I guess this is growing up
Lara Croft has always lived in her father’s shadow. This famed archaeologist devoted the latter years of his life searching for The Divine Source, a Fountain of Youth-type mythological key to immortality. Like Ponce de León, he never found it. His quest eventually killed him.
His progeny, Lara, takes up his mantle. That’s where Shadow of the Tomb Raider picks up. It’s the last third of the “Survival” reboot, and the title is a double entendre of sorts. An impending eclipse is set to trigger the Mayan apocalypse. Lara yearns to spiritually break free from her dad’s legacy while also completing his life’s work. Shadows sap away light. They cast a pall over everything.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Eidos Montréal
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: September 14, 2018
Calling Lara a survivalist hasn’t felt sincere since 2013’s Tomb Raider. That story saw her overcoming insurmountable odds to escape dire circumstances. The sequels, Rise of the Tomb Raider and now Shadow of the Tomb Raider, are different. Lara is an instigator. She’s a go-getter and she’s a risk-taker. The opening salvo of Shadow of the Tomb Raider climaxes with Lara triggering a cataclysmic flood that devastates a village in Cozumel, Mexico. Jonah, her best friend, pleads with her to stop all this risk-taking. It’s just getting people killed.
In one ear and out the other. Lara jets off to Peru in search of a Mayan artifact that might quell the apocalypse. She’s not the only one searching for it, though. Trinity, the nefarious paramilitary organization that was introduced in Rise of the Tomb Raider, is racing to claim it for themselves. They want to use the relic to restart the world so that they’re elevated as gods.
Lara’s intentions are technically altruistic and an undeniably better alternative to Trinity’s plan, but they come off as self-serving. She leaves a wake of destruction everywhere she goes. Her actions in Cozumel set off a chain of storms that wreck a village in the Peruvian jungle. As the residents try to rebuild, Lara scoops up every piece of building material she can find. It’s a video game thing that feels extremely selfish against the backdrop of crisis and poverty. As a defeated townsperson laments, “Archaeologists just take.”
That’s a theme we’ve seen before, primarily in Tomb Raider‘s two biggest influences: Indiana Jones and Uncharted. This one is more Temple of Doom than anything else, at least stylistically. There’s a large emphasis on subterranean settings and there’s a cult-like tribe that resists Lara. A late section has all the evil-red imagery that sets the same mood as a Thuggee sacrifice to Kali.
As for Uncharted, those parallels are well-documented by now. Some of Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s very best moments are in its explosive set pieces where the earth is literally crumbling away beneath Lara. Platforming is always scripted to be intense and dangerous. Combat zones have flammable props liberally scattered throughout because that’s more exciting than a simple bullet to the head. These are traits both series share. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are spiritual siblings at this point.
Maybe it’s disingenuous to partially define Tomb Raider by its influences because this is the culmination of a three-game arc. This is Tomb Raider now. The first game taught Lara how to survive. Rise of the Tomb Raider made her comfortable, confident, and competent at killing. The evolution with Shadow of the Tomb Raider is less notable. Now she’s just a little better at murder.
While Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t make any real revolutionary strides, there are some changes to combat that nicely enhance Lara’s proficiencies. She now has the ability to coat herself in mud and blend into walls of vegetation. It’s active camouflage and it protects her from detection by thermal goggles. It’s a tactic that’s an obvious reference to both Rambo and Predator. (Also, the box art feels like an homage to a Predator perched in a treetop ready to pick apart Schwarzenegger’s crew.) There are also new herbal aids to increase Lara’s perception, focus, and endurance; each of these makes dealing with enemies a little bit easier.
Perhaps the most surprising change to Shadow of the Tomb Raider concerns its structure. The first game was mostly linear. The second game expanded upon that with large open-world areas. This is a muted combination of the two. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has three towns that serve as bigger hubs, and this is where most of the exploration happens. Each one has its share of offshoots that lead to tombs, crypts, and other secrets. The story missions take place in environments where there isn’t much room to deviate from the main path.
This isn’t a bad change. The towns add a much-needed sense of humanity to Tomb Raider. For once, we see the collateral damage wrought by Lara’s actions. Paititi is the most impressive of the three villages. This lost Incan civilization is the home to humble dwellings and ornate temples. Here’s where we see some of Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s visual spectacle. The greens of the lush jungle, the blues of the crystal clear waters, the oranges of the South American sunsets, and the golds of the ceremonial decadence can be breathtakingly beautiful.
However, Paititi is also home to most of Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s most glaring faults. The middle of the narrative feels as though it’s propped up by conveniences and contrivances. A prominent villager leads a rebel sect but authority doesn’t do anything about it. Paititi’s leader is someone who’s wildly unlikely. The thing everyone’s searching for is in a place where someone probably should’ve found it. It goes on and on. The second act of Shadow of the Tomb Raider requires way too much suspension of disbelief to fully buy into it in good conscience.
The silver lining is that the narrative doesn’t end up being Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s most appealing draw. The Peruvian jungle is rife with opportunities to explore derelict ruins. There are nine tombs scattered throughout, each of them with unique themes and devices. One has Lara navigating in spite of deadly winds. Another requires meticulously ascending a massive sunken ship. Just like Rise of the Tomb Raider, the actual raiding of tombs is an unequivocal high point.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider leans into what it does well (platforming, setpieces, and puzzle-based tombs) and shies away from its inadequacies (there are significantly fewer combat sections than in the other Tomb Raiders). Frequently, the camera wrests control away to perfectly frame a thrilling shot. For three installments now, these games have seemed as if they’re seeking Hollywood’s approval in a way. That’s okay. All of this together is a potent formula that makes this feel like the most polished Tomb Raider yet. Shadow of the Tomb Raider knows what it wants to be.
Lara has a conversation maybe halfway through Shadow of the Tomb Raider where she’s told you can’t spend your whole life chasing someone else’s dream. Your destiny isn’t defined by your family name. We all have to carve our own paths. Lara nods like she understands but does very little to convince us she actually understands.
That’s why the narrative payoff falls short. Lara has always played the roles of savior and protector and researcher and badass — almost entirely because those are parts she has been thrust into. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a perfectly good game, but it feels as though it never figures out a way to address the most compelling aspect of this arc: Lara’s personal growth. What path does she want to carve? What does she want her legacy to be? Maybe she’d be happiest spending her life raiding tombs — all of the danger with none of the world-ending stakes. The glass half-full analysis is that she’s a regular chip off the ol’ block; glass half-empty, she never really escaped her father’s shadow.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]