Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third part of Lara Croft’s coming of age trilogy as an adventurer. And while she is more dangerous and brutal than ever, she is still a three-dimensional character. And by that, I don’t mean that her 3D graphics look great, which seemed like the original reason for her to exist back in 1996. Rather, Lara has become more than a swaggering female icon. She’s a real character, flawed and vulnerable, full of hate and love.
Lara still has a child-like thirst for knowledge, and she’ll risk her life to get it, even if it is considered sacred or forbidden. In this third game in the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara is a seasoned adventurer who thrills in entering forbidden crypts and finding treasures that have been around for centuries. She is more self-assured but not yet so arrogant that she has turned into an insufferable braggart as she goes from the charm of Cozumel to the majestic mountains and jungles of Peru.
This Lara is still likable — if only because she still feels the burdens of painful memories from the past and a self-doubt that her best friend implants into her early in the game. She still has to discover who she really is, face an overwhelming challenge, and muster the inner strength to see it through. She can survive unarmed in the wilderness, and she can defend herself against the hostile Trinity organization. But she can also mercilessly go on the attack, and that is where much of the pleasure is in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In this title, which is set in the darkness of the jungle, Lara Croft is a predator at her full abilities.
Eidos Montréal and Crystal Dynamics collaborated over three years to give us the latest installment of this franchise, and I like how polished it is, except for the occasional bug in the early version I played on the PlayStation 4. I feel like the story, the gameplay, and the protagonist have all improved over time. The title comes out on September 14 on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
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What you’ll like
Lara’s story is still touching
Lara Croft lost her parents when she was young. Her mother left because she was fed up with her husband’s archaeological obsessions. And when her father stumbled upon clues about ancient secrets for controlling the world, he was murdered. That sense of loss is the backdrop for Lara’s latest quest. It sets up an important question. If you had the power to turn back time and remake the world as you wanted, what would you do?
You learn the gravity of this question at the beginning of the game, when Lara sets off the first event in what could become a prophesied Mayan apocalypse. At the outset of this installment, Lara takes an artifact from a tomb that Trinity, the organization that murdered her father, wants. Dr. Dominguez, the head of Trinity and the new villain in the game, captures Lara and blames her for the coming catastrophes. He moves on to secure a second artifact, but Lara escapes and takes on all of Trinity once again.
Since Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 and the coming of age tale in Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), Lara Croft has become a cunning and cold-blooded killer. Now, she can drop out of the trees and strangle her enemies with a rope in one fluid motion. But she is also an accomplished archaeologist and adventurer who can explore and decipher secrets of tombs, invoking the skills that her father passed on to her. She is impetuous, forging ahead instead of waiting for her companion Jonah, always in a race against time to beat Dr. Dominguez and Trinity to the final secret.
In the pursuit, it isn’t clear what is driving Lara at any given time — whether it’s her own ambition, her pride, her love for her father, her yearning for the truth, her hatred for Trinity, or something darker like revenge. The imagery of shadows across the face of Lara Croft or her smearing her face with mud for jungle camouflage is symbolic. It brings to mind the word “shadow” in the title and whether she is changing for the better or for worse.
Jonah sets up a contrast to Lara’s ambition
At the beginning of the game, Lara doesn’t worry so much about the masses of people who could become victims in the first catastrophe that she may have unleashed. She wants to race ahead and beat Trinity. But Jonah questions Lara’s motives. He wonders if ambition, or some kind of narcissism, drove her to do it. She denies that, but she still wants to carry on the pursuit while Jonah wants to stay behind and help the people hurt by the catastrophe.
“It’s not always about you,” Jonah screams at Lara. That plants a seed of doubt in Lara’s mind about what she should do. The distinction between Jonah and Lara shows a difference in the characters that we haven’t seen before, and I liked it. Lara is a darker character in this game, compared to the innocent youth of the first game and the seasoned adventurer of the second game. Now, she’s on a quest for revenge and vindication. She’s driven, and Jonah isn’t sure if he likes it. When it comes to killing, she’s brutal.
In South America, she has to survive the harsh jungle. She hides in it and becomes one with it, fighting with the rules of the terrain. But she also has to look inside to make sure she doesn’t become her own worst enemy.
Lara is more mobile and deadly
Lara can now rappel downward into deep underground crypts. She can swim underwater for extended times. And she can even use spiky shoes to climb upside down on cliff overhangs. These additions add more variety to the gameplay, making it less repetitive across a long campaign. When you use these moves for the first time, a text overlay shows you what to do, skipping any need for a real tutorial. That saves you a lot of time, and keeps you in the story.
Lara can also wield both ancient weapons like the bow and modern machine guns and shotguns. It’s quite useful and fun when you’ve got a machine gun and your enemy has a bow. I was in one big firefight, trying to take down armored enemies with a bow. Then, I remembered the machine gun, and it was delightfully swift in delivering results. But that shouldn’t make you overconfident.
Perhaps the best addition to combat is the wider variety of variety of stealth moves. Lara can hide in a tree and fire a “jaguar’s fear” arrow at enemies, striking terror in them so that they shoot their comrades. She can rub mud on her skin and blend into a shadowy wall, invoking the title of the game. She can also swoop down with a rope, tie it around an enemy’s neck, and then use leverage to leave the enemy hanging in the tree. Late in the game, once you level up your skills, Lara can chain together two stealth kills or three arrow kills at the same time. Whether she’s in knife fights or conducting stealth kills, Lara is more brutal than in past games, and it signals another level up in her coming of age. In this way, the gameplay additions support her evolution as a character. That represents game design at its best.
