Lara Croft has been rebooted and reimagined several times, and in some respects, she’s at her best in her newest incarnation. Nonetheless, the conclusion to her latest trilogy could have and should have been better.
2013’s Tomb Raider is the best of the three games in the current “Survivor” timeline. It demonstrates that a narrative doesn’t need to be complex in order to be compelling; Lara’s transformation from sheltered college kid to determined, independent woman is one of the better character arcs in recent video game memory. 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider played it safe and offered us glimpses of a somewhat more mature, but also flatter and less interesting Lara. Shadow of the Tomb Raider attempts to set her up as the tough-as-nails adventurer she will become ten years later, but largely sabotages her character with poor writing.
Shadow‘s biggest narrative fault is an adherence to moral relativism that has become all too common and oh-so-tiresome in 2018. Crystal Dynamics’ intent was to portray Lara as morally conflicted, and seemingly to imply that in order to become a mature adult, one must be placed in morally gray situations and accept the (alleged) fact that sometimes, you have to do bad things in order to be good. The flipside of this implication—that sometimes really bad people aren’t actually too bad—is almost as awful and just as untrue.
This kind of attitude is absurd and does real damage to real people, but that’s a subject for an altogether different article. Trinity, a power-hungry cult that serves as the main antagonist throughout the Tomb Raider reboots, is after an artifact that grants its wielder literal omnipotence—the power to reshape reality itself in any way. The particular bad guy leading the search wants to use it to prevent the “outside world” from discovering a horrifically barbaric and primitive society that has remained hidden in the jungles of Peru for centuries.
The ethical conflict presented here is already so cut-and-dry that I truly can’t imagine why any writer would choose it as a framework for asserting the idea that “sometimes bad guys are good and good guys are bad.” Trinity murders innocent people left and right, the worse of the two indigenous sects routinely practices human sacrifice, and the other isn’t too much better (they only kill innocent tourists who accidentally stumble into their city).
There is no gray area here; Lara wants to stop all of these things, as she clearly and obviously should. Yet, she cries and screams and wraps herself in guilt over the fact that she sometimes has to kill these horrifically wicked people in order to stop them. To add to her worries, the sun is also about to explode because Lara took the artifact in question during the game’s first twenty minutes. It would be reasonable to feel a little bit crummy about that, but what’s never addressed is the fact that she did so because the alternative was letting Trinity have it, in which case the sun would still be exploding, only she wouldn’t have a chance to stop it.
Lara routinely apologizes to evil people for acting to stop them, right up until the end of the game—and in a few cases, makes no move to stop a bad person at all, seemingly indifferent to the super bad thing they’re doing right in front of her. The proper approach here would have been: Lara is good, the bad guys are not, and she knows it; the end. Granted, when faced with a different but related ethical choice at the game’s conclusion, she does make the right call for the right reasons. This definitely helps her character and the story more broadly, but can’t save it entirely.
There are other, less severe problems with the writing, like a major secondary antagonist who dies off-screen, randomly and anticlimactically and is never mentioned again, despite the game having spent half of its length psyching you up for a showdown with him. All in all, the script doesn’t even come close to measuring up to many of the game’s other absolutely stellar elements.
Even more so than its story, Shadow‘s gameplay is an enormously mixed bag. There is a lot to love, and almost as much to loathe. The mechanics haven’t changed much since the first two games, but bizarrely, they’re less polished instead of more so.
The horrendously frustrating bugs related to platforming have to be mentioned first. The Steam forums are flooded with complaints about climbing and jumping mechanics not working properly, and I’m sad to say that all of those complaints are spot-on. I played the game on “Deadly Obsession” difficulty, which is hard mode with one extra caveat: no autosaves. You can only save your progress at campfires, which are sometimes very far apart indeed.
I died about a hundred times during the 35 hours it took me to 100% the game, and a solid seventy-five of those deaths were absolute bullshit. Ludicrously dangerous (and often timed) climbing sections are plentiful throughout the game, which is great—if the controls consistently work as they’re supposed to. Redoing the same sequence that was wonderfully tense and dramatic the first time is nothing but downright annoying the fifteenth time, once you’ve started to ask yourself how many times you’re willing to retry this and just hope it works before you turn it off and go do something else.
On a more positive note, the tombs, traps, and puzzles in this entry are fantastic—the best yet. Gorgeous lighting effects, beautiful artwork, smart level design, and crisp animations make spooky burial chambers feel alive like never before, and it’s pure joy to explore them – until you’re killed by the controls or the camera for the eighth time (see previous paragraph).
One of my biggest gripes with the first two Tomb Raider reboots was excessive, monotonous combat akin to generic first-person shooters. I was pleased to see that Shadow of the Tomb Raider has toned the shooting way down, making it much more effective and enjoyable when it happens. There are only a few instances in which you’re expected to gun down waves of 20+ dudes; most of the time, human enemies show up in groups of five or fewer, and stealth or avoidance tactics are much more effective. Lara is a much more convincing badass when she’s patiently stalking enemies like a panther than when simply trading endless bullets with a small army.
Shadow is simply stunning to look at, particularly if you’ve got the hardware to push its upper limits. Lush jungle foliage rustles fluidly as Lara moves through it, visually distinct dust motes drift quietly through shafts of muted sunlight, and the rotting wooden floor of an ancient library is colored in no fewer than thirty different shades. On more than one occasion, I found myself having Lara simply stand still so I could slowly pan the camera around her and take in the environment.
The use of color throughout the game is worth its own special praise, too. Most games tend to be generally bright, generally dark, or somewhere in between, but Shadow hits a huge range of palettes and does them all beautifully. Dark, musty crypts look just as excellent as brilliant red jungle flowers in the midday sun. If the writers and the people responsible for the platforming sections had been as skilled as the visual artists, Shadow of the Tomb Raider could have been the best adventure game of the last decade.
Shadow sounds just as good as it looks. Haunting, staccato strings rise and fall dynamically as you explore trap-ridden caverns, matching the tension you feel after narrowly avoiding death. When you begin to relax after finally emerging back into the sunlight, the music gives way to the liveliest sounding jungle I’ve ever heard, outside of actual recordings of the rainforest.
Camilla Luddington gives her best performance as Lara to date; she’s so good, in fact, that I felt a real twinge of sadness when I heard her mention in an interview that she may not be doing any further voice work for Lara. Jonah the sidekick is voiced pretty competently but doesn’t shine like Lara does. Other characters sound pretty good too, especially if you set your language preferences to “immersive,” which makes background chatter happen in several different languages – sometimes all at once.
The worst thing I can say about the sound design is that the gunshots are a bit flat and quiet, and that’s an extremely nitpicky criticism overall. Bravo and hats off to the sound designers, voice actors, and composers.
There are a fair number of people reporting sub-par performance in the Steam forums, but Shadow ran admirably on my GTX 1080 and i7-7700 processor, maintaining 80+ frames per second on high settings almost all the time. Some minor stuttering reared its head a few times, but given the mind-boggling level of physics and math happening in those areas, I really can’t complain. I experienced zero crashes or freezes in 35 hours.
It’s been a while since I assigned a final score to a game comprised of such opposite extremes. The good things about Shadow of the Tomb Raider are really, really good, but the bad things are simply inexcusable. You obviously can’t fix a game’s writing after it’s released, but if the climbing mechanics are ever fixed, that’s probably worth an extra 2 points, raising my final score to an 8. I hesitate to recommend a full price purchase, but Tomb Raider fans – who have now been warned – should definitely consider picking it up on sale.