It only seemed like yesterday when Square Enix rebooted the iconic Tomb Raider franchise with a game that would hopefully revive the franchise. The first title in this new universe of tomb raiding didn’t quite manage to meet the extremely high expectations the company had in terms of sales, but fortunately it still managed to get a sequel and now the third game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, has just been released.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is faced with a problem that many of us can relate to. Despite her best intentions to keep the latest magical artifact out of the hands of her rival, the Trinity group, she accidentally ends up triggering increasingly deadlier waves of destruction that will eventually destroy the world. Fortunately Lara is a stubborn survivor and she quickly moves on from the guilt of being responsible for prematurely ending the lives of many people who just wanted to party. Her new goal is to now take back the magical dagger from Trinity (who forcefully took it from her) and then use it in conjunction with another magical artifact to stop the disasters, rather than letting Trinity use both to remake the world as they see fit.
It’s nice to see that Lara starts with every tool and skill that she learned in the previous games and then she goes and… misplaces most of the tools an hour or two later. Still, at least losing the gear is the least of her problems as she soon finds herself being stalked by deadly jaguars (who devoured her flight pilot) in a tropical South American jungle. It’s remarkable that people still agree to be near Lara or even just be associated with her, given that most of them end up dying in very painful ways.
Deep in the jungle, Lara soon learns that her new adventure made it possible for her to learn some new abilities. Some of these may look very fancy, but most players won’t really make use of them. What works extremely well is how the setting and some of the more useful abilities are used in Shadow of the Tomb Raider when it comes to stealth. In a world where stealth sections are usually the most frustrating aspect of a game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider somehow managed to make them one of its highlights. The young and hopeful Lara from the first game is definitely gone, as this hardened survivor happily stalks and kills any Trinity red shirts that get in her way.
Given the fact that most stealth sections take place under the cover of darkness, it makes it all the more enjoyable to sneak on enemies and prematurely end their lives, by picking one of the many ways that Lara can kill them. She can even cover herself with mud, like a pro, to make herself harder to spot by hiding in bushes and foliage on walls and such. At one point Lara learns how to use a rope and an arrow to basically pull an enemy into a noose and watch as he (it’s rare to face female enemies) struggles to breath and eventually kicks the bucket. At times playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems like playing a game version of a Predator film – all that is missing is Lara collecting gory trophies from her kills.
There are times where Lara only has a knife, bow and her ingenuity to practically get her through a whole section full of enemies. It’s a testament to how robust the stealth combat is that it feels exhilarating to get through it by making use of the many tools to lure, hang and even pit enemies against each other. It may seem odd to say this, but the combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is easily one of the best aspects of playing it. Even if usually attempting a less subtle guns blazing approach is amusingly enough the tougher way to go about killing a whole wave of enemies.
Not that Square Enix has completely forgotten that Lara is also a keen archaeologist when she isn’t on a killing spree. There are moments where Shadow of the Tomb Raider throws fans a bone with some fairly simple, but enjoyable, puzzles. At times, the game even makes use of the various objects players collect to offer clues as to how to solve puzzles. Those that are keen on a tougher challenge can attempt to solve the returning optional challenge tombs. Regardless, it’s a delight to solve these puzzles and they make for a nice comedown from the killing sprees that happen in-between.
Like with other modern Tomb Raider game, it’s easy to move between already visited locations by making use of camps. These are also used to unlock new skills, upgrade weapons and perform other tasks. What is more unusual is the approach to hubs, like a village that Lara visits a few hours into the game. Each of these hubs is full of people going about living the lives and Lara can interact with some of them to have a trivial chat, buying supplies or even gain a new side quest to tackle. Sometimes they are also used to provide further information on the story that wouldn’t be considered essential enough to be mentioned during cut-scenes.
Not only that, but the very enemies that Lara hunts Predator style can sometimes have entire conversations if given the chance. It almost feels bad to give them the kiss of death, but the game seems intent on enforcing its leave no survivors rule, since it’s very difficult to just sneak by them. Turns out that the excellent stealth combat system works best when on a killing spree, but the fact that enemies taunt Lara and cheer whenever she is swiftly dying (game over screen) makes the task easier.
One of the new focuses in the title consists of including a lot more swimming action for Lara to contend with. Going for a swim in this game can be a very tense experience, given the fact that she is basically defenceless. This applies to the many times where she nearly drowns as she attempts to squeeze past gaps that most human beings would get stuck in. Then along comes a bunch of underwater predators that will quickly turn Lara into a tasty snack. The much-maligned piranha (deadly fish) sections can prove bothersome for those who wish to rush, instead of making use of covers to avoid these pesky predators. However, the checkpoint system also ensures that any progress lost is minimal to the point that instantly dying at the hands of a group of dastardly piranhas doesn’t become a major concern.
What doesn’t work so well are the few confrontations with any major players. In fact, these fights often feel anti-climactic after enduring hours of listening to these tough macho types taunting Lara. At least the fights against the likes of animal predators are more memorable.
The story itself is also not particularly complex and the few twists that appear here and there are easy to figure out long before they are revealed. Still, the journey itself is filled with many memorable moments as Lara makes her way through waves of enemies and solves puzzles to fix the mess she started in the first place. She even gets to kill a bunch of crazy wild people, who are also fans of killing Trinity red shirts, as seems to be the norm in a modern Tomb Raider game.
It’s not surprising that it feels more compelling to explore the tropical world of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The overgrown tropical vegetation provides plenty of opportunities for the already discussed combat, but it also helps to create a colourful world that is begging to be looked at. Even during sections where Lara is recklessly swinging high above the ground. Whilst supporting characters and NPCs don’t get the same treatment as Lara, it’s still remarkable to see such details as wrinkles appear with different facial expressions.
Anyone that somehow expects Shadow of the Tomb Raider to be more like the original Tomb Raider games, after two games like it were released, will probably have a hard time adjusting to all the chaos and violence. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a logical continuation (and perhaps fitting conclusion) to a reboot that created a version of Lara that is constantly trying to survive in a harsh and uncaring world.