The remade Tomb Raider series has struggled to find an identity in an industry that has been slowly leaving the brand behind, but maybe it doesn’t need to. Its latest installment, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, is unique by virtue of not having anything that’s particularly unique, instead focusing on polishing its predictable features to a mirror shine. This is a game that excels in quality over ingenuity, taking what works from other examples in the genre and doing it better.
Evidence of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s quality-focused intent surfaces before the opening cutscene even rolls. Starting up the game, the player is given the standard Easy-to-Very Hard difficulty choices, but what makes them special is the option to adjust the individual difficulty of each of the experience’s three gameplay pillars: combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. What is more, each section comes with a description detailing how the varying difficulties will affect that realm of the adventure. It’s a simple yet extremely welcome feature that enhances player enjoyment through increased control over everyone’s respective experience.
If only heroine Lara Croft had the chance to make similarly informed decisions when the story begins. The “shadow” alluded to in the game’s title is not cast by the prophesized eclipse on its cover art, but instead by Lara herself, whose actions at the start of the game precipitate a dark sequence of events. The game kicks off with Lara in a race to steal an artifact from a Mayan ruin before Trinity—the rival treasure-hunting organization from the previous game—can do it first, but unfortunately for Lara, removing the object commences a series of natural catastrophes.
We soon learn that, whatever Trinity’s intentions later down the line, its leader knew of this threat, and proceeds to take the artifact from her to try and undo the damage she’s done. While the chasm between the morals of the two parties becomes more defined as the story progresses, it’s an interesting narrative choice that actually calls into question if Lara is closer to villain than hero this time around. At the very least, her actions cause far more damage than Trinity’s over the course of the story.
Furthering these conflicting sympathies is the actual main villain, Dominguez, who—perhaps in part due to a voice like a high school Spanish teacher—really doesn’t come off as a bad guy. His driving motivation is to protect his home, and he passes up multiple opportunities to kill Lara, seemingly out of the goodness of his heart. Fortunately, Lara manages to retain the limelight by being even more sympathetic, despite her very thoughtless decision making.
Lara may be the most capable human being on the planet, but she never falls into the over-confident action girl stereotype. It’s hard to say if the endearing personality she develops is the result of her excellent voice acting, the game’s top-tier facial animation, or some combination of the two. Whatever the reason, players will find themselves relishing her successes and sharing in the pain of her failures.
Backing up this stellar performance is Jonah, Lara’s best friend and returning treasure hunting buddy. Jonah is rarely on the frontlines, instead usually assisting from behind the scenes, often for some pretty contrived reasons. He might not be as action-capable as Lara, but the character’s extremely human performance does not get the screen time it deserves. This scarcity does make his best moments that much more enjoyable, however, as his infrequent heart-to-hearts with Lara proved to be the game’s most memorable scenes.
After Lara and Jonah’s previous Tomb Raider trips to a lost island and the wilderness of Siberia, the duo’s new adventure takes them to the most Tomb Raider-y setting yet. In their pursuit of Mayan myth, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a non-stop tour of jungles, caves, and secluded Latin-American communities. These communities serve as hub locations from which the majority of the game’s main and side quests branch out. The characters occupying these isolated towns lack much of the personality and technical detail of their main-roster fellows, but the side quests they hand out are no less valuable.
Lara can buy or craft new gear, upgrades, plant-based buffs, and outfits from the resources she finds or earns, while the experience she gains along the way rewards skill points. These are spent in the character’s three-pronged skill tree, split between awareness, survival, and combat. The entire crafting and upgrade system is extremely comprehensive, and is engaging enough to build anticipation for the next time you find a campfire and can unlock all your new goodies.
The combat skills unlocked through Lara’s skill tree, like so many other elements of the game, are commendable in their design, if not their innovation. Her combat skills, such as chain stealth takedowns and stringing enemies up from trees, prioritize the stealthy approach, which is the basis for the game’s entire combat system. There is no crouch function, so when enemies are about, Lara automatically enters a stealth stance, reducing her nose and visibility. Taking this control away from the player may seem patronizing, but the seamless transition makes the stealth system less binary than in other games, which in turn results in fewer unfair discoveries.
During a stealth engagement, Lara can boost her elusiveness with a variety of environmental interactions like hiding in bushes, climbing trees, or even covering herself in mud. When things do get hot, her small selection of upgradable firearms work well within the game’s tight gunplay. Shadow of the Tomb Raider drops much of the pomp and frills of other stealth-action games to streamline the combat with maximum efficiency.
While most action-adventure games are two-thirds combat, one-third puzzle-platforming, and two tablespoons of vanilla extract, Shadow boasts an even division of its gameplay. This means players will encounter many more puzzles, platforming, and puzzle-platforming moments than they’ve come to expect from this genre. The exploration of the game’s jungles and caves make use of a handful of simple and increasingly intuitive platform maneuvers, including scaling rock walls, repelling, and grappling. The action of traversing through the game is satisfying enough with its epic environment design and high-quality visuals, but it’s driven home by how it’s controlled. At least on a gamepad, the manner in which both combat and platforming are mapped to the controller is immensely intuitive, so much so that it may take a while for a player to truly appreciate the speed and efficiency with which they can control Lara.
Slightly less intuitive is the design of the game’s puzzles. Nearly every puzzle in the game uses some combination of connecting a rope to two anchor points, rotating an object, and discovering which objects are platformable and how. There’s nothing wrong with this simplistic foundation, but certain puzzles can be a little obtuse; not in the sense that the logic is difficult, but rather that the direction is vague. The basic mechanics and intent of game puzzles should generally be clear, while how they fit together is the challenge. This isn’t always the case in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and more than once a puzzle could be solved by simply interacting with every interactable object until the puzzle played itself out.
Whether fighting or puzzle solving, Survival Instinct is the player’s best friend, while also representing the pinnacle of the game’s “unoriginal but effective” theme. With a click of the right stick, Lara goes into a short sensory mode that highlights enemies, collectibles, and other interactable objects. Survival Instinct is just like every other awareness function in any number of comparable games, but it works perfectly well and players will find themselves relying on it more than any other action.
Once the main campaign is conquered, there are some options in how to proceed. The various save point campfires scattered around the world also act as fast-travel locations, permitting quick access to previously-visited areas in a post-campaign (or mid-campaign) hunt for collectibles and side quests. There are also several side paths locked during the first pass that can be accessed after the player acquires the necessary weapon or tool—gained at fixed points in the story—which further incentivises backtracking.
Alternatively, players can just start the game over with New Game Plus, which is a feature that has never been a bad idea. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s main campaign is moderately lengthed, but the ease of backtracking and inclusion of New Game Plus give the experience a healthy amount of substance.
The impact I was left with once the credits rolled was somewhat conflicted. Every time a feature would come up in the game, I’d go “Oh here we go again, another stealth-action game with such-and-such game mechanic”, but this would always eventually be followed by “Wow, this is very well implemented.” Could the game have done more to stand out? Probably, but if it was at the risk of anything else in the experience, perhaps the developers took the right direction.
With so many games sacrificing polish for the sake of catering to a unique selling point, Shadow of the Tomb Raider demonstrates what can be accomplished when you only focus on the basics. There isn’t much in the game that will blow you away, but solid design from start to finish can be just as fun as gameplay gimmicks. Less is more when it comes to this Tomb Raider.
As what may be the last hoorah for this particular story arc, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a stereotypical stealth-action game, but one which manages to separate itself from the pack by excelling in everything that makes this genre what it is.
Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montréal
M – Mature
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.