You can raid tombs and head out on side quests
The game has plenty of optional tombs that you can raid. I skipped a lot of those in pursuit of the main story, but the rappel ability allows you to lower yourself into deep catacombs and explore. When I finished the main story, I had only hit 58 percent of the content. That means you have plenty of room to veer off into side quests. In these tombs, Lara has to avoid traps, deal with enemies, solve puzzles, and do lots of climbing or swimming. When you get to the hub of Paititi, a fictional ancient city that is still a living-and-breathing world, you get to exercise a lot of choices for going on side quests. Those quests can make you stronger in preparation for the final mission.
Puzzles can be tough
I got stuck on more than a few of the puzzles the first time I encountered them. They come in many different forms — like getting through an underwater maze, crossing a bridge, trying to climb three levels up using a gloriously strange spinning contraption, or even threading through a bunch of guards by killing them all with a knife one at a time. Sometimes, the little items you pick up along the way are part of a puzzle. You can skip them, of course, but one of the seemingly minor plot stories turns into a major plot point along the way, and if you haven’t been picking up these little collectible items, you won’t know the story twist.
Epic animal fights
In the Tomb Raider reboot of 2013, Lara took on a wolf. It was a matter of survival, and when she took the wolf’s life, she felt sorry for it. In 2015, with Rise of the Tomb Raider, she took on a giant Russian bear. This time, she takes on another fierce animal in a grueling and bloody fight for survival. I won’t spoil that for you, but it’s an epic experience as well. The storytellers set it up and execute it well, and the gameplay of the fight is fun, and it takes some skill.
The drama starts with a growl from the jungle. You get a glimpse of something, and you see a blood trail. But the storytellers leave you in suspense for a while. And before the fight begins, you hear that growl again. And that’s when you have to pull out your skills of dodging, shooting arrows, and attacking.
What you won’t like
You’re going to get lost
In building their 3D world, the designers of the game decided not to go with the obviousness of the “white paint” trick, which guides users to the next place where they are supposed to go. Often, they use light to illuminate a path in a dark place. But this leads to some real problems. When you’re crawling on a wall, it’s not always obvious or easy to make a jump in the correct direction. And when you are swimming underwater in a place with multiple paths, it’s easy to swim in the wrong direction. Light still illuminates exit paths, but those are often dead ends.
Fortunately, if you push down on the right stick, you’ll see all of the objects of interest in a scene with an orange highlight. That often tells you the exit location for a level. But I got stuck underwater for a long time in one of the locations, particularly where the light simply indicated air pockets rather than the way out. It didn’t help that big eels or schools of piranha fish were circling around and killing me every time I got lost.
Cheap tricks separate Lara and Jonah
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a single-player game, so when combat starts, Jonah can’t be present. I get it, as the dev team didn’t create any scenarios for co-op play or companion fighting. But the developers resort to some very cheap tricks to separate Jonah from Lara. A set of spears spring out of a wall and separate them. Lara crosses through a barrier, and it closes just as a big animal fight begins. Sometimes, it’s a vehicle crashing or a canoe splitting in two. One moment, Jonah is there, helping to find clues. The next, he’s gone. Lara often doesn’t stop to see if Jonah, who was with her only seconds ago, is alright. Instead, she just moves on with her quest. Then Lara re-establishes contact with him over a radio across impossibly long distances. It feels very contrived, not natural. I could easily see this becoming a mocking meme on the Internet. The barriers between Lara and Jonah fall into the category of repetitive animations that I’ve complained about before in past Tomb Raider games.
Some of the quests are trivial
When you get to the hub of Paititi, you can choose any quests that you want to perform in order to grow stronger. Lara is trying to stop the apocalypse. Some of the missions don’t seem that important by comparison — like finding a child’s lost friend or tracking down a delivery person. I would have much rather seen one of the promised catastrophes of the apocalypse getting in Lara’s way rather than a guard watching a mischievous child. Some spectacular “set pieces” — or dramatic action scenes like floods and mudslides — take place, though. Alongside these, the trivial quests seem like nothing but time wasters.
At one point late in the game, Lara and Jonah were searching for something. But Jonah was see-through. I could see what was on the other side of him because his vest had become completely transparent. That was a very distracting bug, and it lasted for a minute or so.
Square Enix’s reboot of Lara Croft ends with this game, completing the origin story of Lara Croft. We get to know who she is, where she came from, and why she has come to be the way she is. Each game has seen Lara grow and transform, and yet, Lara Croft isn’t a superhero without flaws or baggage. Young and innocent Lara is gone, and she says goodbye to that past. As a whole, this retelling has been one of the finest video game series to date.
I enjoyed the Uncharted series more than this Tomb Raider reboot trilogy. But Tomb Raider has its moments, and it’s certainly more interesting than Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the über inspiration for these action-adventure games. Lara’s enemies in this title don’t have the same gravity we’ve seen in other evil characters. But they serve the purpose of leaving her conflicted about shades of gray and the importance of making courageous decisions.
I have to believe more Tomb Raider games will come, but the Lara Croft character in those releases will likely be very different from the one we’ve seen transform from neophyte to master in this series. This Lara Croft memoir ends in a good way, and I’ll miss this version of Lara more than any of them.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out on September 14 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Windows PC. The publisher sent us a code for this review.