Shadow of the Tomb Raider review: Queen of the jungle

The Trinity saga comes to an end, but does Shadow of the Tomb Raider end the trilogy on a high note? Our review.

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Back in 2013, Square Enix, Crystal Dymanics, and Eidos Montreal embarked on a journey to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise for a new generation. It was a different Lara Croft, one who was just beginning her storied career as a death-defying archaeologist. It pushed forward a more human side to Lara's story, showing her evolution from a stranded survivor to a capable explorer and hardened warrior.

Five years later, Lara's tale comes to a close in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It offers players a bigger world than any Tomb Raider that has come before it. And while the ending to Lara's trilogy might feel anticlimactic, there's enough out there to explore that it should leave the most hardened Tomb Raider veteran with more than enough to enjoy.

The Heroine's Journey

Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks Lara's final encounter with the sinister Trinity organization. While she thinks she's found a leader of a Trinity chapter, it turns out that main villain Doctor Dominguez is actually the leader of the whole shadowy cabal. This leads into a hunt for a set of artifacts that are said to usher in an ancient apocalypse, allowing the holder to remake the world as they see fit.

The Indiana Jones-style MacGuffin hunt has been one of the joys of the Tomb Raider franchise and that remains the case in this game. Even without exploring the various Challenge Tombs, there are still plenty of dangerous temples and dilapidated crypts for Lara to explore. All of them are filled with dangerous traps, mind-breaking puzzles, and some of the best platforming sequences the series has to offer. They often put the players' intelligence to the test, tasking them with piecing together clues that will lead them to the latest piece in the overarching scavenger hunt.

But for those who have followed this trilogy, it's hard not to be disappointed by certain elements and plot twists in the story's latter half. There's a twist involving Lara's father and Dominguez that's revealed late in the story, but what's supposed to be a blowaway narrative moment is barely touched on beyond that reveal. The story only gets more disappointing from there, as Lara's final battle with Dominguez (and Trinity, as a whole) feels anticlimactic. In particular, the plot element involving the MacGuffin and its capabilities felt underwhelming. I walked away feeling like there was some untapped story potential.

As for Lara herself, Shadow of the Tomb Raider didn't feel me leaving that she had the kind of character progression that a final chapter called for. The game does an admirable job of presenting her as a flawed hero, acknowledging that much of what's happening is due to brashness, obsessiveness, a hero complex, and a desire for revenge. It builds on the shades of gray seen in Rise of the Tomb Raider. But the resolution to Lara's character arc (as well as the rest of the story, as a whole) felt like it came all too suddenly. While I walked away feeling positive about Lara's potential for future stories, the end of the Trinity arc left me feeling disappointed.

Temples of Doom

Shadow of the Tomb Raider certainly didn't hold back with its tombs, offering up some of the most intricately-designed labyrinths in the series. Lara retains her key abilities from the past two Tomb Raider games, but is given some seemingly minor additions that add tremendously to the formula. Rappeling and overhang climbing feel like small tweaks, but they go a long way in opening up exploration possibilities. They also add to the tense atmosphere whenever platforms start to fall apart and players are suddenly on a timer.

Exploration in tombs feels opened up more than ever. While Rise of the Tomb Raider focused on verticality, Shadow of the Tomb Raider expands on that idea significantly. Players' platforming skills are tested, with all of Lara's various tools utilized at different points in each tomb. The optional Challenge Tombs will truly gauge a player's platforming prowess, but the story's tombs are no cakewalk.

There's also much more swimming in this third game, compared to its two predecessors, and that may not be such a good thing. Swimming is one of Shadow's weakest points, as I constantly found myself fighting with the camera and struggling to get Lara where she needed to go. These sequences offered their own kind of tension and it wasn't the fun kind, as I'd find myself trying to get away from a school of piranhas, but often drift towards their pattern of get caught against a wall and eaten. Swimming controls felt far from crisp and it only got more frustrating as more and more swimming sections were introduced.

