Games are a strange beast sometimes. Were it not for Lara Croft paving the way forward for spelunkers all over, there’d be no Nathan Drake. On the other hand, if Uncharted didn’t exist then the Tomb Raider reboot would have been something else entirely. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Eidos Montreal has studied hard over the Naughty Dog playbook, piecing together what will go down as one of the more endearing action-adventure trilogies in gaming which chronicles just how Lara Croft defeats her inner-doubts and demons to become the eponymous hero that has opened the door for countless other heroines.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as the name alludes to, is the darkest story of the trilogy as it casts a real doubt over Lara’s credentials as a budding world-saver when she, in an attempt to slow down the Trinity terror plot, sets in motion a series of cataclysms that get a lot of innocent people killed and threaten to have apocalyptic repercussions. It plays out much like a globe-trotting and bombastic action flick where you’re led to believe the stakes are through the roof, though I never believed the danger to be real. Eidos Montreal certainly throw a right hook here and there to keep this wonderful concluding chapter chugging through to its conclusion, though in the end, it’s safe to say the ending felt too neat.
In keeping with the game’s already dark undertones, the game’s first hours, which introduce us to the perilous jungles of Peru, play out almost like a horror game. Claustrophobic spelunking, tangling with mortifying moray eels and being stalked all the while by a jaguar, which unhelpfully leaves half-eaten corpses lying about, really ratcheted up the tension while Lara settled into her surroundings. Despite this rocky start, Peru is a beautiful setting, both scenic and tranquil, as every well-placed vista reveal left me perfectly agasp by its breathtaking recreation of the dense and stunning forestry in Peru.
Eidos Montreal don’t stray far their wheelhouse with this third iteration of Lara’s story, the world is still vast with plentiful opportunities to veer off the story path from time to time, in fact, Paititi is the largest hub city we’ve seen yet in the series and it’s a pleasure to explore the exotic city which has yet to be corrupted by modern civilisation. Lara’s struggle takes centre focus in Shadow and she’s constantly lashing out through self-doubt, so it’s great there’s a number of side quests that see her helping the downtrodden folk of Paititi which helps humanise her and remind us she means well despite her evident mistakes.
As they’ve always been, puzzles are the centrepiece of the Tomb Raider experience. In Shadow, I found that the brainteasers on offer were pretty involved, multi-faceted but not entirely troubling. They’ll hamstring your progress for a minute while you sift through for the answer to it all, and it’s a great feeling when it all clicks into place. Of course, if you’re not a proficient problem solver, Shadow of the Tomb Raider introduces an incredibly inclusive level of customisation for the game’s difficulty settings. Being able to mix-and-match how hard exploration, combat and puzzle-solving are individually made for the optimal Tomb Raider experience. Be warned though, if you opt for the lower difficulties, Lara’s helpful fourth-wall breaks, on top of her already heavy exposition, might drive you nuts.
The rest of the Tomb Raider experience remains largely untouched; campfires act as pitstops between set pieces and firefights alike and Lara’s bow remains the medium’s most satisfying means of skewering the bad guy. The key differences come as a result of Lara’s reversion to an almost animalistic form as she embraces the jungle in an attempt to endure and stop Trinity. Shadow features mud walls, which as exactly what they sound like, and Lara’s able to blend in just as though they were low brush, performing swift and silent takedowns on unsuspecting foot-soldiers. Of course, the game introduces an enemy variant that undercuts some of the fun that can be had but when it’s in full flight during an act where Croft is almost down and out and armed only with a knife, Lara’s more bad-ass than freaking John Rambo. As is the problem with a lot of games that rely heavily on stealth, the A.I. can be insanely inconsistent. For the most part, it works well enough, with the guttural, survivalist vibe feeling in line with Shadow’s gritty tone.
As solid as Shadow of the Tomb Raider is throughout as an action-adventure showpiece, it’s let down by a number of performance hang-ups and pitfalls it is forced to embrace. The game attempts to mask loading a lot by using the ‘hero squeezes through a tight gap or ducks under a beam’ trope, which wouldn’t be an issue if the game didn’t occasionally still have to buffer even after I’d crossed into the new area. The game’s camera can be rather finicky with issues cropping up primarily during riddles that factor in any kind of verticality, it’s almost as if the game confuses what’s intended to be the main focus. Beyond that, camera issues can render some of the game’s overhang climbing, another new addition to Tomb Raider, bothersome.
As mentioned earlier, Peru is a feather in the cap for Tomb Raider’s environmental artists. It’s so excellently realised, it’s a shame it’s inhabited by what are essentially waxen dolls. The character models in Shadow of the Tomb Raider leave a lot to be desired, looking bizarrely uninspired and lifeless for a big-budget sequel. This extends to Lara herself, who looks copy-pasted from Rise of the Tomb Raider. There are infrequent audio hitches, too, with the syncing for not only dialogue but set pieces sometimes falling off tempo. Despite this, Camilla Luddington does another fine job voicing Lara, capping off the trilogy with sleek sophistication heard only in an actress at the top of her game.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t necessarily evolve on the formula set in place by its two predecessors. I’d rather think of it as an extension of the two. Though it never quite matches the narrative and cinematic class of its inspirations, Tomb Raider has been a truly excellent action-adventure trilogy with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the best of the lot, acting as the vessel to see Lara’s story through to its sanguine final note.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS TESTED FOR THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Were it not for a lack of polish, Shadow of the Tomb Raider would stand right alongside the other action-adventure giants in truly defining the genre. It has a lot of heart, all of the pulsating set pieces that series has become known for and a primal Lara Croft at the height of her powers. As it stands, Shadow is still one of the best conclusions to a trilogy I’ve come across as it respects what it has always done best rather than muddy the waters with needless gimmicks.