In Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, we saw Lara Croft go from a new untested adventurer to someone with a fair amount of experience sneaking into tombs and foiling Trinity’s plans. Now in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara is her fully realized Tomb Raider self. She’s comfortable with the things she must do to stand against Trinity and knows how to make the hard choices she’s often forced into. However, we also get glimpses of what her quest in opposition to Trinity has cost her personally and she doesn’t bear that weight lightly. It’s an emotional and very rewarding journey which has been a pleasure to go through. For everyone who has been saying they are tired of playing a Tomb Raider in training, this is the game you have been waiting for. This is our Shadow of the Tomb Raider review.
We join Lara in the Yucatan peninsula shortly after the ending of Rise of the Tomb Raider and find Lara has gotten herself in a bit of a tight spot while on Trinity’s trail. Jonah is of course still around and is as usual Lara’s rock which keeps her grounded throughout the game. It’s in these first early moments of the game Lara, in trying to do good, does something which is quite catastrophic to those around her whether they know her personally or not. It’s this choice which sets the game in motion and provides Lara with some of her biggest challenges to date.
Since this is still a video game there is of course still a bit of a tutorial in the beginning but in this case, it felt far more perfunctory than it did in the previous games. Which makes sense of course because at this point Lara already knows how to do all the Tomb Raider things and this is just a reminder for players. The balance between having to walk players through the basics a bit and making it clear that it isn’t Lara learning these things was well done. It was nice to feel like Lara wasn’t starting off as a weakling with no real skills, but she still had room to grow throughout the game.
This tutorial was kicked off by a plane crash in which Lara lost all her gear and had to recover everything and find her way to civilization. This worked well early in the game and as a vehicle to drive the tutorial it made sense. What annoyed me was about halfway through the story Lara once again loses most of her gear. When it happens this time though it doesn’t have a real impact on the story. The only thing not having your gear did was force me to have to play stealthily (which I probably would have done anyway). However, even if I had all my gear and had decided to go full on assault the whole section would have still been fairly difficult. Storywise it would have been acceptable if this was a defining moment for her and not having the gear would be important for her development, but the character development which happens at that point has nothing at all to do with the gear. It’s much deeper than that. I want to be clear here, the character development which happens during this part is aces. It just has nothing to do with not having her gear. On the upside, I got all of my gear back right after this small section, but that really drove home the pointlessness of losing the gear in the first place.
Going back to the room to grow thing, skill trees this time around were interesting but mostly the same as in Rise. The basic mechanic of earning XP which filled up a badge and awarding a skill point every time you fill the badge was the same. This time around the trees are called Seeker (environmental/resources), Warrior (combat abilities), and Scavenger (augment stealth abilities). Fundamentally all of this works exactly how it did in the previous game but with some small tweaks. Certain skills have made a return (Boa’s Coil which allows you to auto-loot anyone killed by a stealth kill) while other are new skills to further augment Lara and her various abilities. There’s even a skill which removes the QTE when Lara jumps and is hanging on by one hand.
Movement in the game, in general, feels much more fluid than it did in Rise of the Tomb Raider and most of the ways of traversing the environment are also the same. However, I did run into a recurring issue where getting Lara to jump where I needed her to go wasn’t easy. For example, I’d be using the axes to move around on a wall and would need to jump up to a ledge clearly marked as where I needed to go. However, Lara would be looking to jump to the sides instead of up. This was probably the most frustrating aspect of the game for me because it resulted in a lot of deaths. There’s also a couple of tight spots where the camera inexplicably was locked in a specific position which really limited my ability to see where I needed to go.
There was also a lot of underwater moving about, especially moving about underwater in very tight crevasses or with boulders falling on Lara. As someone who is dreadfully afraid of drowning this aspect of the game was a bit stressful for me, especially since there is no breath meter, so I had no idea how long I could swim before Lara would start struggling and then die. Luckily there were pockets of air spread around so for the most part, it wasn’t too bad. Additionally, there are some sections, especially in some challenge tombs, where I think the faster swimming and increased breathe underwater skills are absolutely needed. Also, watch out for eels and piranhas!
Combat also feels fluid and just works well whether I was going all stealthy (most of the time) or if I decided to just go all out with things. Since I prefer to go mostly stealthy I really appreciated the ability to break line of sight and get back into cover to salvage a botched stealth attempt. It also allowed me another tool to draw out enemies. For example, there was one area where I thought I had killed all the dudes, so I just ran around a corner… and ran smack into 6 more enemies. So, I quickly ran back around the corner and into the bushes and went back into my stealth play. Combat in Shadow is flexible so no matter what your preferred playstyle is you can approach it the way you want to.
My one nitpick with this though is there are certain parts of the game where you can’t stealth up at all. Mostly this makes sense in terms of the story which was fine, but it was a real problem for the final boss fight. It made no sense to not be able to use my stealth abilities during this fight and it ended up with me kiting the boss around so I could get some range on him because fighting him in melee seemed like a terrible idea. To have spent my whole game honing these skills only to have them nullified at the end was disappointing.
There didn’t seem to be very many side quests in general, only a few in each location we visited. However, every single one of these quests felt like they were important to the people involved. It didn’t feel like I was ever doing throwaway things to get extra XP or to find hidden tombs which was a nice change from a lot of other games which often seem to be packed to the gills with meaningless tasks. I also highly recommend searching out the challenge tombs. They often are more of a challenge than anything you find in the main story and offer new skill unlocks and outfits which offer special bonuses which are quite useful.
Another area which bears mentioning is the difficulty level choices of which there are four: Smart and Resourceful, Rite of Passage, One with the Jungle, and Deadly Obsession. In addition to selecting an overall difficulty the difficulty of combat, exploration, and puzzles can be set individually which allows the player to really tailor the kind of gameplay experience they’d like to have. Having this level of control in the game difficulty was really refreshing because not everyone plays Tomb Raider games for the same reasons so being able to tailor the experience a bit was a nice surprise.
Overall the story in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is predictable, I had everything figured out before I was even halfway done with the game, but this shouldn’t dissuade you. The execution in how everything is done is excellent and even though I knew what would happen, the end still hit the way it was supposed to and felt like a satisfying end to Lara’s story. Also, I highly recommend talking to everyone you can in game, there’s a lot of very interesting characters throughout the game.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the best game in this trilogy and was well worth the wait. I’ve been trying to hold myself back with gushing about all the things so I don’t spoil it for everyone, but seriously this game is a masterpiece. Yes, there are some things which bothered me while playing but overall the experience was magnificent and should not be missed.