I was lucky enough to be provided a complimentary copy of Shadow of the Tomb Raider for review purposes. After being delayed for a month due to work travel away from my PS4, and then spending as much time as possible to get close to 100% on the game (61% isn’t bad on a first run), I finally have my review ready. As many of you have seen from my interviews (XX) and previews (XX), I’ve been highly anticipating the culmination of Lara Croft’s story, and the game didn’t disappoint.
While the game has been out for a while, I’ll be trying to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, focusing on both the gameplay and the story, as both aspects are integral to this game. I am a firm believer that while a game can survive if the story is excellent, if the gameplay falters, it will never have replayability–something that is important when people are paying $60 for a game.
If you want the down and dirty without reading the details–know I loved this game. I spent so much time getting lost in the jungles, the tombs, the crypts–it truly felt immersive in a way that never felt repetitive; there were times where I realized I’d spent hours on side quests without spending an ounce of time on the main storyline…but due to the knowledge I gained about the mythos and history of what Lara was exploring, it only made the main quest more satisfying as a result. Few games can say that, as often side quests give you perks and extra completion points without actually building things up. While not necessary, each tomb and crypt is unique, and I loved exploring every one of them. Lara learned as she spent time in this world, and I learned with her.
The graphics, of course, are impeccable. While I did find a bit of stiffness in some of the npc characters, all major characters moved fluidly and had distinct character designs. Lara, of course, is near perfection–I’m still always amazed at how well her hair is animated. Additionally the way the world impacts her design is amazing as well. Water textures, mud, the way light and shadow plays off her model…each game has truly worked to make Lara more lifelike than the last, and this one doesn’t disappoint.
As with the last two Tomb Raider games, the gameplay is impeccable. Lara moves seamlessly through her environments with the controls reacting quickly to each choice you make, from running, leaping, rappelling, and taking down enemies. This is important, especially when having to make complicated maneuvers between climbing, leaping, and rappelling–one false move is going to send Lara to her death. Combat has been elevated from the last games as well; stealth of course is still an important aspect, but the added use of poison arrows, the use of trees to string enemies up, and a plethora of different ways to confuse and confront the enemy makes combat less frustrating and more exhilarating–especially knowing that if you’re caught out in the open, you can always hide again. Unlike before, the loss of cover no longer means you’re going to have to take down the enemies violently. Run, hide, and wait–and you can lose them again, to either stealth kill or avoid them entirely.
The different skills you can learn along the way also help with combat and/or crafting, allowing you to customize your playing experience to some extent–you could become more of a weapons master, or build up a greater defense.
Another great aspect is the varied difficulty levels. Instead of having the simple ‘easy, normal, hard’ modes, the player can customize combat, exploration, and puzzles to how much of a challenge they want. For example, I set exploration to easy, while combat and puzzles were set to normal. All can be changed mid game except for the most difficult setting, “Deadly Obsession” — basically the suicide run of the game.
While not actually related to how you ‘play’ the game, but more how you interact with the world, you can choose ‘immersive dialogue’ in the settings as well. This allows the native characters to speak in their own language instead of your default language, helping create a more immersive experience. While I have to admit that the performance of some of the native actors wasn’t the strongest, having voice actors who speak mayan is something I truly enjoyed, and I commend the dev team for going the extra mile.
I think this is where Shadow of the Tomb Raider truly shines. With a story lead by Jill Murray (lead writer on the Aveline DLC from Assassin’s Creed IV and on the writing team for AC III), the conclusion of Lara’s journey is a fulfilling one, especially for those who have followed her story since the 2013 reboot. Lara is still headstrong, passionate, and determined to do right, but unlike before, Lara finds herself making choices early that have devastating consequences on others. Her desire to always go at it alone, to make the choices she thinks are right–we quickly see that those choices leave her (and us) with doubts.
The proverbial voice in her ear, trying to make her see her errors (while still providing a helping hand), is Lara’s friend Jonah. I was so happy to see him back in this game–it’s great to see a secondary character that isn’t a love interest, and within this game I truly felt their friendship blossom into something that was nearly sibling-like. Lara would do anything for Jonah, and Jonah would do the same-but that doesn’t mean he won’t call her out for her faults. It’s something we’ve needed to see, especially when her actions cause calamity. Jonah always reminds her that she can’t always be alone in her work, otherwise she’ll fail.
Trinity is the main enemy of this game (as usual), and we finally confront the head of their council, Pedro Dominguez, who has ties to the greater story to be told. While I found Dominguez to be a compelling villain, I felt his story ended in an unsatisfying way. It’s the only aspect of the story that seemed lackluster to me. He is an interesting man, who often makes valid points, but by the end he became just a normal power-hungry mastermind.
The world that the writers and developers have created is expansive, and the addition of a living, breathing culture (one that was highly researched) based on the Mayan and Aztec give a sense of authenticity to Lara’s surroundings and interactions with the other characters. There are no token minorities here, or a tone-deaf treatment of past mythology. It’s clear that the creators wanted to create fully fleshed out characters, and one can definitely be found in Unuratu, the deposed queen of Paititi. She works as a wonderful foil to Lara, giving her advice and assistance, while never seeming like a ‘sage’ as often these characters end up being.
Of course, there are fantastical elements to the game–the strange Yaaxil are half man/half monster, but are based on myth–and as the story plays out, they become less a true adversary, instead fighting the same cause as Lara, but in a different way. By the end I found them, and their leader Crimson Fire, incredibly compelling and sympathetic.
By now, you can tell that I’m trying to do my best to avoid spoilers–while it has been out for about a month or so, I think this game needs to be experienced with as little information as possible. he lore that can be found in little hidden corners, through objects and reliquaries, and through the people surrounding Lara, are worth finding on your own.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider allowed Lara to grow; we see her become a better person and steward to the world.
While the ending with Dominguez left something to be desired, I felt Lara’s ending was fitting–and could easily tie up her story completely in this trilogy. Lara has learned to rebuild cities, and help things grow, and that solving mysteries isn’t always as important as protecting them from others–even if that means leaving them in the tomb.