Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review
Published on September 10, 2018
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows (Played on Windows)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montréal
Publisher: Square Enix
Review copy provided by Square Enix
From crying at every obstacle to becoming a bloodthirsty hunter, Lara Croft can be seen as a metaphor for the rebooted Tomb Raider series itself. Although the games have been criticized at times for emulating other successful franchises or deviating from the source material, they have managed to find their unique strengths and build on them. With the addition of new features, refinements, and a darker tone, Lara makes her return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the culminating finale of the origins arc.
At its core, not much has changed in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The dev team has done a fantastic job in addressing concerns since the 2013 reboot: scaling walls feels like second nature, the challenge tombs and crypts present intricate puzzles, and the combat is fluid and fun. Many accessibility additions based on feedback not only enhance the experience but provide options for players depending on their preference. The “white paint” on scalable walls and ledges were often a point of complaints from many seasoned players; the game now features multiple difficulty options for Combat, Exploration and Puzzle aspects to tailor to individual preference for realism and difficulty.
Underwater segments also make a return following their implementation in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Although they have been improved since the last game in terms of gameplay, the development team may have over-corrected their mistakes, as I found them to be too linear and lacking in substantial content. It’s a shame since they added a couple notable features such as underwater stealth and air pockets that could have been utilized more throughout the levels, but only made an appearance a couple of times for cutscene purposes.
On top of the refinements, the game pushes the boundaries of what the series can do by adding new key features. A core focus in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the stealth combat gameplay, which allows many sections of the game to be completed without firing a single bullet. The addition of tall grassy fields and vine walls that Lara can hide in, mud to blend herself into the environment, and distractions using sounds create a whole new dynamic of gameplay that was hard to come across in the previous two entries. Continual addition of abilities, both for Lara and her foe, up the ante and complexity of combat situations without making it overwhelming. The combat system transitions smoothly between stealth and guns blazing and back again, allowing players to disengage and hide even after they are spotted. Complemented with a comprehensive skills system and open combat areas catering to every play style, I found myself switching strategies throughout my playthrough.
Adding to the overall gameplay experience, hub areas and towns have also gotten significant enhancements since the previous games, providing merchants to trade with and side quests to undertake. Merchants carry everything from weapon upgrades to crafting materials, which they’ll happily sell to Lara for the right price. This shouldn’t be much of a problem as enemies drop an abundance of currency, and the option of selling any extra materials for some spare gold is always available. Although a neat addition, I found that it conflicts with the exploratory gameplay that the game urges players to do; I never had the desire to go back to hunt down a couple more boars knowing that I could buy the materials at a town. Side quests sound more exciting than they play out, as they are fetch quests and combat challenges wrapped with story. Although they add to the world and story, I found them too sparse in number and lackluster whenever I decided to follow through with one.
Square Enix has stated that Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be significantly darker in tone, and the game does not disappoint. The fearful and hesitant Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is replaced with a seasoned explorer who is unsure of how far she needs to go to fix everything. The story, in theory, is fast-paced: Lara kicks off a series of cataclysmic events that will end the world unless she stops it. Unfortunately, it suffers from what many other open-hub games suffer from, as I never felt the urgency that is conveyed in the cutscenes through gameplay. It’s never clear when the next event will strike, and what the consequences are. With requests such as the village boy asking me to retrieve his toys for him, the tone and actual gameplay felt disjointed. Combined with the overused tropes and predictable story, it was difficult to be fully invested in the story they built.
Although the game aims to be cinematic in both its story and action, it felt like the story was being moved forward “just because.” There is a distinct lack of character development that the 2013 Tomb Raider was praised for; no sense of survival that the first game brought that helped drive the plot forward. Lara is the same person as she was at the beginning of the game compared to the end, and fails to convey why she should be granted the eponymous title of “Tomb Raider.”
A final addition to the game once finished with the story is a New Game Plus mode that allows you to restart the game with all upgrades and equipment acquired throughout Lara’s journey. Although a small feature, it also unlocks one of three skillsets that cater to your playstyle: traversal and resourcefulness, hunting and combat, or stealth and subterfuge. You’re also granted a unique outfit and weapons depending on what you choose. I dabbled in the mode for a little bit but found using my first save and fast traveling to be a more efficient use of my time.
In the end, the rebooted series’ story and overall advancement of the games draw an interesting parallel to one another as the curtain falls on the trilogy. Lara grows from a frightened survivor to a ruthless hunter, while the games go from trying to find its footings to being at the forefront of the genre. Although Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not without its jagged edges and rough spots, it still aims to push the boundaries of what it can do without falling flat on its face. On its own, it’s an amazingly fun game that feels a bit bloated with features at times. As part of a series, it polishes what the previous entries have done well and sets it up for any ambitious journeys ahead. Although the future of the series remains uncertain at present, I would gladly welcome another outing with Lara Croft.