoamerica, having dedicated themselves to meddling in Trinity’s plans. While tracking a cell to Mexico, led by the head of Trinity’s High Council, Pedro Dominguez, Lara and Jonah happen upon a temple which contains the Dagger of Ix Chel and references to a hidden city. Per her usual self-confident attitude, Lara ignores the murals warning about “the Cleansing” – the Mayan apocalypse – and runs off with a sacred dagger to prevent Trinity from using it. When caught by Trinity later, Dominguez reveals that in taking the Dagger, the Cleansing has been triggered, and along with it four cataclysms leading up to the apocalyptic event, the first being a tsunami. Dominguez plans to reunite the Dagger, which he steals from Lara, and the Silver Box of Chak Chel in order to stop the apocalypse and use the power bestowed upon him to remake the word in his image. Lara, stubborn and guilt-stricken, escapes the tsunami with Jonah and sets out on a quest to find the Silver Box before Trinity can and prevent the apocalypse, along with Dominguez’s plan.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider features a few sort-of-hub areas, piles of tombs, crypts, monoliths and artifacts to review and explore, animals to hunt and strip of their hides, a reasonably large skill tree to flesh out, and countless weapons with upgrades in which to invest. Environments vary from jungle to cave to underwater to jungle to cave to tomb to underwater to underwater to underwater…dear lord does this game have a lot of underwater sections. One can’t expect insane amounts of variety when you’re dealing with a) a Tomb Raider game and b) a game set in a predominantly jungle-y area, but I could not believe the amount of time I spent splashing away underwater. Not only that, but there are enemies that will attack you underwater that you have to hide from (mostly piranhas). I have to give the underwater sections credit because the swimming mechanics are actually very good and aren’t an enormous pain to use, but every game developer worth their salt should know by now that underwater areas are the bane of most gamers’ existences. Why are we swimming so much?! This isn’t Pond Raider or Underwater Cavern Raider.
I have no shame in admitting that I was playing on the easiest difficulty, but I found that the amount of breath you’re allotted without having purchased any upgrades is very fair. There are also semi-frequent air pockets where you can catch a quick breath in the longer underwater cave sequences. There’s so many good points to be made about the way the underwater mechanics are handled in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but the insistence on swimming all the damn time is completely baffling to me! Lara’s not even dressed to swim. She’s dressed to efficiently climb cave walls and rappel down from ropes and the like. All that heavy gear would 100% make her drown in real life, guaranteed. Stop making me swim everywhere, Eidos Montreal/Square Enix/Crystal Dynamics. In general, the Shadow of the Tomb Raider is really lacking in environmental diversity. I think this would have been a bit less noticeable if the game wasn’t as long as it was, but there’s only so much jungle-cave-water-jungle-cave-water that you can really handle without getting a bit bored.
Moving on from swimming, let’s talk about non-water-based gameplay. Like any game of its kind, when you’re confronted with enemies (particularly human enemies, as you can’t do a lot of sneak attacks on jaguars) you have the option of playing it cool and stealthy or just Leroy Jenkins-ing your way into battle, guns blazing. I thoroughly enjoy picking off enemies one by one, especially when you start to obtain new skills that allow you to rig dead bodies with beeping shrapnel explosives that lure in unsuspecting soon-to-be-bodies. At any point in the game, whether it be during an enemy encounter or otherwise, you can activate Survival Instincts, which is basically your super x-ray, infra-red, resource-highlighting supervision that is a must in all AAA games of this kind. During battle, enemies are highlighted in either yellow (not able to be seen by other enemies) or red (able to be seen). Obviously if you want to remain stealthy, you need to target enemies that are yellow. I often found myself getting screwed over by stealth-attacking yellow enemies that turned red halfway through the kill animation, although that’s probably down to watching the enemy cycles and monitoring where they’re looking but ain’t nobody got time for that.
At a certain point later in the game, you’re often dropped into situations where it feels like the game is forcing you to take the aggressive way out. You’re surrounded by goons to the point that you can’t easily sneak away (and haven’t yet been taught to scramble, unseen, from hiding place to hiding place) and it’s just easier at that point to get caught and riddle Trinity with bullets. When you want to play stealthily, it’s annoying when you don’t feel like you’ve been given a choice, but one can never argue that going on a killing spree with a gun (in a game, in a game) is highly enjoyable. You can also hunt animals to get particular crafting resources or just for kicks, but I seldom felt the need when I could easily find what I required just laying around.
