Shadow of the Tomb Raider improves on the successful formula that made Rise of the Tomb Raider such a hit. It features a semi-open world that feels grand but not overwhelming, colorful characters that I cared about, and a story that had me hooked from start to finish. This Tomb Raider story has a much darker tone this time around, but also features a more seasoned Lara Croft completely comfortable in her trade. Making you feel much more like the hardened hunter than the frightened prey.
A Darker Tone
Shadow of the Tomb Raider presents a much darker story and in result everything feels much more substantial. A revenge tale that follows the events at the end of the last game. The fate of the world is on the line, and Lara Croft is the only one that can save everyone.
It is a grand story in concept, but I typically enjoy more isolated stories. Stuff that appeals more to character struggles than the fate of the world, something the other two installments managed to balance. As such, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s story has stakes so high it can overwhelm various character arcs and moments. But the writing excellently manages to thread this needle, melding it into the grand scheme of the Tomb Raider origins trilogy.
Lara has come a long way from the scared girl that was awestruck by her first kill in the 2013 reboot. She is now an expert at killing and this evolution to her character is substantial. She has gone from an approach focused around sloppy gun play to brutal stealth executions and clinical precision. The bad ass Lara Croft is here. This is the last game in this trilogy and we get some real character depth with Lara. Where the first game was about her learning to survive, and the second one about the evil she has to face, this final outing is about our heroine taking responsibility for a scenario she caused. And watching her confront that puts a fitting a bow on her character.
There are some questions I had when it was all said and done, but I’m finding some very interesting journal entries that flesh out the story even more as I go back through the game following my initial play through.
Hiding in the Shadows
Shadow of the Tomb Raider features gorgeous landscapes, deep underground tombs and a whole lot more begging to be explored. And the environment also becomes an unsung hero since this installment feels much more like a stealth game than a combat-oriented shooter. Taking on a whole camp of enemies on my own with guns blazing got me nowhere fast. Instead, I was encouraged to use the environment to maneuver through areas and quietly pick off enemies one by one. Once I got into that mindset, the game became a lot more exciting. Stealth mechanics are not easy to implement but Shadow of the Tomb Raider does it so well.
But Lara doesn’t just use her surroundings to help snap necks. She can rub mud on herself to blend in better. There are tall grass areas that she can hide in, and the level design is efficient in creating a multitude of ways to approach each encounter. I found myself trying (and failing more often than I like to admit) completely new approaches afterward rather than running through the motions and trying the same thing over again. The game forced me to think of creative ways to take down groups of enemies.
The AI is also much smarter than before. Abilities such as hanging your enemies from trees or shooting distraction arrows with poison clouds that explode when enemies come near them are challenging to execute. Enemies are not blindly following noises and continuing the same path. Stealth games often make me feel like it’s a waiting game. I’m just waiting for the next enemy to come my way as I track their path. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider I noticed quickly that enemies will change their route and do things to disrupt the pattern. They might start randomly talking to each other and then completely change their patrol route. This kept things interesting and kept the game challenging throughout the moment to moment gameplay.
Skill trees also return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As you progress through the game and discover hidden secrets, defeat enemies in combat or stealth, and solve puzzles you gain XP. This in turn gives you skill points to spend on certain perks. This allows you to steer the game to your play style.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider I found myself pouring all of my skill points into combat oriented perks to be more deadly during the all-out combat encounters. Those are far more rare this time around so I used my skill points to cater more to stealth play, and I found that I was much happier spreading out my perks to different trees.
The perks available really do benefit the way the game is played too, as soon as I spent a skill point I felt that my time and XP were efficiently invested. I honestly just wish the game was slightly longer to allow more opportunity to use the newly unlocked perks.
Now it wouldn’t be a Tomb Raider game without all of the deep tombs with intricate puzzles to solve. It’s the very core to this series as well as a personal highlight. And keeping with tradition, Shadow of the Tomb Raider presents puzzles that at first glance look very grand and challenging, but are solvable with a little thought.
The puzzle difficulty can range from moderately challenging to extremely difficult on normal difficulty. When playing on harder difficulties, climbable ledges aren’t highlighted or marked, making certain climbing challenges true headscratchers. If you’re a seasoned Tomb Raider expert then I would recommend trying the game on the harder difficulties for more of a challenge. Plus, it’s a great way to increase difficulty aside from giving enemies more health.
It also helps that the puzzles are very satisfying to solve, especially in some of the challenge tombs. There is tons to explore and plenty of treasures to find. I enjoyed checking behind every nook and cranny to collect the next journal entry or monolith. There is a lot to unpack and if you’re a completionist, you will have your hands full with this one.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider improves on every aspect that made the previous games great. A more open world, more challenging combat encounters, and improved visuals and atmosphere make for a great experience. The story is much darker than the previous entries in the series and while the game handles it well, it’s a hard left turn from what I expected going into the game. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel for the action adventure genre but it is an amazing example of polish and pedigree. If you appreciate the treasure hunting and high-octane action that these types of games offer, then this is a must play.