Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review
While Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third part in a trilogy of games, it is not completely necessary to have played the previous two games in the series (2013’s “Tomb Raider” and 2015’s “Rise of the Tomb Raider”), but I would recommend doing so anyway, as both those games are fantastic and will add more narrative weight to Lara’s journey in this game. Shadow sees Lara once again fighting against the evil paramilitary organization Trinity, picking up her father’s legacy (obsession?), and accidentally triggering an ancient Mayan apocalypse. What is most surprising about Shadow is how personal the story is. Lara has been through hell and back in the past two games, and it has turned her into a warrior and survivor. Shadow takes her lessons and experiences from the previous two games and puts her to the ultimate test, with higher danger and challenges than she has ever faced before. The Lara from the previous two games could not have survived this one. It really makes you feel like you have completed a journey with this character and seen her strength grow along the way.
But there are still new sides to Lara we get to see and explore. With everything she has been through, she is still uneasy around people and seems more comfortable alone in centuries-old tombs than in a group of friends. The trilogy has always been portrayed as players seeing Lara become the Tomb Raider we all know and love, but equal measure should be given to the fact that we see Lara become a complete person as well, which is just as, if not more, important.
For the first time in the series, there are three major “hubs” in Shadow where Lara can interact with NPCs, accept side quests, and purchase new items and resources. While these areas are impressive in scale and offer lots of great story moments seeing Lara trying to connect with her fellow man, there isn’t that much to do. Most side quests boil down to fetch quests or small combat encounters and don’t offer a huge amount of variety or incentive to complete them. But they are fun distractions and are much more enjoyable to tackle in New Game +, where you can really take your time exploring the world. You can also hunt wild animals, including deadly predators like jaguars, and use the resources from these hunts to craft new weapons and outfits.
There are three skill trees you can upgrade in Shadow. One handles skills relating to exploration, one for combat, and one for stealth. Skill points are generously distributed, and you can unlock a significant portion of them by playing through the campaign. You can also equip different outfits that offer different perks and bonuses. Including some special bonus costumes which I won’t give away here. I was fond of the Jaguar skins, which made Lara quieter and harder to detect during stealth segments. You can also upgrade weapons with resources found in the game world, from increasing damage and improving rate of fire among other perks. All of this can be done from base camps spread across the game world, which also house the game’s fast travel spots, which let you warp to any previously discovered base camp.
The best optional quests are easily the Challenge Tombs. Hidden around the world in different locations, these tombs present the most difficult puzzles and traversal challenges in the game. They are a lot of fun, and Square Enix will be adding more down the road for free and from purchasing the Season Pass. I highly recommend taking on these tombs after you finish the main story, however, as the skills and upgrades you gain throughout the main campaign will come in handy.
Lara has a lot of options to explore this world as well. Climbing and traversal is streamlined and expanded on from the previous games. Lara can jump, rappel, climb, and swing across large vistas and long forgotten tombs in the most satisfying way in the trilogy. Swimming has also been expanded and doesn’t feel as clunky as in the previous two titles and adds an extra sense of tension as you swim through large underground caverns, constantly on the lookout for air pockets while avoiding eels and schools of wandering piranha.
While never being the highlight of any of the other games, combat has also been streamlined and improved upon in this newest entry. Lara will have access to various types of firearms, in addition to her trusty bow, which can hold different varieties of arrows that can be crafted with resources collected in the game world. My favorite special arrow type was “fear” in which a struck enemy would go into a delusional fervor and attack his allies before dying from the poison coursing through his veins. Luckily combat is not the main focus of enemy encounters in Shadow. Lara is no Rambo, and a few clean hits can take her out. Which is why the main focus of enemy encounters is stealth. Lara is able to sneak in tall grass and bushes, silently taking down her enemies like the apex predator she is. There are however a few combat encounters where you are forced to directly take on your attackers. But thankfully the action surrounding this small handful of instances more than makes up for it.
Clicking the right stick lets Lara enter “Survival Instincts”, which can highlight items and ammo, but also colors nearby enemies yellow or red. Red enemies are in sight of their allies, and taking them out will alert the rest of the group, while yellow enemies are away from the pack and prime for picking off. She can even cover herself in mud which can blend her further into the environment, as well as avoiding the thermal sensors some enemies come equipped with. Since stealth is the main focus, and direct combat is discouraged, each new group of enemies is a puzzle for Lara to solve. You must learn how to move around the area, when and where to hide, and figure out your plan of attack as you sneak and stab through the enemies in your path. Figuring out the most efficient way to take out a group of enemies with them none the wiser is extremely satisfying, and action stealth hasn’t felt this good since Arkham Asylum.
Speaking of puzzles, once again they play a large part in the gameplay loop of Tomb Raider. Now, I suck at puzzles and get easily frustrated. I am the type of gamer to just keep banging away at a puzzle until it finally gives way, not really learning the mechanics in the process. (I am looking at you, doors from God of War!) However, with all of the puzzles in Tomb Raider, I never felt frustrated or overwhelmed. Puzzles always had clear signage, and the game does a great job of nudging you in the right direction, without feeling like hand holding. But, if you ever get stuck on one particular part of a puzzle (which I, admittedly, did) you can adjust one of the three difficulty settings from the pause menu. Difficulty is split up between Combat, Puzzle, and Exploration settings and can be adjusted on the fly. Which is extremely helpful if you run into a particularly obstinate puzzle or group of enemies. Just whack down the difficulty, and bring it back up once you are done with the problem spot.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the culmination of everything the trilogy has been building to and improves and expands upon every aspect of the series from combat, traversal, and puzzle solving. The game can switch between bombastic, over the top, Uncharted-esque action set pieces, tense stealth encounters, and emotional story beats one after the other without missing a beat. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is easily the best in the series, and a must play for fans of the franchise and action adventure games in general.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.