While weapon accessibility changes depending on the part of the story you’re currently completing, you typically have a bow (my favorite and the most iconic weapon), a knife, a pistol, a shotgun and a rifle. You can buy or find a few of each except for the knife, which gets upgraded during the story missions, and they can also be upgraded using resources you pick up during your travels. Accessing the fourth and final branch of the upgrade trees requires buying a skill to do so, but it isn’t prohibitively priced. There are merchants in the few town hubs you visit where you can buy ammunition and resources, as well as accessories like silencers and the weapons themselves. If you’re playing on easy, you’ll come across so much gold and jade ore to sell that the prices for these accessories will be an absolute joke.
The gameplay itself when hunting animals and bad guys isn’t bad, but it’s nothing innovative or interesting. You can find the same calibre of shooty-stealth in most games like this. I did enjoy the somewhat interesting addition of slathering yourself in mud to access a further option – muddy walls – for hiding, but that’s really just another wall filled with vegetation so it’s not really that ground-breaking.
It wouldn’t be an Uncha– *cough* Tomb Raider game without climbing every structure in sight, now would it? While I keep making snarky nods to Uncharted, I have to thank Shadow of the Tomb Raider for not having an excessive amount of wall breaking when I was trying to climb things. I mean, things definitely did still shatter, but I can only think of a couple of times where it actually set Lara back properly or flung her to a completely new area. There’s good variety in the traversal methods available to Lara: she can jump, wall scramble, climb suspiciously holey-looking walls with her pick(s), even climb walls of the same kind which are parallel to her, rappel down, swing and jump, swing and run along walls, then jump, jump and then throw a grapple to latch onto something across a too-large chasm – the list goes on. I do feel like almost all of the segments with climbing could have been shortened by half, but this is what the public wants: an excess of things to climb so we can feel cool and look at pretty things while we do it.
During the game I came across little barriers where I needed upgraded traversal/weapon-based skills to pass through. Some of these…well, I guess having a reinforced knife to break through harder barriers makes sense, but I will never agree that a shotgun is the only thing that could ever break through a “shotgun wall”, which was just a wall of thick wooden sticks. I would argue that any gun or even the reinforced knife could do it. Even a strong kick! For some reason, games that put blocks to traversal with very clearly marked “you need to come back when you have the X power” warnings remind me of Spyro 2. All of Spyro 2‘s skill requirements made sense. If you’re making less sense than a game about a purple dragon, then something has gone awry.
While we’re discussing skills, I wanted to mention that I liked the way the skill tree was set out, I liked the symbols and the design, but most of the skills weren’t particularly exciting. Obviously all of them are intended to be useful, but I think most of the basic ones that fill out the majority of the grid would have a greater impact on a non-easy playthrough. The later skills like the aforementioned body traps are so excellent, but it feels like you have near-unlimited breath on easy mode anyway, so there were a lot of skills I bought because I wanted to get something but it didn’t really feel like anything good was on offer.
Another way to earn skills is by completing challenge tombs. Challenge tombs are, without a doubt, the best part of the game. The puzzles are fantastic – in fact, all of the puzzles in the game, story or otherwise, are really good. I take my hat off to the puzzle masters in the development team because they made so, so many and while a lot of them employed similar physics-based problems, they all felt just different enough. The challenge tombs also felt like the main area where environment diversity was actually a thing, too, which really increased my enjoyment even more. I’m not exactly Queen of Puzzles over here, but even when I got a bit stuck I could take a moment to regroup and come back and try many more things and never felt like I needed to completely give up. Shadow of the Tomb Raider strikes an excellent balance of puzzle difficulty and enjoyability.
So before I get started on the main story, I want to tackle a bit more of the side content. A friend well-versed in the Tomb Raider universe told me that one of the worst changes they made between Rise and Shadow of the Tomb Raider was the way artifacts are handled. This complaint feeds into the main story as well, but in general she told me that discovering artifacts used to come with actual investigation and backstory which fed into the main story and fleshed out the world. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the importance of the artifacts is shoved away into optional reading (which, by the way, is a chore to listen to because Lara reads the entries aloud like a 10 year old slowly and awkwardly reads from an assigned novel in English class). As a layperson in the Tomb Raider universe, I will say that the artifacts and monoliths and other potentially interesting bits and pieces you could investigate and collect felt like afterthoughts – just things scattered around the map that you could look at for five seconds purely as a collectable and not as something interesting.
