Care of a battered hand-me-down disc, Tomb Raider 2 is one of the very first games I remember playing that had something resembling character. Lara Croft was an unstoppable force, smirking in the face of danger and racing forward to the next challenge. She was beautiful and curvaceous, yes, and intelligent too. She was also a millionaire who could afford home gyms and butlers and walk-in freezers – she didn’t need the money or the infamy that all these dusty old relics provided. That’s why I loved her; she did it all and risked everything just for the thrill of the hunt, and had a damn good time while she did it.
That Lara was dead and buried in her tiny 90s sunglasses with 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, which cast Croft as a frightened and shaken ingenue thrust into horrific circumstances on the island of Yamatai, where she was forced to do whatever she could to survive. This chain of events supposedly started her down the path to becoming an iconic adventurer, but ever since that outing, I’ve been waiting for her to regain that thrill-seeking bravado that I fell in love with, which coincidentally happened to be the reason she’s willing to put herself in any of these ridiculous life-threatening situations in the first place. After playing this, the third of the prequel trilogy and the first from Eidos Montreal, I’m sadly still waiting.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider starts with an interesting idea – to explore the negative repercussions to all this selfish snatching and storing of ancient artefacts that simply don’t belong to you. Since revelations involving the Croft family that came to light at the close of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has become ever more obsessed by vaguely evil and omnipotent corporation Trinity. But this single-mindedness betrays her, as in her hurry to stop Trinity from possessing a ritual Mayan dagger, she takes it herself and in doing so sets the lead-up to an honest to goodness apocalypse in motion. Whoops.
We’re promised a darker take on both Lara’s personality and her treasure-hunting impulses, but it never pays off and things quickly take on the same narrative beats we’ve seen before in the previous two games. This interpretation of Lara already felt far too one-note, and it turns out taking an already stony-faced character and then loading them with the guilt of causing the death of hundreds of people does not a dynamic, relatable or likeable heroine make. It only serves to render Lara more morose, which would be fine if the game ever found an effective channel for her grief other than the two extremes of murderous rampage and awkward sulk.
And while Eidos Montreal has doubled down on the character’s ferocity, it’s led the studio to cast around for other ways in which to ground and humanise her. This effort mostly falls on the broad shoulders of her friend, Jonah. The story relies heavily on players caring about him, but it’s hard to when the one facet of his personality we’re beat around the head with is that he is Lara’s best (and only) friend and seems willing to risk almost certain death just to humour even her most taciturn of whims. He’s also her employee, if that gives you any indication as to the current state of Ms Croft’s extensive social circle. Other characters are more interesting, including an Incan queen whose blend of lofty imperiousness and sense of selfless duty is far more compelling than Lara’s own, and a young but capable prince eager to prove himself.
The majority of Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes place in the Peruvian jungle, which deftly steals the show from the off. It’s a gorgeous backdrop, lush and teeming with life. The set pieces are incredible creations, making the most of the jungle setting but also sweeping you off to sparkling mountain vistas and rappelling into cavernous underground labyrinths. You can tell that care has been taken to make each stop on Lara’s journey feel less like a corridor and more like an open space where players can explore and stay a while, even when in reality it’s just a matter of scooping up whatever resources have been scattered around before continuing down the one set path that’s been laid out for you.
But it’s when the game genuinely does open up that the real fun begins. Paititi is a wonder, a vibrant hub location that seems to get bigger the more you explore. Here you’ll find multi-part side missions that place Lara in the role of councillor, mediator and murder mystery private investigator. You’ll find crypts and challenge tombs that you’ll swear weren’t there just moments before, you’ll find merchants to barter with for new toys to play with and new outfits to craft, and talking to locals will unlock secret caches and animal hunting grounds on your map. Certain locals will only talk to you while wearing the appropriate garb, and better knowledge of ancient dialects will be necessary to read the riddles that will point you in the direction of treasure, which all means that when the game actually leaves you alone to explore rather than shooing you along the main storyline at a brisk pace, you can really stop and appreciate how beautiful and intricate it actually all is.
