The happiest I can be as a Tomb Raider fan, is that moment when Lara descends into an underground cavern or tomb and you really get the sense of dread and confusion of how the hell you’re suppose to go from there. Those moments when you have been staring at a puzzle or ancient contraption of levers, cogs and pulleys and just when you think “This is impossible” something clicks and you know what to do.
Those moments were not always cultivated very well in the recent releases of the Tomb Raider franchise, and their glorious return in the latest Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a thing of joy. Not only because the team took the time to design and implement a lot of proper, well crafted and immensely fun locations to explore, traverse and solve, it also added a piecemeal approach of game difficulty. The toughness of combat, puzzles and exploration can be set separately now and cranking up the latter two to Hard now means that every visual hint, hand holding or gameplay assistance is removed. It makes for a very 1999 experience, and all of that without the need to make shooting enemies too hard, if that’s not your thing.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third and final part in Crystal Dynamic’s reboot trilogy and promises us to witness the moment where Lara sheds her down feathers and really becomes the Tomb Raider we all know. The game is not made by Crystal Dynamics themselves though, but by sister studio Eidos Montreal under their supervision. This switch in studio is palpable and the closing part of the trilogy is significantly different from the first two, both in a good and a bad way. Shadow is a very ambitious game and playing it sometimes feels like watching a child run in and out of their room, showing you their toys and over eagerly trying to impress you. “Look what I got! I have this! And this thing! Oh look! Look can you do this?! Look what I can do!”
So Much To Do
Shadow features large, gorgeous looking and challenging game areas that encourage you to explore and hunt for collectibles, treasure, secrets and crafting resources. You will spend many hours climbing, grappling, swimming and traversing your way through the world. It also gives Lara a large skill tree of hunting, exploration and combat feats to improve. The combat and action is a lot more contained than in the last two games, where Lara would occasionally end up in long, intense battle scenes. Shadow tries to put more emphasis on stealth and allows Lara to become a vicious guerrilla fighter. Cover yourself in mud, stalk your enemy from treetops or hiding in the shadows. Armed with a combat knife, Lara executes some visually gruesome take-downs and stealth kills. In fact, she has so many tricks, skills and moves in her arsenal it’s entirely possible to finish the game and never use half of them.
On top of that it also wants to implement a more living, inhabited world with characters Lara can talk to and receive side missions from, and there’s a main story line that takes up such a tough and complex theme that it kind of collapses under its own weight. The voice acting is one of the best in the series so far though; especially main voice actors Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon deliver outstanding work. Lara Croft is a more emphatic, warmer character then she was in Rise, where her lines often felt a bit overly dramatic and intense. Lara in Shadow will laugh and quip, make small talk, but also go to some very dark places and really highlight a more complex side of herself.
Why Are We Tomb Raiding?
So more on that main story line. It starts off very promising and does something that no other Tomb Raider game has attempted so far. Maybe it’s not a surprise then, that it doesn’t really succeed in delivering that message. What Shadow of the Tomb Raider does, essentially, is putting the entire concept of the game franchise in perspective. A rich, white woman that goes off to exotic locations to break into ancient burial sites to steal artifacts, for the purpose of bringing them home to her mansion and put them on display. Add some murder of indigenous people and endangered animals to that, and what we got is essentially a story that many would consider not of this day and age.
One can say it’s a game not to be taken seriously and a harmless wink to 1930s adventure tales, without trying to see much depth in it. But is it that easy? Some negative reviews of Shadow of the Tomb Raider argue that the game franchise as whole is fundamentally flawed, always ways, and perhaps it’s time to retire it. Eidos Montreal observed these issues and makes an attempt at framing Lara’s motivations different, only in the end it doesn’t really succeed. What the game does, it raises the issue, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. The way the game includes indigenous characters and their role in the story is a great move and well intended, but it still grinds in combination with Lara’s personal story. By the end of the game Lara is still a thief, albeit with nobler intentions maybe, and still gets rewarded for her intrusion in affairs that aren’t hers. This is another example of Eidos Montreal trying to do too much at once: it wants to deliver a progressive, modern take on the old Tomb Raider, but at the same time also wants to be familiar and stay in touch with the older games.
What remains in the end, is a very, very enjoyable and fun game that will have you do some of the best puzzling, exploring and treasure hunting in two decades of Tomb Raider games. It has a gripping, ambitious story with some intense moments and great voice acting, but in the end trips over its own complications. It’s hard to compare it to previous games in the series because so much changed of the time and the context of which they were made in. The critique of the story line indirectly also critiques the series as a whole and in that way we might be holding it up to higher standard than the previous games. Or maybe that’s fair given the time in which Shadow of the Tomb Raider is released. Personally I think there’s a long and prosperous future ahead for the series, but it might need some deeper self examining and compromise-less decision making to really figure out what it wants to do.