As a Tomb Raider initiate, I didn’t know how linear the game would be. I expected some exploration, but I didn’t come into the game expecting sidequests. I’m grateful for the exploration allowed by the base camps and mini hub areas (towns, cities) which helped the game feel less linear, but I don’t think that side quests were really necessary at all. I think a lot of the side quests could have been made into smaller parts of the main story line, as they concerned main characters and presumably important parts of the culture and background. I think Shadow of the Tomb Raider wanted to be an open world game, but it knew that it couldn’t be, so it threw a few side quests into the mix for the sake of being side quests, but so few that it just looks awkward and serves as a distraction.
As for the main story? Phew, well…when I found out that the game was less about Lara discovering her past and exploring cultural places of interest and almost entirely about being the Scooby Doo Gang to Trinity’s monster of the week, I was disappointed. I get it – Lara has a bone to pick with Trinity. They’re bad people doing bad things. They killed her daddy. However, Trinity aren’t interesting – they’re every generic bad super organization with a zillion expendable dudes and maybe two (in this case Dominguez and Rourke) semi-interesting dudes at the upper management level. By making Lara’s fixation on Trinity the only thing she cares about, it makes the game feel less like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and more like Lara Croft: Hate-Reading Your Enemy’s Social Media Every Day So You Can Find Reason to Hate Them More. In other words, not a good way to live your life, not an interesting way to live your life, and not a good premise for a game.
Warning: Significant plot spoilers beyond this point
I actually found the story regarding Unuratu (Queen of Paititi) and Dominguez’s youth in Paititi quite interesting. It was a damn sight more interesting than anything Lara was contributing to the story. In fact, most characters, be they antagonist or support character, showed more character and personality than Lara did. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is a boring plot device that moves the story from tomb to tomb while interesting stuff happens around her. In particular, I have two major story gripes which I could rant about for hours on end:
1) The Yaaxil
You’re about a quarter of the way through the game when you start hearing raspy shrieks and guttural growls around you. You come across scared Trinity goons and even see one attacked by something humanoid but…wrong. You’re thinking it, I was thinking it: zombies. No, of course they’re not zombies, they’re later revealed to be this weird feral-but-not-quite-feral people who sort of coexist (this is briefly explained but mostly hand-waved by Unuratu during one conversation) with the people of Paititi. They shriek and attack you when you try to progress through caves and puzzles (Resident Evil, anyone?), they scale walls and do other inhuman things but…aren’t monsters? Let’s face it, the developers wanted to put zombies in the game, but they knew that just putting zombies in the game would be sneered at, so they did this instead. I don’t care that they made them sort of plot relevant at the very end: they’re zombies because you wanted zombies. It’s a cop-out and it was completely unnecessary and out of line with what the rest of the game was like.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t really know who its villain is. Obviously they want it to be Trinity or Dominguez, more specifically, but Dominguez himself only shows up now and then to steal shit from you and sneer a bit. He barely even monologues at you. At some point, right towards the end, Rourke (the super militaristic American guy) starts taunting you constantly. He’s obnoxious and nasty – obviously he’ll be some kind of mid-boss, right? Nope. He just gets…killed off at the end there by the Yaaxil. My boyfriend, who was watching, pointed out that they never did anything with Rourke. He didn’t even realise it was him who had been spontaneously turned into jam by the not-zombies, that’s how unceremonious it was. Honestly, the whole end of the game felt rushed, like they didn’t know what to do with it.
To slather a more positive layer on the cranky review cake I’ve been decorating, Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks great. The interface is mostly user-friendly, the graphics are really nice, the option to give Lara PS1-era skins gave me a giggle, and while it’s not necessarily innovative at all times, the gameplay plays nicely with the graphics the majority of the time. Occasionally while rappelling under something the camera angle would cut back and forth weirdly and make it near impossible to know where you were, but otherwise it was good on the whole. The best music I heard in the game was during the chase and strictly plot-related battle segments. Most of the BGM you’ll hear in Shadow is ambient noise, and that suits the tone of the game much better than constant music, in my opinion. Let’s move out of the positive layer: the sound/volume balancing in this game is absolutely horrendous. It’s a good thing I had the awful (more on that later) subtitles on, because most key dialogue is insanely quiet, even when there’s no music playing. When you sit down at camp and Jonah joins you not even a metre away, Lara’s voice is crystal clear and Jonah sounds like he’s talking at you from across the cave. This isn’t isolated – it’s everywhere and it’s absolutely terrible.