Shadow has a much more pronounced balance between combat and tomb raiding too – not only in the main campaign, where ornate and often challenging puzzles are perhaps even more prolific than lengthy fight sequences, but in optional extras like Challenge Tombs and Crypts. These can be found sometimes quite far off the beaten path, offering additional adventuring to those brave enough and/or well equipped enough to heed the call. Rewards vary in usefulness, a crafting recipe here, some new boots or a cape there, but really it’s the experience they provide – uninterrupted spelunking without any of the story guff – that will keep you seeking them out for more.
The same lightweight XP system from before is still at play in Shadow, albeit in slightly new garb. Players can pour Skill Points into a branching Skill Tree, which feels utterly superfluous given that any skills you really need are unlocked as you continue through the main story anyway. The crafting system has been streamlined further, meanwhile, so that you can cook up consumables like arrows and performance-enhancing drugs on the run with a couple of simple button presses. Lara’s arsenal of weapons is much the same as before – you’ve got assault rifles, shotguns and handguns which you can upgrade or add to via crafting or visiting merchants, but as always, it usually comes back to your trusty bow to see you through most predicaments.
The combat is markedly updated in Shadow. It plays up to the central theme of fear, with Lara the one doing all the scaring as a predator with a bit of Predator about her, slathering herself in mud and pressing against outcrops of vegetation to avoid detection, brutally picking off enemies one by one. Taking to the treetops allows her to hang her foes from the uppermost branches, or new fear arrows will poison them into doing her dirty work for her, turning their guns on their comrades before choking to death themselves. This renewed emphasis on stealth means that altercations quickly turn sour if you’re spotted, but there is a way to claw back the upper hand if you remain undetected again for long enough. This careful remodelling of Lara as some kind of deadly jungle cat falls apart slightly during sequences that throw scores of melee-only foes at you within impossibly confined spaces, all but forcing you to fall back to blasting enemies in the face with a shotgun, but sections that treat open-world combat almost like a deadly puzzle to be solved do much better at selling Lara as a one-woman murder factory, for better or for worse.
In terms of new traversal mechanics, nothing here will feel particularly new to series stalwarts. Which is fair; as the final instalment of a trilogy, Shadow understandably wants to build upon an established formula, not reinvent it entirely. Lara’s dual pickaxes are now joined by fancy footwear that allows her to overhang climb, she can now use air pockets to gulp for breath down long forgotten flooded passageways, and to complement the game’s themes of descending into darkness Lara can use new rappelling gear to, well, do just that, as well as wall-run to new heights. On their own these new touches seem barely worth mentioning, but when inserted into Lara’s already impressive repertoire of skills, they allow for greater inventiveness on the part of the developers to craft more intricate puzzles and elaborate environments, which make up pretty much all of the best moments Shadow of the Tomb Raider has to offer.
All this is good if predictable stuff if you’re just here for the tombs, which makes it more of a shame that those hoping for a stirring final act to close out the trilogy will likely be disappointed. The script is littered with trite cliches, clanking dialogue and predictable plot points we’ve not only seen multiple times before, but multiple times before in this very series. More than one climactic moment is completely derailed or undermined by bizarre staging, and try as it might with soft-focus flashbacks and a couple of rictus-like grins, Shadow just cannot make this Lara Croft likeable or relatable.
It’s been three games and this reboot has yet to show Lara exhibiting any real passion or enjoyment for what she does – it all comes across as a duty she’s obligated to fulfil. Instead of focusing on the thrill of discovery and the wonder of far-flung forgotten corners of the world, this series was all about a contrived revenge story that no-one asked for. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s big problem, much like the two previous games, is that there’s far too much darkness and not enough levity to relieve the tension and allow us to actually enjoy these characters or get to know them beyond their current predicament. What food does Lara like? What music does she listen to? How much could she absolutely clean up if she decided to chill out, open an Instagram account and be #blessed? I’m only half joking with the last one, but you get my point. Lara is athletic, she’s smart, and she’s unwaveringly heroic, but if she acted more like an actual human being and less like the Terminator with a Rosetta Stone plugin, the series would be much better for it.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider ends this reboot on much the same note that it began, which for its fans may not be such a bad thing. This is a well-crafted and polished experience, and when the game actually gives you full control and leaves you alone to seek out its quieter mysteries, it can render you wide-eyed with wonder. And this Tomb Raider may have motivation and purpose and a vague semblance of an emotional arc but it all rings hollow, particularly when elsewhere there’s repetition and an overall lack of new ideas. This Lara has forgotten herself and forgotten the joy and the thrill.