Lara Croft’s reboot as a Tomb Raider began five years ago, and what an adventure it’s been. First, she braved a craggy island, then the harsh winter weather of Siberia, and now she’s taming the jungles of South America. What started as a young archaeologist’s research and dream to uncover the mythological civilization of the Yamatai has turned into an obsessed pursuit to stop a sect of masterminds out to steal precious artifacts of immortality. Shadow of the Tomb Raider brings the Trinity trilogy (or is it Trinogy?) to a close, and Lara is nigh unrecognizable from her first foray in 2013. She’s a survivor, a hunter, an archaeologist, an explorer, and a bit of a mass killer. And she kind of makes everything worse.
Have you ever heard the theory that Indiana Jones really didn’t affect anything in Raiders of the Lost Ark? If you think about it, nothing he did stopped the Nazis from finding the Ark of the Covenant. He couldn’t stop the Nazis from performing the ritual to open it, either. The only thing that stopped the Nazis was them opening the Ark, which ended up killing them all. This theory can ruin the movie for some, but fans of it should never forget that while it may be true, it was the wild ride that made the movie memorable and fun. A lot of the same can be said about Lara Croft in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Welcome to the Jungle
At the beginning, Lara is in hot pursuit of Trinity in Cozumel as they search for yet another artifact of immortality. Naturally, she’s out to stop them. While she does get the Mayan artifact first, taking the artifact set in motion a “Cleansing” that will eventually destroy the world. The only way to stop the Cleansing is to reunite the two Mayan artifacts of the full moon and new moon. It turns out they were kept separate for a reason. Unfortunately, Lara didn’t know about the other artifact; she just knew she had to stop Trinity from getting this one, no matter the cost. The cost turned out to be rather high.
Now Lara must follow the clues to find the Hidden City in Peru, find the silver box of Ix-Chel, and prevent the world’s impending doom. All in a day’s work for our friendly (-ish?) neighborhood tomb raider. It’s a tale we’ve seen two times before in this trilogy alone, not to mention every other archaeological adventure. It’s not brand new, but it doesn’t make it any less fun. After all, we’ve stuck with Indy through three adventures, and all of those were just as fun as the one before it. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is no exception.
Shoo-in for the Brotherhood of Assassins
Lara is now fully versed in the arts of stealth kills, running and gunning, hunting, crafting, and climbing practically anything. Those who played the previous games will feel right at the tomb from the get-go. Those who haven’t, don’t worry, because Lara loses all her gear in the very beginning and has to start from square one (like she’s Link from The Legend of Zelda). The game is very good about teaching the player every one of Lara’s tricks of the trade, and even has little reminders of how to do something close to the end.
These can be turned off at any time, and in addition, players can set individual difficulties for combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. If you don’t enjoy the combat, which is, honestly, the game’s biggest weakpoint, turn that all the way down. If you want to be punished for making little mistakes in puzzle-solving, turn that difficulty all the way up. You get the idea. Shadow of the Tomb Raider can literally be customized for anyone’s play-style, and I sincerely hope that more games implement this idea.
The game heavily emphasizes stealth to get through areas of combat. Lara will not last long in a firefight, and her scampering and dodging skills are subpar at best. On the one hand, it’s pretty darn annoying. On another, it’s rather realistic. There is no way one could believe that Lara, dressed in cargo pants and a tank top, can survive a shootout against ten soldiers stacked in kevlar. So, Lara has to turn to the bushes for cover or slather mud on her face and arms so she can blend into the jungle walls. She also has the trees for sniping and other death-from-above kills. A new trick up her sleeve includes stringing people up with her rope arrows. It’s like being Batman from Arkham Asylum, but with the actual intent to kill.
The stealth areas require strategy, some creative thinking, and a lot of patience. These were some of the most fun areas in the entire game.
However, since Lara has such an aptitude for stealth, combat is downright unbearable when she has to get in a melee scuffle. Past games included some really fun close-combat moves with the pickaxe, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider provides no techniques for melee. If things get close, which they do on occasion (and of course with the final boss), Lara has to rely upon ranged weaponry, an (hopefully) upgraded shotgun, and lots of scramble moves to stay alive. It was these sections that nearly got me to turn down the combat difficulty. Hey Crystal Dynamics? If you’re going to make Lara need to have close combat skills, could you please give her some to work with, mmmkay?
We’re Here to Raid Tombs and Chew Gum
Fortunately, combat only makes up a small portion of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While simply running through the story is pretty meaty in of itself, the story maybe includes 40% of the overall experience. Exploration is the biggest name of this tomb raiding game. You have no idea how hard it was to ignore all of the Challenge Tombs, the crypts, the side quests, and all of those lovely collectibles to push through to this review in time. I would have finished the game probably a few days sooner if I did a better job ignoring them.
Pretty much all of the collectibles these Tomb Raider games have had before reappear. There are various documents, relics, survivor caches, and treasure boxes for Lara to find in both Mexico and Peru. Each area also has crypts to explore to find new equipment as well as monoliths for Lara to decipher as she learns the various dialects of the region better. There’s also the optional Challenge Tombs that will reward players with specific skills Lara can only learn after completing that particular tomb. Did I mention sidequests? Because there are so many sidequests Lara can take on from talking to villagers (sometimes talking to villagers also marks collectibles on Lara’s map), in addition to area challenges.
Simply put, the exploring-loving player will never get bored. It’s the exploration that will keep you up late at night, especially once you obtain certain bow upgrades that will allow you to access areas you previously could not.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is one of the few games where I would recommend most players to go collectible hunting, even if they aren’t completionists. Many of the documents, especially the Trinity documents, answer many questions the game presents. For example, I laughed when Lara reached the Hidden City in Peru and everyone within spoke perfect English, including the children. Here’s a civilization that has never seen the outside world, and somehow they all speak the Queen’s English. I was baffled later, when I came across some of the villagers speaking their own native language. They do have their own language, as I assumed, but how in the world do they all know English? If you find a certain document within the Hidden City, you’ll find out exactly why they speak English. Even better, the explanation fits in with everything Lara learns about the City’s history.
We’re All Out of Gum
Shadow of the Tomb Raider may not innovate the Tomb Raider formula, but you know how the saying goes—if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal created an incredible gameplay foundation in Tomb Raider, expanded upon it in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and polished (most of) it in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In many ways, it’s comfort food for seasoned Tomb Raider fans, and yet it will still be appetizing to newcomers. I wish it didn’t follow its usual recipe for the story, but at least it had enough unpredictable twists and turns to keep it fresh.
By the way, thanks, devs, for bringing to life my greatest fear as a child—the possibility of getting eaten by piranhas. I’m not going to be able to go swimming for a long time.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.