Lara Croft’s latest adventure is dramatic, exciting, and beautiful. It’s also painful, confusing, and problematic. Despite that, it could be the best game to ever wear the Tomb Raider name. Taking place almost immediately after Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow walks Lara the final steps down the path into full-on murderous artifact thief.
Our story starts with Lara and Jonah, her charming adventuring buddy, wandering around Cozumel, Mexico looking for clues to snag an artifact before the “evil” group Trinity can find it. What happens next sets up a lot of growth and devolution for Lara’s character and psyche respectively.
In Cozumel, Lara finds what she is looking for, a sacred knife that is used in Mayan rituals. Despite warnings from basically every human being she has seen since the game started, Lara steals the knife. This one moment sets up the major arc of Lara’s character through the story. By taking the knife, Lara sets of a series of cataclysm events that begins with a huge tsunami wave crashing into Cozumel, nearly killing her, and absolutely devastating countless innocents.
From there, the game moves into a more traditional Tomb Raider game. Lara is trying to track down Trinity, who took the knife from Lara by force before the tsunami came, all while trying to find a way to stop the apocalypse. She will do this by running, jumping, exploring and murdering her way across some beautiful areas in South America.
Thankfully, this is where Tomb Raider really shines. From the moment the game starts you have access to nearly all of Lara’s abilities. That removes the Metroid-esque progression system and makes the game feel more like a straightforward adventure game. Moving around the world of Shadow is a treat. Lara feels nimble, but every movement feels grounded with weight. It makes the world feel more real. Of course Lara still has the grip strength of a gorilla hopped up on methamphetamines, making impossible catches with littler more than her fingers, But if you can get over that little piece of incongruity, the platforming and climbing of this game are stunning.
Speaking of stunning, there are few words that you can use to describe the graphics and art direction of this game. Every major set piece of the game is built with craft and care, creating art for your eyes. In almost every new environment I entered I found myself stopping just to stare. Huge vistas, dynamic lighting, and superbly detailed textures combine to create some achingly beautiful scenes. When you couple in 4K resolution and HDR support, the game moves from “pretty” into the realm of “unbelievable.”
These two features come to a wondrous mix when you start exploring the games various tombs. While the first two games in the rebooted franchise were relatively light on the tomb-exploration sections, Shadow arrives with a large and diverse set of challenges for players. Each of these massive puzzle boxes introduces some sort of new mechanic or idea, and each one feels fresh and exciting. Some employ enemy gauntlets, some incorporate timed puzzles, and a few make you think outside of the box to find unique solutions. And each one of these tombs sections features a design that sets it apart from the others. I had so much fun with these tombs that I would have been happy playing these, just room after room like a clone of Portal.
The only place the game breaks down is during combat. Aside from a few new stealth moves, like the ability to smear yourself with mud and blend in to the scenery, the combat is unchanged from older games. It just feels stale now, and it has long been my least favorite part of the series. At least for Shadow of the Tomb Raider it partially fits in with the story. As Lara deals with her misdeeds and humanitarian crimes she slowly starts to lose her grasp on right and wrong. Culminating in a small mental snap during a harrowing chase scene that sees her go straight up Rambo with a huge machine gun.
Of course, magically after her breakdown Lara sort of just… gets over it, and continues on with her mission. Which again, brings us back to our biggest complaint about Shadow. The story tries to make some big statements about Lara Croft’s actions, imperialism and the impact that we make on the world around us. But thanks to the general conceit of how the gameplay works, it just falls a little flat. Seeing realistically animated and acted scene where a woman looks ready to collapse and die due to the weight of her actions loses a lot of it’s power when five minutes later she’s going Predator on a small army of armed guards.
Even with the dissonance between the narrative and the action, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an excellent experience. It’s easily the best of the three modern games, and it was the one we had the most fun playing. The story is great, and the gameplay is fun, we’re just sad those two things don’t mesh as well as they could.
Regardless, we think Shadow of the Tomb Raider deserves a spot on most people’s “Must Play” lists.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider was reviewed with PC code provided by Square Enix. All gameplay was performed on the Project ZR1 PC using an Xbox One controller.