Lara Croft has been shooting and looting tombs for over 20 years now, but in 2013 Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix decided to throw us back to the beginning of the story as we witnessed the birth of the Tomb Raider, a narrative which continued with 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now the final piece of this origin trilogy has fallen into place, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider billed by new developer Eidos Montreal as Lara Croft's "defining moment"; the point where she finally becomes the Tomb Raider. Because, you know, all those tombs we visited in the other two games didn't really count.
In fact, the entirety of the marketing campaign for Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to suggest in no small way that the stakes have been raised and that this will truly be an epic finale to this trilogy, five years after we were first introduced to this more down-to-earth Croft. At the beginning it would certainly seem that way as well, as within the first hour or so Lara recovers an ancient dagger, only to realise that in her haste she's brought about an apocalyptic event that devastates everything in its path.
But as per usual those pesky Trinity bad guys won't let our Lara raid in peace, and Dr. Pedro Dominguez rocks up to threaten her with armed goons and take the dagger for himself. The only problem is that this dagger has the power to bend the world to the user's will if paired with another artifact, and so it's a race against time to find Dominguez before it's too late. Here is where the game really starts - crash landing into Peru on the hunt for Trinity once again.
Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, it's worth noting that despite the pre-release talk about making you feel like there are consequences to your actions, we didn't get this impression when playing. Sure, we see the one apocalyptic event, but then that's not mentioned again, and even when we get the classic clichéd line asking "how many people have you killed?" as if to try and make us question our own morals, not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. We're still going after artifacts, shooting guys who get in our way, and showing a reckless disregard for ancient objects.
This time though we were pleased to see that Jonah was along for the ride in a more prominent manner, rather than getting lost for half the game like he did in Rise. Here he offers a good counterpoint to Lara's tunnel vision and actually helps her in social situations where she is less comfortable. He's far more significant and fleshed-out here and has an integral role in the plot throughout.
Jonah is with us for our entire foray into Peru, where we get to meet not only the helpful residents of Kuwaq Yaku but also those of Paititi, the hub world that we've seen in trailers prior to release. This is the largest hub world the series has seen, and while the town itself is ruled over by a murderous cult, we still need to stick around to try and find the second artifact and prevent Trinity from getting their hands on it.
Paititi itself is where the game quite literally opens up, as it takes you away from the linear set pieces we're used to seeing in action-adventure titles. There are side quests to complete, merchants to interact with, and hidden caves filled with tantilising loot to discover, but the trouble is that none of it is really gripping. Despite Paititi's size we never really felt compelled to stay in it for very long, and the side quests, in particular, don't offer a lot of excitement when compared to the grand stakes of the main plot. They range from getting a boy's dice back to freeing rebels, and most of the time you get wooden conversations between Lara and the NPCs when doing these tasks. That said, Paititi's Merchants are good for upgrading gear, and the hidden areas are worth exploring for the rewards - but aside from these quick stops, the city didn't interest us.
Apart from Paititi, the story itself is quite linear, as we've experienced in the last few games. Actually, a lot of Shadow will feel like the last few games (Rise especially) since the survival elements are back, combat has the same emphasis on stealth, and you clamber and climb around the world like it's going out of fashion. It really is retreading much of the same ground in terms of the core gameplay pillars, albeit with a few bells and whistles to spice things up.
One big change is the location though, as the jungle provides new avenues for attack that rely on darkness, camouflage, and striking fear into the hearts of your enemies. This is the most satisfying part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and the tools you have at your disposal make it all the sweeter. By using mud you can conceal yourself on walls covered in foliage or in bushes, and there's new weaponry like an arrow that sends soldiers into a frenzy that will really make you feel like Batman in Arkham, watching your foes lose their cool as you pick them off one by one.
In fact, the combat is probably the strongest part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as it builds upon the same solid foundations that we've seen in the other games. Outmanoeuvring your opponents and striking in secret is still as fun as it always has been, but we just wish there were more times when you could really be the predator in the dark jungle because that's where these elements shine brightest. If you can't manage to stay undetected there's always the option of using shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols, and we'd be lying if we said we didn't find these weapons satisfying too.
One unwelcome addition to the gameplay is an increased emphasis on underwater exploration. Swimming has never been the highlight of Tomb Raider games, and while there's meant to be an emphasis on fear by throwing Lara into tight underwater spaces, this atmosphere is outweighed by the fact it's just not very fun to swim around and try to conceal yourself in weeds as eels and piranhas try to have you for lunch. The scenery in these underwater passages is often dull and lifeless as well, so really they serve as blank corridors to get you from one place to another.
It's classic Tomb Raider when you're out exploring above ground though, as you'll have more near misses than Nathan Drake and of course face plenty of gruesome deaths if you slip up. Climbing and crawling all over the wilderness and across ancient temples is still the order of the day, and now you can use the jungle to creep around the treetops if unsuspecting enemies happen to walk beneath you. If you've recently played Rise, it'll basically feel like more of the same.
Perhaps our biggest complaint with Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that the big story notes feel undercooked. We mentioned before about these catastrophic events going missing for a lot of the game, and while we won't get into what happens later, other aspects like the links to Lara's past are brushed over as well. In fact, one of the most interesting elements of the game is a flashback sequence, but it exists almost in isolation from the rest of the story, and the links to Lara's own family and her father's study remain tenuous. There's potential there, but we never felt there was any significance to the plot past the main loop of killing bad guys and finding ancient artifacts.
While you work your way through the game you'll be collecting skill points aplenty, especially if you take your time to explore the extra content, and as we've seen in the first two games you can use your points at camps to unlock skills. The skill tree here is extensive, and whether it's combat, exploration, or survival you want, you'll have to think really carefully before investing in one of the many options.
The survival and crafting elements are much the same as in Rise too, as you can harvest everything from trees to animal carcasses to get the ingredients needed to craft health items, arrows, equipment upgrades, and new gear. It's not too deep, but it serves its purpose well, and you'll need to keep an eye on it especially on the harder difficulties. Merchants also help you gather ingredients, and upgrading your survival abilities on the skill trees helps to make the search a little less difficult.
Speaking of challenge, here you can change three different kinds of difficulties to tailor your experience: combat, exploration, and puzzles. You can set them all the same if you like, but if you prefer brain-teasing puzzles but easy fights, you can select that. On the other hand, if you want Lara to really spell out the solutions to all the conundrums you can have her do that too.
You might find yourself needing to adjust these in the new tombs, and we have to say the new ones were a highlight of our adventure. There's once again an emphasis on darkness and fear in these environments, as a lot of them see you descending into the gloomy abyss, and one of the best was a forgotten pirate ship that we had to break into. The curious will be rewarded in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, whether that's with new skills or perhaps some useful gear.
A lot was made of Rise of the Tomb Raider being a visual spectacle, and here it's no different, as the verdant jungles and forgotten temples of Peru and Mexico are really given the spit and polish we expect from the series by now. It's a joy to explore these huge locations and witness the scenery when we get the chance, and even when the going gets tough and we got into explosive battles everything ran smoothly. That said, loading times were incredibly long, so be prepared to wait a while before you get to see the sights.
We came away from Shadow of the Tomb Raider feeling like it was just another Tomb Raider game, rather than the defining moment to round off the trilogy that it was billed as. We've compared it to the previous games a lot and that's for good reason, as it retreads much of the same ground while offering minor tweaks to the existing formula. Tomb Raider fans will like it, but with the significant story moments not landing as well as they could have, we don't feel like we've Become the Tomb Raider after this.