At the end of my review of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I expressed my disappointment in the direction the series chose to go. It leaned hard into the combat side of the series, which felt uninspired at best, and the story left me bored and wishing for the end. The final entry in this origin trilogy was rumored to be more heavily focused on exploration and tomb raiding, which I was looking forward to, and when it went on sale after E3 I finally felt like it was time to pull the trigger.
I just 100% completed the game today, so I would say that I am well-versed enough in Shadow to have an informed opinion on it. This game is compartmentalized in nature, so I will break this up into a few different categories: Exploration, Collectibles, Combat, Game Performance, and Story.
For the most part, they have fixed one of my biggest complaints from Rise: set pieces locking off paths and making it near impossible to explore areas you have been to before. In this game, you can go forwards and backwards as you please for the most part. There were a couple of spots with jumps too big to come back from, but they usually had a campsite not too long after it, so you were never really stranded, unable to understand how to get to the next collectible.
They have added an extensive amount of underwater exploration, which actually feels extremely well thought out. The controls feel intuitive and meaningful, which is the hardest thing to do with underwater gameplay design. Some of the best upgrades are skills that let you increase your swim speed or breath capacity, and when fully upgraded, Lara feels just as much at home underwater as she does on land. The only thing I hate is that some areas include enemies: eels (which you can fight off) and piranhas (which you can’t). Otherwise, it’s honestly a pleasant addition, once you figure out the learning curve.
The tombs and crypts, my favorite parts of the games, felt more extensive and thought out. While still not required for the story, they did feel like more of a highlight than ever before. For the first time, some tombs actually had combat in them, which was a bit annoying since shooting things does not inherently increase the pleasure of a gameplay loop for me. But it never felt nonsensical, so they have that going for it.
That was true for the whole game, actually. Something I disliked about Rise was how once you beat an area, even when a cut scene had told you that all enemies have been defeated, there would still be people patrolling the world. Not to the same extent as before, but enough to feel restricted and that sense of dread in your stomach whenever you entered a new area. In Shadow, the opposite is true. Once you clear out the enemies for the storyline, you are free to return with no concerns necessary, even if the game still plays the stressful fight music.
I really loved the overworld that was in Shadow. The jungle was a gorgeous environment to explore, and a welcome change from the Siberian tundra of Rise. The campsites and collectibles were placed very well, encouraging exploration both on your first time through and on a completionist stretch. Sticking around to 100% it was a no brainer, and it was a joy to romp through the trees over and over again.
There were a few changes made to the collectibles systems in the final game, some of which were better than others. The skill tree felt underwhelming, with most of the upgrades being uninteresting or unhelpful. There were a few things right off the bat that were very helpful, like seeing Challenge items with Survivor’s Instinct, or increasing swim speed, but I was mostly just looking forward the making the grid a solid color and not really worrying about what those individual squares meant to gameplay.
The resources seemed more plentiful in Shadow than in Rise, which helped prevent it from feeling too grind-y. You could hunt for your stuff, or find it in caches, boxes, and treasure chests around the world. Although, what those resources are mainly used for is essentially useless; most people will put them towards weapon upgrades, but once you fully upgrade your first weapon of each type, you are pretty set to go. The first one you get tends to be the most balanced one, and you can easily get away with not purchasing any new ones.
In Shadow, resources can also be used to craft different clothing sets, each with their own stat effects. I enjoyed the new clothing system where you could mix tops and bottoms, and felt pretty neutral on the full-body clothes that were required to speak to the various NPCs.
Unfortunately, they have taken away one of the best parts of the series: Lara discovering artifacts and documents and informing the player about them. In the first two, Lara would discover these things out in the wild and narrate about them, proving her expertise while also adding some depth and color to the collect-a-thon mechanics. It’s what set her apart from other adventuring video game heroes. But in this game, those comments are locked behind a button press. This may seem like a small thing to get nitpicky about, because sure, if a player is interested they can use it, or they can just skip past it. But by making it an opt-in system, the game shows its priorities. Nathan Drake is a looter, but Lara was an archaeologist. But when Lara takes things without even a word, she becomes no better than him.
Combat mostly shifted in how it feels in specific situations. The scrambling ability felt a lot more difficult, and up-close combat overall felt like less of an option than before. Melee became more guesswork, and don’t even bother trying to aim your bow at someone within 10 feet of you.