Let’s start with voice acting. I already gave Lara a hard time for reading like a 10 year old when artifacts are described in the menu, but I have an enormous bone to pick with Survival Instincts voice acting during puzzle sections. When you’re in a puzzle area and you use Survival Instincts, Lara will speak up to offer a helpful hint about what to do next. Usually she’ll tell you straight up what you have to do. If you’re actually lost, this isn’t a terrible thing. However, as someone who just uses Survival Instincts to see where resources are most of the time, having the solution to the puzzle I’ve barely looked at immediately shoved in my face was not welcome. Further to that, as you continue to use Survival Instincts (which isn’t mandatory, obviously), Lara will repeat the same line of “helpful” dialogue in the same tone, word-for-word, over and over and over again. The only thing that made me want to stop playing the game was hearing Lara say “spigot” for the hundredth time. IT’S DARK AND I’M LOOKING FOR LOOT, LARA. I DON’T NEED TO FUCKING HEAR IT AGAIN.
Next up, one of my most-hated things in the entire game. I’m not the type of gamer that really thrives on “immersion”, but there was nothing more immersion-breaking than my experience with native vs. non-native languages in this game. At the start of the game you have the option of selecting a bunch of language options, but aside from that you can also choose whether everyone speaks in your chosen language or whether everyone will speak in their native language. I chose the latter because after my recent obsession with Yakuza games, I can honestly say that it feels wrong to be playing a game set in a very specific place and not hear most of the people speaking the native language. As we dove deeper into the jungle and came across supposedly untouched towns and cities, this happened a lot:
Lara: “Hello, is something the matter?”
NPC: (explains problem in native South American language, subtitled in English)
Lara: (responding in English) “Can I help with that?”
NPC: (responds in the affirmative in their native tongue, apparently understanding fluent English without ever having met someone outside their own tribe before)
And don’t even get me started on the supposed untouched village leaders who know fluent English and will speak to you in said language. Nope. I’m not buying it. It breaks immersion so hard and while I understand it may not be practical to have Lara know the language perfectly, it makes absolutely zero sense to have everyone magically understand English but keep talking to her in their native language. Further to that, great explorer Lara Croft hasn’t made even the slightest effort to learn Spanish, arguably one of the easier languages to learn? I’m not saying she has to be fluent either, but what kind of world-weary traveller are you?
Oh, this was another brilliant scene where this problem was truly noticeable:
Known character: (in native tongue) “Lara, those guards won’t let you through without the password. It’s [password]”
Lara: (in English) “Got it.”
She walks up to the guards, disguised as one of them.
Guard: (in native tongue) “Only the exalted shall pass etc etc.”
Lara: (in British English) “[Password]”
Guard: (in native tongue) “Right this way.”
….WHAT?! This is a horrible mishandling. If I knew it’d be this bad, I would have just taken the all-English option.
And while we’re on the subject of subtitles, I chose the least-intensive subtitle option, whichever one leaves out all of the background conversations and so on. Purely character speech. Now, I know that detailed subtitles are a must to make games accessible to the deaf community and I fully support that, but these subtitles are too overzealous. Here are some common ones that appear in almost every single scene in the game:
(muffled sounds) – this one is every time you go underwater
(death) – every time someone dies
Not so bad so far? The subtitles also let you know prematurely when the action sequence is over or when it’s about to start. (music slows) lets you know well before the actual gameplay does that you can put down your weapons and run around looting bodies. The subtitles get worse, though. Remember that someone had to write these, a few of my personal favourites:
(long grunt of determination)
(scream of dying horribly)
(annoyed moan) – me too
(bloodcurdling scream of agony, then wet death)
I feel I’ve made my case with that last one alone.
To wrap up an incredibly long rant, you’re probably surprised to find that I’ve given Shadow of the Tomb Raider an even remotely positive score. The game was incredibly average, but not so despicable that I couldn’t have fun playing it. The story had me invested, but it was part genuine interest and part “Well I’ve come this far, might as well see it to the end”. Even if a game is painfully average, there can still be enjoyable parts. I maintain that the general gameplay is good but nothing new, and the tombs and puzzles are fantastic. The graphics are quite stunning and traversal feels relatively smooth and intuitive.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider had a lot going for it and could have been something incredible, but instead it became a game I spent more time mocking aloud than truly enjoying. Would I recommend it? Not unless it was on sale for real cheap or you split the price with a bunch of friends and spent a weekend playing it and ragging on the stupid subtitles. In addition to all of the other niggly problems I covered earlier, the main issue Tomb Raider needs to overcome is remembering what the series should be about – exploring tombs, not stalking Trinity around the world.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.