By Daniel Shaw:
No matter what sort of ups and downs a series might endure, when it manages to last as long as Tomb Raider has, that is certainly an accomplishment. Since 2013’s reboot premier, Lara Croft has gone through what many consider to be one of the greatest developments of the character’s history. Advancements in motion capture, gameplay, and voiceover brought a brand new dimension of storytelling to the franchise. And now, with 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the story of Lara’s beginnings is about to come to an end.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the end of Lara Croft’s origin story from a wide-eyed college grad to an experienced treasure hunter/fighter. Lara, the eponymous tomb raider, is once again on the hunt to unravel an ancient mystery; her travels now taking her to locales across South America to the lost city of Paititi. After removing a famed dagger from an altar, Lara inadvertently triggers the beginning of a prophesized Mayan apocalypse. From there, it’s a race against time, mercenaries, and mysterious creatures to set things right and prevent the world from falling into chaos. It’s certainly a fitting story for a final chapter, and while the game begins a little slowly, it does gradually build on that core concept and unravels into something really exciting. For me, this was hardly surprising as there was never any question that Crystal Dynamics would deliver a fleshed out world to explore. But these days’ gamers expect as much from these titles as they do from any well-made movie or TV show; which begs a look at the heart of any story: who. Undoubtedly, this entry’s greatest strength and ultimate weakness is its cast of characters.
Lara Croft is on full force in her quest, and Camilla Luddington once again beautifully provides her motion capture and voice. Building on what she learned from her isolation on Yamatai and her trek through Siberia, Lara’s skills and sanity are heavily put to the test. Here we see that her passion for other cultures and her drive to defeat Trinity have begun to blur, to the point where even she may not know where one begins and the other ends. Throughout the story, both initiatives clash in ways that often leave Lara scarred and bystanders in worse shape. It again points to why this version of Lara is so loved by fans; highlighting her flaws as well as her numerous strengths make her incredibly real. The elements involving the overall story’s reoccurring villains, Trinity, are present, however they feel much like an afterthought. It unfortunately has the distinct impression that they simply didn’t know what else to do with their shadow organization beyond the second game; thus they are relegated to a back seat that sadly never takes center stage. This is something that really grates me when it comes to Illuminati-like organizations because, when done correctly, they can be some of the most sinister and legitimately terrifying of villains. The most remote locations on Earth would still be unsafe because you couldn’t be sure that they weren’t already there. Sadly though such is not the case with Trinity, as they exist only as cannon fodder for Lara to shoot down and step over. Despite this, our primary antagonist is well drawn, with a compelling connection to Lara’s past. As the last piece in a larger puzzle, he gets the job done. Jonah once again remains as the one and only returning ally from the first two games. Like the audience, he too begins to see Lara’s mission slowly dragging her into obsession as she gets more and more reckless. Throughout the game, he serves mainly to find something off-screen and then tell Lara about it via radio. Beyond that, and being Lara’s on-again-off-again moral compass, Jonah is mostly a non-player.
Each game in the series, great or lacking, has stood out in its own way by use of unique location, theme, and careful choice of color. The Yamatai adventure was dark and ghostly. Her search for the lost prophet was highlighted by sacred imagery. Now her foray into the jungles of South America is filled with colorful murals and Mayan artistry. The menus also share these aesthetics, particularly the skills tree. What was once a mere scrollable list is now an interactive Mayan tapestry with pictographs and enormous detail.
The problem? The entire thing is a giant Mayan tapestry with pictographs and enormous detail. Yes, here we have another example of too much of a good thing. Innovation and tonal continuity are great and normally welcomed. However, here I feel they might have gone just a bit overboard. While trying to navigate the various skill trees, I found myself actually having to squint and get closer to the TV in order to make any sense of what I was reading. It was simply too cluttered and made me absently pine for the days of a boring ol’ scrollable list. Lara’s selection of weapons has been delightfully trimmed down from Rise of the Tomb Raider’s bottomless arsenal. As with the very first entry in this series, Lara has but six weapons to choose from, with one or two variants of each weapon class. Depending on the area that Lara is currently investigating, one or more of her weapons may be unavailable; adding on another level of strategy and tension. So how do all of these elements play out in practice?
If the player is a longtime fan of this series, then the basic gameplay will largely offer nothing new. This is hardly a drawback, since a perfectly functioning mechanic needs no fixing. Lara shoots, fights, squats, and climbs just as she always has though with two new additives: Lara gains a rappelling rope and spiked climbing shoes. That latter of these two can sometimes wear out their welcome when things get tedious, and it also just dips into hilarity when Lara uses them to seemingly defy gravity. As was predicted in our last entry (Path of the Tomb Raider) these two mechanics add a brand new dimension to exploration and puzzle solving. Players will need to use their observational skills in newer ways, particularly on higher-difficulty settings in which many in-game hints are disabled. As with the previous entries, fast travel to earlier locations is available at most save points in order to finish the game’s many side quests.
My personal favorite improvements, however, are with combat/stealth and Lara’s enemies. We sneak about in order to avoid a larger, unwinnable fight, just like before. This time a new camouflage feature by way of smearing mud and vegetation on her person has been added. Lara can blend in with brush and vines, lure patrols, and set traps. But it is by far the supernatural foes that win the day. One of my biggest gripes about Rise of the Tomb Raider was its lackluster “Deathless Ones.” They came off as obvious pallet swaps with no creative flare or intimidation. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s “Yaaxil” fixes that in spades. Are they completely human? Are they monsters? Are they orcs? This isn’t ever made entirely clear, and I believe that makes them scarier. A slow walk through a dark cave is only made better once their unearthly screeches are faintly heard down the long passage.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is purported to be the last in this origin series, and as such it certainly has a lot riding on it. Does it deliver? In this player’s opinion: yes, it does. While not absolutely perfect by any means, it does manage to tell a full story as well as put a cap on Lara’s beginnings. The growth that she’s undergone since the first game is night and day, and there is still plenty to build on for future installments. The gameplay is familiar yet fresh. The enemies are able to think and act in ways that encourage strategic movements. The environments are lush with staggering detail. From the indigenous characters speaking Yucatec Mayan to action set pieces that give the very best of Uncharted a run for its money. At its current purchase price of $60+ it may be a little steep for newcomers to the series. For all other fans, however, go out and pick one up immediately. It’s a worthy addition to any gaming library and a more than worthy entry in one of Lara’s many adventures.