The bow’s usefulness overall took quite a hit. In Shadow, you get the rifle extremely early on, and the game lets you mow down bad guys in 2-3 bullets where you would otherwise have to use at least 5 arrows. Maybe it’s something about losing the auto-bow-headshot skill upgrade, but I found myself reaching more often for my rifle than ever before in a Tomb Raider game, which made shootouts simpler, but perhaps less interesting.
Thankfully, Shadow is the game where stealth is king. They introduced a new mud mechanic, where Lara can cover herself in mud and hide up against walls for even more stealth options than just bushes. The sneaking feels awesome, with level design tailored for stealth play, and enemy AI that actually lets you lose them. There were many times where Trinity would find a fallen soldier and scream “She’s hunting us!” and for the first time, that felt like the truth. There was even an entire section of the game where the player loses all weapons except the climbing axe, and it wasn’t even annoying. It was actually exciting to get to stretch those stealth mechanics to their full potential, and I would play an entire game where each combat encounter was just a room with 4-5 enemies and I had to creep around as Lara, picking them off one-by-one. Extra appreciation goes out to probably my favorite skill upgrade: double stealth kills when targets are close enough together. It added a hugely fun dynamic to the fights, and I would love to see a Tomb Raider game that goes even further into mechanics like that.
As always, the visuals were stunning, especially the environments. Lara herself looked a bit doll-like in the face, but all the rest of the character models were beautiful. It blows me away how much better this is than Rise or Tomb Raider (2013), and I thought each of those games were the best of the best.
A new, fun thing I got to notice were how many interesting hidden load screens the developers hid all throughout the world. There were claustrophobic areas to crawl through (especially underwater), walking through mud, rounding corners. When it worked, it worked wonderfully, but the reason I can label them as hidden load screens is because it definitely didn’t always work. There were some places in the world that stuttered no matter what, even if Lara took her sweet time stomping through the sludge.
The game in general was pretty glitchy, but none of it really got in the way of the overall quality. The only time I had to restart was after the final boss, but thankfully it saved that progress and stuck me right at the beginning of the cut scene that followed it.
Alright, time for the final section. Spoilers ahead, so be aware.
First, I want to say this story was way more interesting to me than in Rise. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a religious person, but I did not engage with that Prophet storyline at all, and the unpleasant environment did not help things. However, this game has a story that feels far more focused and relevant, so I was engaged the entire time.
Shadow explores Lara’s obsession with stopping Trinity, and the direct effect her actions have on the world around her. It opens in Cozumel, where she retrieves a specific dagger, which triggers a tsunami that wipes out the entire city. The immediacy of this event is brutal, and the game does not try to salvage Lara’s innocence in the whole situation.
After witnessing the destruction she has caused, Lara and Jonah head to Peru, where they find the hidden city of Paititi, which was infiltrated by Trinity hundreds of years ago, and where two tribes are warring with each other over who will win: The Cult of Kukulkan who wants to re-make the world after being influenced by Trinity, or the rebellion which wants to prevent the apocalypse and renew the sun.
The inhabitants of Paititi will provide you with missions depending on what garb you’re wearing (and therefore which side you appear to be on). The quests were well thought out and a great mix of exploration, combat, and character development. It helped the world feel deeper, and helped make Lara’s inevitably irresponsible actions sting that much more.
Where the game is innovative in its subject matter at the beginning, it quickly finds its way to the normal equilibrium. Lara may be called out for her unhealthy behaviors, but her circumstances never seem to punish her for it. She contends with the hundreds of deaths she has caused, but they are usually the deaths of evil-doers, or situational based on the literal storms she caused. And by the end, she becomes the ultimate Queen of the Damned, and she ends up being right. She needed to go after these artifacts in order to save the world, and the opportunity for her to learn from her mistakes has been lost.
Maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised, after all. If Lara had actually internalized all of the lessons, she would have discovered that there was no ethical way to raid tombs. She would always be hurting someone, there’s just no way to avoid it. But this is an origin story. There is a whole canon of games where Lara does exactly this. If she were to learn her lesson, logically she would have to quit treasure hunting entirely. And the fanboys can’t have that. She’s got hot pants to wear!
OVERALL THOUGHTS ON THE SERIES
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot series. I thought the gameplay was loads of fun, with a fresh take on the Uncharted formula and good attempts and storytelling. I think the series really hit its stride with Shadow, and I am kind of bummed that there are no pending plans for a continuation on this series, if only so I can have more environments to explore. If Crystal Dynamics announces that there will be a fourth game, I will be first in line to purchase it.
Ok, maybe I’d wait for a sale.