Rise of the Tomb Raider launched to quite a bit of praise, especially from yours truly. A timed Xbox One-exclusive at the time, I went as far as to call Rise of the Tomb Raider the Uncharted 2 to what the 2013 reboot was. At that, because it launched alongside Fallout 4, it didn’t really get the attention it deserved, but we’ve fortunately still been blessed enough to see its sequel, Shadow of the Tomb Raider come to fruition, and it’s excellent.
What Is It?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the last game in the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy, and it takes place two months after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Now an experienced archaeologist, Lara Croft has become more aware about what happened to her family at the hands of Trinity, the shady organization we’ve seen in the series that chases cursed artifacts seemingly for the purpose of world domination. When Lara gets her hands on a hidden dagger she found excavating a tomb that Trinity had taken interest in, she finds that she’s triggered the “Cleansing” and just as Trinity takes the dagger from her, a tsunami all but destroys the small Mexican town they’re in with the threat of causing havoc to more of these towns.
Now it’s up to Lara to make things right, and in this adventure the story of her biting more than she can chew becomes the common theme. And more so than other game in this trilogy, Lara brings out the badass.
Why Should I Care?
Everybody that’s played a game in the current Tomb Raider trilogy knows that the gameplay has taken a much appreciated turn into Uncharted‘s style of gameplay where exploration and action take first fiddle among everything else.
While they both make up a large amount of what you’ll actually be doing in the game, Tomb Raider has also taken more of an open world turn as well. With the exception of a section in The Lost Legacy, progression in Uncharted has mostly been linear. There’s obviously a certain path to follow in Shadow in order to progress the story, but you’ll often find yourself in hub worlds where you can interact with inhabitants to discover various secrets that lead to different kinds of sidequests and optional tombs.
One such hub world is the lost city of Paititi, and it’s huge. From old ruins to explore, lakes to swim in, and people to interact with, there’s a lot to uncover. One of the cooler features in the game is to have natives speak in their usual language with subtitles translating to further immerse yourself in the experience, but it’s kind of weird seeing Lara immediately respond back in English as if the locals knew what she was talking about.
The tombs in the game are absolutely fantastic, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider is littered with them. I often found myself getting sidetracked as soon as I saw the notification that a tomb was nearby, with the feeling being reminiscent of finding a new shrine to beat in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but nowhere near as systematic in approach. Shrines stuck out like a sore thumb in Zelda, but in Shadow, you actually have to look for the right paths to get to them and it just feels even more rewarding if it’s a tomb you found without the help of an NPC.
That said, one of best features in Shadow of the Tomb Raider lies in its customizable difficulty settings. You can choose to make combat, exploration, and puzzles as hard as you want and while I normally like to play on whatever the default difficulty is, I found the game much more enjoyable when setting exploration and puzzles to the hard setting. Seeing as this is one of my main genres and I simply absorb these kinds of Uncharted-esque games like a sponge, I felt like I could use the challenge with exploration and puzzles.
As stated, while the game is much more of an open world than previous games in the series are, the “right” route doesn’t have to be painfully obvious. Oftentimes, you’ll see the paths you have to take marked, highlighted, or maybe even the camera is pointed directly at the place you have to go. If you’re playing the game on the harder exploration difficulty, these paths won’t be so obvious. You won’t see the handholds on cliffs painted yellow nor will you see the discoloration of climbable walls. Not only did this make the game more challenging, it definitely forced me to just try various ways of traversal out. If I died, I died. It’s not like there’s much of a penalty there–unless of course, you turn off checkpoints, which can make the game pretty brutal.
There was this tomb I got stuck in not because I didn’t know how to solve the puzzles and find the treasure, but because I didn’t know how to get out of it and move on with the game. I ventured back into the beginning of the actual level, but I didn’t know how to get myself back up to the entrance as I had to line myself down at the start and there’s no grappling hook in the game. It turned out that there was a climbable wall I could’ve ran on to further scale up the caves, and I just felt entirely dumb when I couldn’t even find it when bringing the difficulty down to easy.
Combat in Shadow is mostly the same as it has been, with a much heavier emphasis on stealth. While hardly any game gets stealth right because of a bevy of factors, it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Stealth combat in Shadow is full of absolutely idiotic AI, but it’s still a lot of fun to play. Instead of just standard cover, Lara can hide in tall grass and bushes, and she can even cover herself in mud to blend in with dark walls to make it easier to stealth kill enemies that are close to you. Eventually, enemies will use heat sensitive goggles to make it easier to find Lara, but enemies are easily snuck up on for the kill. The game even takes a page out of The Last of Us by allowing you to throw bottles to misdirect enemies or craft some molotov bottles to use some fire.
Despite all this, if you prefer to run and gun, that’s all within the realm of possibility, too, making Shadow of the Tomb Raider feature the most fearsome and flexible Lara yet.
Of course, she isn’t invisible. You’ll die quite a bit in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Speaking of deaths, I was a bit dismayed to see that deaths in the previous game just made the visuals go black and white before fading to black. As gruesome as they were, it was fun to see the details of Lara’s death in the first game, and they make an awesome return in the third. I’m not a masochist or anything, but there’s a certain charm to seeing your heroes taking part in their demise.
As you uncover tombs, kill enemies, and grab artifacts, you gain experience for Lara to get new abilities on top of upgrading her gear when you find the campfire save points. Abilities are gained via a skill tree system that’s fairly straightforward, but a bunch of the abilities you can attain are things that were otherwise removed if you chose a harder difficulty mode, which is contradictory to the introduction of customizable difficulty, so it’s strange that they’re even there.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Lara’s growth from the first to final game is apparent–from being inexperienced in the first, not understanding why she had to resort to such lengths in the second, and finally understanding what’s in front of her and how to make things right in the last.
A lot is often made about Lara Croft’s status as a heroine, especially since she is this attractive woman that magnifies various misconceptions about independent woman, but Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics did a fantastic job with the reboot making her quite the force to be reckoned with. Rise made audiences see her questioning all the effort and murder she committed, and it’s actually pretty refreshing seeing her embellish this more aggressive persona. It isn’t as tasteless as the Prince was in Warrior Within or Kratos was in the first few God of War games, and it definitely adds to Lara’s character.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is easily the best-looking game in the series and is arguably one of the best games you’ll ever see in 4K HDR on the Xbox One or PS4 Pro, and the atmosphere the music creates makes the game aesthetically pleasing in all facets. It starts off a little slow, but the game’s pacing and story make Shadow of the Tomb Raider the best entry in the current trilogy, which I would argue is even better than the Uncharted trilogy. The foundation that Shadow of the Tomb Raider creates for games in the genre leaves a lot of potential for future titles to look forward to, and as a fan, I can’t wait.