Tomb Raider was one of the first 3D games I played, and it’s always nice to dip back into the series every few years. Out of them all, I’d say that it’s the second trilogy (Anniversary, Legend, Underworld) that remains my favourite to play. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I enjoyed about the 2013 reboot and Rise, but I’m less fond of the would-be survival mechanics, which mostly seem to exist to waste time and emulate MMOs.
But what about the newest game? Well, the survival mechanics are still here, though perhaps a bit less obtrusive than before. It’s also trimmed back some of the combat that took up much of the first two games. However, my main focus in this article is the story.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes as the closing tale of a trilogy in two parts. The first game follows Lara on her first major adventure as she comes up against the Solarii Brotherhood, while Rise and Shadow tackle her conflict with the organisation Trinity.
In Rise, we got an idea of the power and reach of Trinity, a group that had existed for centuries before crossing paths with Lara Croft. With members in high positions around the world, and quite the extensive military arsenal at their hands, they certainly seemed like a problem too large for Lara to handle alone.
Which, well, she doesn’t. But we’ll get to that.
Overall, I enjoyed the game, but I have to say that the story fell flat for me, and there’s a few reasons for why that is the case. I should note that I’m probably holding the game to a much higher standard than previous games in the series, bearing in mind some of the early production values, but sometimes you really can do more with less.
Additionally, having more money at your disposal doesn’t always mean a better product.
With that said, let’s move onto the first problem.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Lara tracking Dr Pedro Dominguez, a member of Trinity, who she soon discovers is actually the current head of the entire organisation. When she steals the Dagger of Ix Chel from under his nose, only to immediately have it stolen back off her, she sets off both an impending apocalypse, and a race against time to stop Trinity from capitalising on it.
The basic set-up of the plot is very similar to The Last Revelation, which was first released on the PS1 in 1999. It’s not a particularly unusual one for these Indiana Jones-style tales, I suppose: adventurer accidentally activates curse, then needs to stop evil group while undoing their mistake at the same time. That’s not really what bothers me, though. It’s more that the pace and presentation of the story never really seem to match what they were trying to sell.
When Lara first takes the dagger, it starts a series of cataclysmic events that herald the end of the world. Cozumel is swallowed by a tsunami, and later on Lara’s plane is knocked out of the sky by a fierce storm. I was expecting this to lead into a feeling of pressure as the apocalypse steadily comes closer, and the world suffers more and more.
Instead, most of the game goes by without anything cataclysmic taking place. Much later in the story, there’s an earthquake that destroys one of the locations, but you immediately leave and return to a long-hidden city that’s still peacefully going about its business with no issues.
I think the problem is that you never spend time in these doomed locations, and most of the game, by necessity, remains intact. Unlike The Last Revelation, where you cannot revisit past locations once you’ve left, Shadow is designed with plentiful side missions and collectibles that encourage you to play around in the world and explore, but the consequence is that the necessary locations never change. It doesn’t help that in most cases, they’re beautiful places that remain relatively tranquil for the entire game.
I didn’t want Shadow of the Tomb Raider to be a retread of Last Revelation, but I think the PS1 classic had a few good pointers on how to do an apocalypse-based storyline. The main thing really is that the world of Last Revelation visibly becomes darker, the further into the game you get. While you do, of course, still delve into sinister tombs at the start as well, many of the outdoor areas are much brighter, affording a greater contrast when the antagonist Seth’s influence on the world strengthens later on.
In the latter stages of Last Revelation, the city of Cairo comes under attack from mythological creatures, everyone Lara meets is injured, held hostage, or an enemy, and the skies turn an unhealthy green. As you leave the city and make your way towards the Great Pyramid for the finale, red clouds begin to pass overhead, and the only other people you encounter are hostile.
Compare this to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where the main settlements remain untouched throughout the storyline, and people can still be found calmly farming even up to the Point of No Return. I can allow for the sinister eclipse on the cover art to only take place during the final boss fight, given how long eclipses actually last in the real world, but maybe a spot of bad weather might have made things feel a bit more pressured overall. Yes, yes, there’s that earthquake at the mission of San Juan, but it’s there and then it’s gone.
Still, as I said, it doesn’t have to be The Last Revelation repeated. If the rest of the story makes up for it, then what’s the problem?
Well, let’s get started on what else happens and find out.
I felt that the apocalypse scenario clashed with the main story arc as I mentioned above, but that’s not the only thing that did. Part of the development team’s focus in this game was taking a look at the effect of Lara Croft’s investigations on the civilisations she encounters and explores, and so we end up delving into the goings-on in the Hidden City, Paititi.
