Back in 2013, Crystal Dynamics released their reboot of the storied Tomb Raider franchise, returning to the origins of Lara Croft as she undergoes a brutal test of survival that kicks off her passion for globe-trotting and treasure hunting. Two years later, Rise of the Tomb Raider took Lara to the freezing mountains of Siberia as she uncovers the secrets of both her family legacy and a mysterious organization known as Trinity. Both titles were positively received fairly, reasserting the storied franchise as a key figurehead of the action-adventure genre after Uncharted pushed the envelope forward with polished graphics and refined gameplay. Back in April of this year, fans were treated to the expected news of an incoming third entry in this origin trilogy, as well as the unexpected news that Eidos Montreal would primarily be taking the reins for the development of the latest title, earning some questions about just how the Deus Ex developer would influence the culmination of Lara Croft’s new beginning. Shadow of the Tomb Raider cuts back on the enemy encounters and puts a stronger focus on exploration, puzzle-solving and stealth, with some minor improvements to the plot and a continued spotlight on impressive graphics and collectible-filled environments.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes Lara to South America after a series of tragic events leads her to attempt to stop a major catastrophe that she has supposedly caused. With the reliable Jonah at her side and Trinity head Dominguez just ahead of her, Lara’s latest story is a more reflective one despite the higher stakes, as she ponders her family history and the decisions that led her to her current expedition. Due to the sheer amount of dialogue present thanks to the villagers that populate the hubs, not all of it is memorable and a good portion of it still comes across as cheesy, but there are plenty of key moments that push the writing to new levels of maturity that often felt missing from the prior two titles. Camilla Luddington continues to bring a sense of humanity and relatability to her performance of Lara Croft, while Jonah and Dominguez both serve their roles as sidekick and antagonist without ever really going above and beyond. As a whole, the focus on Lara’s imperfections brings about the most sincere story that this origins trilogy has had, but still manages to fall flat when compared to some of the more complex casts and engaging writing that a good number of its competitors have to offer.
Much like the previous two entries, the semi-open world areas of Shadow of the Tomb Raider are shockingly detailed, with lush plants to climb and hide within, and a wide variety of animals to observe and hunt. These open areas feature plenty of verticality as Lara’s climbing axes continue to play a key role, as they now allow her to dangle precariously and swing into new locations. Meanwhile, Shadow continues Rise’s focus on tombs and crypts with plenty of ancient, and at times, legitimately creepy interiors filled with a equal balance of stress-free brain teasers and deadly precision-based challenges. Both of these types of environments have a greater amount of underwater exploration, and while the intuitive controls prevent it from feeling frustrating, their frequency does make these sections feel a bit excessive, particularly the short but surprisingly brutal underwater stealth sequences. Fortunately, the on-land stealth has become much more prominent, with Lara being able to take fewer bullets and enemies not appearing in as large of groups compared to the prior two titles. In addition to her usual arsenal of arrows and silenced guns, the plant-covered ground and walls allows Lara to more easily get closer to her targets, which feels satisfying throughout Lara’s journey.
The most noticeable influence that Eidos Montreal has brought to the Tomb Raider franchise is the overall frequency of enemy encounters, which are significantly fewer and farther between. This is an understandably polarizing decision, since for every Tomb Raider fan that values the silent, unseen approach, there was also plenty of love out there for the brutal and chaotic gunplay, which might end up pushing away some recent and long-time fans who view these titles as a shooter just as much as an action-adventure title. On a positive note, the guns do feel smoother to shoot, and there are still a reasonable amount of guns to acquire and upgrade throughout the adventure. Many of these guns, and several of Lara’s key gadgets and outfits, can be acquired through the game’s new merchants, which finally puts the gold currency at the same level of importance as the crafting materials and XP that continue to help enhance Lara’s abilities. These merchants can be found in the expansive hubs, which are filled to the brim with collectibles and inhabitants doing a wide variety of activities and telling a number of lore-building stories that bring a sense of life that these international environments never truly featured until now.
Crystal Dynamics has always put the presentation of the recent Tomb Raider titles at the forefront and Eidos Montreal continues to push the graphical and audio boundaries within Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While the lighting deserves a nod in particular, the general graphics look particularly stellar on 4K platforms for a third-party title, including both the little details such as how mud sticks to Lara as she attempts to evade the latest batch of enemies or the more jaw-dropping set pieces as Croft overcomes the challenges of the tombs. In addition to the aforementioned voice work of Luddington, the assortment of animal noises, multilingual dialogues and tense soundtrack help bring the jungles and cities to life thanks to some impressive attention to detail within the audio. Much like the prior two titles, the core story missions are bolstered by a decent number of side quests and an overwhelming amount of collectibles, many of which contribute to the lore and reward the player with XP and crafting materials, as well as adding to the available playtime. Additionally, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers a substantial photo mode and an intriguing difficulty system that allows players to customize three key aspects of the gameplay to their personal preference, making this title more accessible to new players.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s prioritization of exploration and stealth coupled with a more reflective plot ends Lara’s origin story on a more human note, which is strengthened by the remarkable presentation. Not every decision Eidos Montreal has made will sit well with long-time fans, as the meaty hubs, vast number of collectibles and smaller amount of enemy encounters set a slower pace than either the 2013 Tomb Raider or Rise of the Tomb Raider. Fortunately, the core fundamentals of climbing, looting and puzzle-solving remain as enjoyable now as they were twenty years ago, which helps make Shadow of the Tomb Raider a must-play for action-adventure and Tomb Raider fans.