Published by Square Enix
Available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC
Rated M for Mature
I don’t think there’s a character in gaming history that has undergone as radical of a rebranding campaign as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Originally known for her gravity-defying physique and “iconic” adventure garb, the Lara Croft of my youth offered many a young man an entirely new reason to show interest in the world of video games. I can’t remember a single character that sparked so many late-night private “fanfictions” or vigorous internet debates over secret “hidden costumes” (or lack thereof). Yet, her modern reimagining wasn’t due to her being a damsel in distress. She was always a badass. It just shows how much has changed in the last 20 years that we can now sell video games where “badass” is the primary selling point, and not “boobs.”
Uncomfortable revelations about the development of my sexual identity aside, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is fondly remembered as a prime example of how to relaunch a franchise right. It was more than just the same character with a fresh coat of paint, revamping everything from the gameplay mechanics to the core tone. 2013 Lara was both capable and vulnerable, proving that savage violence wasn’t a boy’s only club. She showed that you didn’t have to strip a character of their sexuality to make them a badass. She was more than just her good looks, a concept that many gamers raised on the previous era of Lara still have trouble internalizing.
What 2013 Tomb Raider established, the sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider grew. Pulling from her experiences on Yamatai, Lara set out to uncover the truth behind her father’s obsessive research. Encountering a new enemy in the antiquities exploiting organization Trinity, she quickly found her life once again in grave danger. The big difference this time though was that she wasn’t just trying to survive. She wasn’t trapped on some island with no means of escape. She was actively pursuing the danger, putting herself into the action hero role rather than having it thrust upon her. If Tomb Raider was the birth of a survivor, then Rise of the Tomb Raider was her fully becoming a hero.
With Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara has entered into the final stage of her transformation by becoming the Predator. Seriously, she has gotten so good at murdering people that I wouldn’t have been surprised if at some point you unlock a cloaking device and shoulder mounted plasma cannon. You might think you’re ready for the level of murderous psychopath Lara has become, but I guarantee that you aren’t. Without spoiling anything, Lara destroys at least two towns and almost ends the world. And that’s all in the first hour.
Starting off two months after Rise of the Tomb Raider left off, we join Lara and her last remaining friend Jonah as they hunt through South America for stuff. Hot on the trail of Trinity (or maybe Trinity is on their trail? It’s vague), Lara soon discovers that a prized dagger/key is in a nearby tomb. As raiding tombs for their precious artifacts is kind of her jam, she races off to beat them to the punch and take the dagger first. She succeeds…and accidentally kick-starts the apocalypse. Oooooops.
She’s quickly captured by the new leader of Trinity, Pedro Dominguez. Taking the dagger, he explains to Lara that taking the dagger killed the sun. It is now up to him to try to save all life on the planet as quickly as possible. He then leaves Lara there to think about what she did and speeds off to try and fix things. Not wanting anyone to steal her spotlight, Lara embarks on a quest to stop this dastardly man from doing whatever necessary to avert the apocalypse.
“Now wait, hold up. Are you telling me Lara is hunting down a guy that just wants to save the world? That doesn’t sound very heroic to me.” Well put, imaginary reader! Having beaten the game, I can’t tell you how exactly we’re supposed to be rooting for Lara. Aside from a few establishing segments where Trinity shoots civilians for plot, they aren’t doing anything here aside from trying to stop the sun from exploding. Lara, on the other hand, gouges out throats with the same ease that you casually swipe right while sitting on the toilet.
In fact, expanding the variety of ways that Lara can end a man’s life is a key feature of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In addition to stabbing and shooting people from bushes, treetops, and ledges, you can now drag people to watery graves and hang them from trees by a rope. Very heroic. Combat also isn’t now divided into strict “combat” and “stealth” phases, with Lara able to use a variety of traps and tools to break line of sight and slink back into the shadows. It’s quite fun, in that, “alien hunting humans for sport,” kind of way.
Now it wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without some tombs to raid, and in these Shadow of the Tomb Raider shines. Hidden throughout the world are various crypts and challenge tombs, each with a unique prize at the end. The variety of the puzzles and settings is truly wonderful, making the experience of solving each as much of a reward as whatever new skill or bit of clothing you get at the end. It’s a chance for the game to flex its creative muscles. In one tomb you’ll be puzzling out how to traverse a wrecked treasure galleon, and the next you’ll have to dodge traps as you sprint through an obsidian death-maze.
Between the set-piece story moments and dazzling challenge tombs, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers a hefty bounty of memorable moments. When trying its hardest, the game really is a breathtaking experience. Unfortunately, dashing across crumbling rooftops and conquering trap-laden tombs is only a fraction of the runtime. Most of the game will be spent just running around, looking for the next thing to do. Story aside, my greatest criticism of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that the world feels simultaneously constrained and devoid of interesting stuff. There’s plenty to do, but I wouldn’t really consider hunting down supply caches and ore veins to be thrilling gameplay. It just doesn’t hit the sweet spot of size vs stuff to do. It isn’t large and freeform enough to really justify the extras in that Skyrim bullshitting around for hours kind of way. At the same time, it doesn’t nearly deliver the thrilling moments fast enough to stand in the same league as Uncharted 4.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is unfortunately a game with plenty of good ideas that are constantly hampered by inconsistency. When the gameplay is solid, the story will make things confusing. When the characters are getting good, it’ll surely lead to a long segment of slowly walking through a town while nothing happens. There’s a new outfit system, which quickly becomes tedious when you need to switch dresses to talk to different people. It all adds up to a game that constantly breaks flow. Every time something genuinely thrilling happens, some plot device or long period of slog will crush the momentum. And that’s not even mentioning the bugs. I understand that programming a game with this many degrees of movement is hard, but I died far more times from a jump not registering right than I did from any of the enemies.
There was a fantastic moment halfway through the game where Lara emerges from the river wreathed in flames. On the bank is a downed Trinity agent, cowering at the sight of the advancing Croft. Without any ceremony or emotion, Lara kneels and plunges her knife into his heart. It was brutal, savage, unexpected, and perfectly depicted her descent into something she never intended to become. The very next scene, she is literally crying over how this is all her fault and she isn’t sure where to go. This kind of wild inconsistency is endemic to Shadow of the Tomb Raider. There’s a ton of potential here, but not enough cohesion in design or story to bring it all together. It’s a fun game with a lot of impressive moments but lacking on the connective tissue required to bring it into a full-bodied experience.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is chock full of good ideas. Unfortunately, a confusing story and inconsistent pacing means that none of them ever really get to shine. You’ll surely like certain parts, but as a whole, it feels shady.