When Rise of the Tomb Raider originally released on Xbox One back in 2015, it was one of my favorites of the year. I thought that Crystal Dynamics had expertly improved and expanded on everything that made 2013’s Tomb Raider re-launch so great in the first place and I found myself more excited than ever before for the future of one of gaming’s most iconic franchises.
Jump forward to today and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third game in this Lara Croft origin trilogy, has arrived, and with it, a new developer has headed the project. This time around, Eidos Montreal has taken the reigns from Crystal Dynamics–though Crystal Dynamics still was involved with development–to place Lara in her most dire and darkest situation yet. Combined with relatively the same gameplay formula as last time, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s finished product is once again sound even though it feels far too reminiscent of the game that released three years ago.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider picks up a short time after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider and finds Lara desperate and obsessed to stop the shadow organization Trinity, the same antagonists from the previous game. After a cataclysmic opening hour which finds the blood of many on Lara’s hands, she sets off to right her wrongs and defeat Trinity once and for all before they unleash chaos upon the entire world. This is a story that doesn’t hold the hand of new players and throws you directly into things expecting that you already know what transpired in the previous game.
As mentioned, this is the darkest story that has been told thus far among this new Tomb Raider trilogy and further leaning into this grim, hopeless tone just feels far too overbearing at times. This is a trilogy that was already pretty dark to begin with–gruesome deaths, over-the-top violence, etc.– and to lean even further into those elements was almost too jarring for me. Shadow of the Tomb Raider became hard for me to play in more extended sessions simply because of the overwhelmingly dreary set pieces combined with the intense soundtrack made it too emotionally oppressive. I’m absolutely fine with Eidos Montreal opting to go down this route rather than the more laid-back style that the Uncharted games go for, but when I start to feel like I need a shower after playing too long then the game begins to lose its value of “fun” which is why I’m playing in the first place.
What I also found to be strange in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is for a majority of the game, it’s hard to root for Lara Croft. This is a version of Lara that has allowed her hatred for Trinity to consume her entirely to the point of her making questionable actions and losing empathy for those around her. In the grander scheme of things, I know that Eidos was trying to draw a comparison between Lara and the foes she’s so desperate to stop. It’s an interesting idea but is one that I didn’t think was executed upon very well.
All in all, I found this to be the weakest narrative that has been seen in this trilogy. The surrounding cast of characters also doesn’t offer much concerning intrigue–looking at you once again, Jonah–which makes the story’s focus on Lara and your feelings towards her as the player all the more critical. It’s not all bad, and there are definitely some memorable moments throughout with one flashback sequence being the most noteworthy, but I found it hard to be too invested in what was going on in the story more often than not.
Luckily, what is once again fantastic is the level design and surrounding world to explore. This Tomb Raider series has been so successful in my opinion because of the tremendous areas that there are to explore and that hasn’t changed in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. These semi-open world areas are once again filled to the brim with collectibles, challenges, and the ever-enjoyable challenge tombs, which are still likely the best aspect of the game.
If you’re like me, you’ll spend hours upon hours looting around every corner of these locations to find everything that they have to hide in the pursuit of 100% completion. I do however think that a majority of the collectibles that you’ll find throughout are pretty unnoteworthy. While many of them help provide further context and info on what’s happening in the background of the story, more often than not they feel more like checkmarks on a giant list more than anything. I’m not saying Shadow of the Tomb Raider is in the same class as something like Donkey Kong 64 as far as unneeded collectathons go, but it might be close. Either way, I’m a sucker for collectibles, so this wasn’t a huge bother to me.
There are also a handful of side quests that you can do in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and I found most of them to be a fun way to run away from the main path for a few minutes. Some of these missions lead to some cool rewards and whatnot, so they’re worth your time if you stick with them. In the end, though, they’re just a nice distraction to keep you in this world a bit longer.
Perhaps the part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider that I felt most lacking this time around was in combat. In a general sense, it’s virtually the same as what was seen in Rise of the Tomb Raider which I didn’t have many issues with at that time. With games having changed so much over the past three years though, combat this time felt way more dated than I would have expected.
Most engagements can be handled in stealth if you’re careful enough when moving about the environment. Taking down enemies quietly is still my preferred method of play and in this manner, I still think combat is really satisfying.
It’s when these situations boil down to shootouts with your firearms that I think they become a bore. More often than not, I could cut through dozens of enemies at a time with ease when utilizing my more powerful weapons to the point that they just felt like fodder. Maybe the best way of fixing this is to bump up the combat difficulty only for myself–a cool new quality of Shadow of the Tomb Raider that allows you to scale difficulty for the multiple aspects of the game–but in the end, I still don’t think it’d lead to these engagements feeling any more interesting. Major shootouts have never been the best parts of this new Tomb Raider series and I don’t think they shine in Shadow, either.
What I also found to be pretty disappointing on the gameplay front this time around was the lack of anything all that new. Most of the newest additions to Shadow of the Tomb Raider are pretty subtle. Some of these include rubbing mud over yourself to blend in with certain areas of the environment or having the ability to shimmy down your rope in the climbing and platforming sections. There’s also some more expanded swimming sections of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and as far as swimming areas in games go, these areas are just fine. It’s hard to be too critical on these lack of additions because what was already instituted in the previous game was great, but I couldn’t help but feel left wanting for some new and exciting mechanic or two other than what was included.
The RPG systems including crafting and leveling-up via specific skills also return this time around and work nearly identically as before. There are a handful of new skills that you can acquire which will improve particular aspects of your own Lara. I enjoy that you can choose which areas of your character to specialize in as it makes your gameplay experience feel more personal. You’ll also be collecting a ton of different materials throughout to upgrade your bows, firearms, and even craft new outfits for Lara. They’re simple additions, but I always appreciated RPG aspects like this in games.
One new thing about Shadow of the Tomb Raider that does stand out compared to those games before it comes in the visuals department. Shadow of the Tomb Raider boasts some of the most impressive visuals that I have seen in a video game to date. Lighting and texturing are phenomenal throughout and the color palette on display is downright insane if you are playing with HDR. If you don’t already own an Xbox One X, PS4 Pro, or high-end PC, this is one that will make you a believer in 4K gaming and will encourage you to make that jump sooner rather than later.
It’s always hard to review sequels like Shadow of the Tomb Raider when they don’t differ all that much from the title that came before it. On the one hand, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a phenomenal game in its own right, so it stands to reason that mixing things up too drastically in the follow-up might stray too far away from what made it so great in the first place. At the same time, Shadow of the Tomb Raider fails to stand out among the two games that preceded it simply because it lacks an identity of its own and instead just feels exactly like what Rise of the Tomb Raider already was other than the new story and locations.
There’s still a ton to love within Shadow of the Tomb Raider and if you enjoyed the previous two games in this new era of Lara Croft, then I absolutely expect that you’ll dig what’s found here. While I find this to be Lara’s weakest adventure of the bunch, I’m still excited to see what lies in store next time around for one of gaming’s most prominent characters.