Lara Croft has her work cut out for her. Alone and outnumbered, she stealthily infiltrates enemy territory. Lara scurries to the concealment of a bush, quietly stabbing an oblivious goon as he strolls by. She acquaints the tips of her arrows with the skulls of her next few targets. Along the way, Lara collects pieces of wood, cloth, and other materials to craft additional supplies. She jumps a gap to reach the next area and narrowly survives the leap thanks to a crumbling cliff edge. More foes await but Lara isn’t afraid. At this point, the battle-hardened explorer has engaged in this brutal song and dance countless times. The same holds true for the player who, unlike Croft, may be worn out on the formula by this point.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the third outing for Crystal Dynamic’s rebooted Lara Croft. This time, however, Deus Ex developer Eidos Montreal sits at the development helm. Lara faces her greatest challenge yet as she races to prevent a prophesied apocalypse – a cataclysm she herself unwittingly kickstarts.
Lara’s journey takes her into the heart of South America’s exotic and dangerous jungles. Littered with ancient tombs and occupied by a variety of wildlife, it’s the largest hub world the series has seen yet. That primary selling point mostly delivers. There’s a fair share of things to do, and it’s easy to get caught up in chasing map icons. I loved hunting the myriad of explorer journals and historical artifacts. Shadow lives up to its name as players won’t turn many corners without running into a challenge tomb or crypt. These particular distractions stand as the game’s best, even though they mechanically mirror those found in Rise.
Challenge tombs center around generally fun and inventive environmental riddles. One standout involved manipulating light reflections to align paths across a raging water current. Crypts act as more standard traversal trials. Unfortunately, the same exact traps from previous entries reappear in these dungeons: fragile floors that mask death pits, swinging spike pendulums Lara has seconds to shoot apart, among other throwbacks. Besides making limited narrative sense (is there a universal trap handbook shared by every culture?), experienced players will know precisely how to handle them which dampens a tomb’s air of mystery.
Shadow of the Tombs Raider’s increased emphasis on underwater exploration scared me initially. Many areas now feature 360 degree, occasionally complex, aquatic pathways. Such segments rarely feel fun in games, but I’d say they’re tolerable. The act of swimming feels fine, thankfully, and I appreciate the added depth by incorporating stealth with Lara having to dodge marine predators. However, getting to swim more doesn’t feel like the dramatic shake-up the game needs and I could ultimately take or leave these areas entirely.
Side missions offer another big detour from the main narrative. They won’t blow away open-world veterans in terms of their design, but I enjoyed them enough. Many involve speaking to people and fetching an item while mowing down obstacles along the way. I primarily got a kick out of seeing different sides of Lara’s personality as she interacts with locals, especially children. Given the dark plot, It’s nice to see softer moods of the typically serious warrior. In one touching mission, she explores a Mayan ruin on behalf of an elderly, blind storyteller and gleefully describes her excursion in detail to help paint a vivid mental picture to his delight.
Crafting once again plays a big role with over 20 different materials to gather. As in previous games, Lara’s arsenal of weapons can be upgraded several times. New vestige outfits offer the most enticing use for resources as they bestow buffs such as increased stealth or reduced damage. Also, they look pretty cool. Still, outside of crafting additional health and outfits, the game rarely presses the need to invest in other creations. For instance, gathering herbs to use the focus perception, which helps identify plants and animals, feels relatively needless. Lara regularly finds herself surrounded by herbs, so they’re easy to find anyway. My inventory remained filled to the brim with most of the ingredients, as I found it relatively easy to get by with what I had.
Stealth plays a larger role here, so you don’t necessarily need a top-tier assault rifle to take down Trinity’s forces. On top of her usual sulking across cover points, Lara can now camouflage herself using mud or rope up enemies from elevated perches ala Batman. She even has new fear arrows that send targets into a delirious rampage of friendly fire. These fun tweaks reinforced my desire to stick to the shadows because gunplay is passable at best, despite shotguns packing a disappointingly soft punch, and close-quarters combat is a disaster.
Going hand-to-hand feels floaty, unsatisfying, and overall just bad. That problem becomes exacerbated due to the annoying amount of melee-focused enemies. Many encounters devolve into awkward affairs of retreating backward to create enough space to fire arrows or bullets into charging foes. Add in that Lara goes down as fast as I would in a firefight (i.e. very quickly) and going full Rambo isn’t nearly as exhilarating as it should be. The sloppy final boss battle encapsulates this point and challenges players in all of the wrong ways. The flaws of open combat also take the thrill out of crafting weapon upgrades or obtaining new firearms. Where’s the fun in buying a new pistol when it doesn’t feel great using it?
The main plot acts as a swan song of sorts for this modern incarnation of gaming’s favorite treasure hunter. Though the story doesn’t venture far beyond the standard “race to find the powerful artifact before the bad guys do”, Lara’s personal anguish winds up being the highlight. Her obsession with avenging her father’s death backfires spectacularly, and the story does an admirable job displaying her guilt and how that, ironically, further fuels her drive to find a solution. Camilla Luddington once again knocks her portrayal of Lara out of the park, and a strong supporting cast elevates their characters. The primary villain has a fascinating backstory as well, before morphing into a less-interesting maniac towards the end.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s jaw-dropping presentation regularly floored me. Its lush foliage, immaculately detailed architecture, top-notch lighting, and expressive facial animations firmly place among the generation’s finest-looking titles. The vibrant hidden city of Paititi specifically stands as one of the most beautiful locations I’ve seen this year. Conversely, other aspects sport an unpolished quality. Animations, particularly those in combat, can appear hitchy and frequently lack appropriate sound effects, robbing them of their impact.
If Shadow of the Tomb Raider is Lara Croft’s swan song for the foreseeable future, it’s a solid but flawed final act. The game’s biggest misstep is how little it does to significantly push the formula forward. It closely adheres to Rise of the Tomb Raider’s winning blueprint to a fault, making it feel like a grander, but less engaging retread. Tomb Raider fans will undoubtedly find a base level of enjoyment with Shadow. However, as someone who counts himself among the Croft faithful, the most recurring treasure to be had are piles of diminishing returns.
A PS4 review copy of Shadow of the Tomb Raider was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.