Beginning its development back in 2015, Shadow of the Tomb Raider was an uncertain commodity then. Rumours on the internet sparked talk that the series had not been as financially successful as Square Enix had hoped, thus putting the final part of this trilogy in possible jeopardy. With the power of hindsight, however, we now know that this wasn’t the case and thankfully this most recent instalment saw the light of day – although, this time helmed by the team at Eidos Montreal.
Set very shortly after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara and her trusty companion Jonah are still hot on the trail of the evil organisation we know as Trinity. As their journey unfolds, Lara must deal with the impending doom that rushes ever closer by the hands of Trinity and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her prolific father, Richard Croft. What I found most compelling about the narrative, however, is the naturally developed bond that has flourished between Lara and Jonah over the course of the three games. Focusing most prominently in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Jonah acts as a moral sounding board to Lara and often implores her to question the motives of her crusade. Does she want to help people by stopping Trinity, or just find the answers to who killed her father? Their relationship is raw, unfiltered and often strained which makes for some brilliantly delivered scenes of terse awkwardness amidst silence and confronting contemplation. While not wanting to give away too much about the conclusion, the game ends on a strong note and provides the final stepping stones towards the Lara Croft we’re all familiar with today, the Tomb Raider.
While not changing up too significantly from the previous games, there are some very welcome changes to general exploration and combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Most importantly, Lara can swim for a longer duration due to more air pockets, and she can also rappel down cliff faces using a rope. These two small changes allow for a substantial shift in environment design and how the environment is approached by players, which is fantastic. On the combat side of the coin, stealth is focused on far more prominently this time around with Lara being able to cover herself in mud, hide against walls or in bushes to break enemy line of sight as well as hang enemies from trees with the use of bow and arrow. I’ve found myself operating far more stealthily than usual, especially for someone like myself who usually likes to take the Rambo approach to all combat situations. This speaks volumes to the shift the game has undergone, but also in the artfulness of not making you feel too railroaded by the change in gameplay and design. On top of it all as the proverbial icing on the cake, Shadow of the Tomb Raider introduces a fully customisable gameplay difficulty system, allowing you to scale the difficulty of gameplay areas such as combat, exploration and others depending on your personal preferences.
As always, the environmental design of Tomb Raider is excellent and further enhanced by some of the changes to gameplay as previously mentioned. One of the most significant differences is the broader focus on hub cities, where Lara can interact with villagers, discover secrets and items, as well as follow through with both side and main quests. The shift in this style allows the experience to feel much more cinematic, with ebbs and flows that feel much more reminiscent of a film as opposed to continuous balls to the wall action. This pacing also allows for a shift in atmosphere, meaning that the environments come designed for exploration rather than merely set dressing. I really enjoyed running through the sprawling villages, town centres and ruins of various locations and trying to traverse every nook and cranny to find its secrets. Like a fine wine and cheese, the pairing is divine and delivers an extra facet to the Tomb Raider experience that hasn’t existed as substantially in prior releases.
Playing in 4K mode on my PS4 Pro, I was once again blown away with the sheer beauty of the game and the level of detail on show. Where my memories of Rise of the Tomb Raider are mostly barren snowy regions, the environments of Shadow of the Tomb Raider are verdant and luscious with colours abound across the continent of South America. This setting allows the game to showcase its engine to the fullest, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider leaves no stone unturned in trying to draw you into its picturesque backdrop. Once again behind the reins of Lara is the talented Camilla Luddington, whose voice and motion capture lend gravitas and depth to Lara – seamlessly transitioning between action hero and introspective young woman with grace and talent. Topping it all off is the subtle yet evocative soundtrack which has always been a constant through the Tomb Raider series, never taking the focus away from the game but enhancing scenes when it’s most warranted.
While I just want to outright say that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an excellent game, it’s honestly not the final message I took away from this series. The most striking take away for me has been the evolution of the character of Lara Croft, developing from a video game sex symbol in the ’90s to a legitimate heroine in the 2010s. While Lara is still sexy, it’s not her looks that define her character in a singular dimension. Her intelligence, strength and tenacity are all equal and make up the sum of her parts far more. I’m sad to say goodbye to Lara for now, but I’m also thankful for the experiences I’ve had playing these games. Lara has defined a generation of aspirational women, and I’m excited to see what awaits her in the future.