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The story barely scratches the surface of just how massive Shadow of the Tomb Raider's world is. Paititi alone can easily hypnotize a player with its massive size and copious amount of side missions. The Hidden City is surrounded by a jungle filled with Challenge Tombs and hunting areas. Those who want to take on dangerous game, like jaguars and condors, are welcome to take on the open Amazon. The faint of heart are welcome to skip it, which is a nice option to have, but the Challenge Tomb rewards, like special skill tree abilities and unique outfits, are worth the extra effort.

One of the key features of Shadow of the Tomb Raider involves expanded stealth sequences, which allow Lara to unleash her inner Batman and take out Trinity baddies without being discovered. Lara can use different survival instincts to aid in her efforts, like using mud for camouflage or treetops to hang enemies from above. She can also utilize the various plants in the jungle for Perception abilties, which open up additional survival tools. These stealth "corridors" get more entertaining as the story goes on, as players either find new abilities via natural progression or unlock new tools from the game's skill tree. Fear arrows, in particular, are endlessly entertaining, as Lara can shoot an enemy with one and watch as he guns down his teammates before fading to his own death.

One of the few gripes with these sections is that while the lengthy animations of Lara entrapping her pursuers are cool, they can often be costly. An enemy will glow yellow on Lara's Survival Instincts mechanic, indicating he's safe for takedown. But there were several instances where I'd take down a yellow enemy and by the time the animation was done playing, he'd glow red and Lara's cover would be blown, resulting in about a dozen guards firing away with their automatic rifles.

Speaking of those automatic rifles, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is at its weakest when it forces players into shooting galleries. Those instances aren't many, but they are there and they are aggravating, as they essentially eschew the Tomb Raider survival motif in favor of Call of Duty-style "run and gun" play. This game felt too good during those stealth sequences and platforming stretches to get bogged down by sequences asking Lara Croft to gun down a bunch of bozos and a helicopter. Worse yet, one of those CoD gunplay sequences comes in the final minutes of the game.

To help in both exploration and combat is the ability to pick up new outfits, many of which are found in the game's Challenge Tombs and hidden Crypts. Each of these outfits comes with a distinct booster, such as outfit that enhances Lara's stealth. Other outfits help in the open world, with different outfits that allow Lara to communicate with the dueling factions in Paititi.

That's a fine idea, but the problem comes when players need to keep changing outfits to fit various situations. There's no option to mix and match outfits and outfit perks, which will keep players changing clothes at different moments in the game. That's going to be particularly irksome to folks that pick up the Croft Edition, which comes with various pre-order outfits. Those outfits don't have any perks tied to them, so while that pre-order skin might look cool, it's not going to be much help out in the field.

Forever Raiding

In many ways, Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels like a strong conclusion to the 2013 Tomb Raider trilogy. It builds on all of the mechanics introduced in Rise of the Tomb Raider, adding traversal mechanics, adding combat tools, retaining many of the ideas introduced in the last game (such as items gated by language proficiency), and utilizing some of the best level design the series has had to offer. It really can't be understated how much additions like rappeling has added to the formula.

Square Enix, Eidos Montreal, and Crystal Dynamics have also pieced together one of the biggest playgrounds for Tomb Raider players to enjoy. It also embraces the idea that raiding tombs is what makes the series truly great, setting aside the superfluous modes of past games and simply giving players both a massive world to explore and numerous Challenge Tombs to tackle. It's an impressive feat, especially when one simply climbs up to a high, elevated peak and looks down at the luscious Amazon landscape, flowing waterfalls, and treacherous wildlife below.

As a final blowoff to the Trinity saga, I couldn't help but walk away feeling that the resolution to the story and to Lara Croft's character could have been so much better. But in terms of a pure "Tomb Raider" game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is everything a bold explorer could ask for, giving players a vast jungle to explore and daring them to master it.


This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital code provided by the publisher. Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be available on Friday, September 14 on the PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Steam for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Pros

  • A massive sandbox to explore, with Fast Travel options available
  • Some of the best platforming and traversal sequences in the Tomb Raider series
  • Rewarding side content
  • Tombs are both challenging and satisfying
  • Combat retains the best elements of Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Comprehensive skill tree with fun abilities worth unlocking

Cons

  • Story fizzles near the end
  • Swimming feels like a chore
  • Shooting gallery sequences are unwelcome
  • Outfits and outfit abilities can't be mixed and matched

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