Popping into the storyline about halfway through, Paititi takes over from that point onwards. It’s no longer really the tale of how Lara tackles Trinity, it’s instead about how would-be dictator Amaru and his cult of Kukulkan are oppressing this civilisation, and Lara gets caught up in a sort of small-scale, Star Wars-esque rebels vs empire struggle that doesn’t really fit in.
The cult’s supposed to be part of Trinity, but they remain distinctly divided from each other, and their goals are separate too. Dominguez, or Amaru as he is locally known, doesn’t seem to particularly care for Trinity’s overarching schemes, instead seeking to use the apocalypse to secure a better world for Paititi at whatever cost. The high council of Trinity, meanwhile, are under the impression that he’s going to be using that power to reshape the world under their control.
I never felt that Dominguez could really be the overall leader of this dangerous paramilitary organisation, which is willing to covertly murder people to pursue its goals. Instead, he came across as more of a side employee barely tolerated by his minder, Commander Rourke. His storyline is heavily focused on his concerns that the rest of the world will swallow up and trample on Paititi. While he was allegedly taken in by the previous leader of the High Council of Trinity and indoctrinated in their ways, he shows zero interest in their plans beyond occasionally deploying gunmen to intimidate Lara and Jonah.
Rourke meanwhile represents that military side of Trinity, and his reappearance partway through the story heightens the stakes (before things slow back down immediately after). While I didn’t entirely appreciate the stealth sequences he brought with him, it did at least return to the storyline they started off in Rise. Sure, perhaps Trinity wasn’t the most nuanced or exciting enemy group, but if you’re going to start a storyline, it’s best to finish it off properly.
On that note, the conclusion to the Trinity story arc is one of the daftest things I’ve seen. Partway through the final sequence of the game, you hear that the entire leadership of Trinity has jetted in to this warzone to oversee their victory, and about two minutes later you hear that they’ve all been slaughtered off-screen by Lara’s new allies, the Yaaxil. Rourke also gets done in by the Yaaxil in a cutscene, though I suppose at least you got to help a little by killing his henchmen in the gameplay sequence just before.
You do get the honour of fighting Amaru himself, but his showdown is pretty much at odds with all his other appearances. Up until this point, he’s fairly passive and prefers to talk… except in the scene where he sacrifices a rebel, I guess. In any case, when you fight him, he’s transitioned to Saturday morning cartoon villain, complete with evil laughter and grand boasts. On mortally wounding him, he swiftly reverts to his old persona, and then dies.
It’s obviously possible to have interweaving stories in one game, but I don’t feel that Shadow is a good example of that, sadly. The apocalypse, Trinity, and Paititi threads never really came together in a satisfying fashion, and the Yaaxil suddenly switching from enemies to allies right at the end didn’t help.
One of the advertised themes of this game was that Lara would be forged into the tomb raider she was meant to be. In the previous games, Lara is depicted as vulnerable, though she steadily becomes more confident with each entry. By Shadow of the Tomb Raider, she’s got several adventures under her belt, especially if you consider the comics and novels that I haven’t read.
It’s a bit half-and-half in this game, though. I think the opening to her personal development is pretty strong. Her single-minded interest in her craft is great, particularly in her early conversation with Jonah about her research, just before she heads out into the Day of the Dead celebrations. It really brings out her confidence and passion, which then ties in well when she clashes with Jonah after the tsunami.
While Jonah’s very much concerned about helping people in Cozumel, Lara is focused on her mission, leading to a brief falling-out. Lara began the series trying to save the various members of her group, with varying degrees of success, but now she’s started to lose sight of the people around her as her ongoing struggle with Trinity intensifies. Over the course of Shadow, she starts to get back on track and remember what she really cares about.
However, in terms of becoming the so-called tomb raider, I think it’s a lot less successful. Most of this development seems to be focused on the part about two-thirds in, where Rourke lies that he’s killed Jonah, his forces nearly kill Lara in an all-out attack, and she goes on a furious rampage.
The sequence is a little odd, though; Lara emerges from the water to brutally kill a Trinity mook, and then declares that she’ll “fucking kill” Rourke, but barely a second later Rourke announces he’s been called back, leaving things to his subordinate instead. With the pacing of Lara’s revenge charge immediately halted, you then get to kill some random person you’ve never met before, and never really see anyway, since he’s in a helicopter which blows up once you’ve won the battle.
Once the dust settles, Jonah reappears, and Lara breaks down in tears. The scene’s well-performed, but this is basically the same Lara we’ve seen in the past two games. By this stage, I was expecting her to be moving more towards her tougher persona we saw in the original games. I understand that it’s not intended to be part of that continuity, but I thought we’d see more of a change after the advertising campaign leading up to release.
Instead, after this sequence, Lara reverts to her old personality, with no real passionate drive to see Trinity stopped. While she does have one argument with Dominguez, she rarely shows that same dark anger again.
After the defeat of Amaru and Trinity, Jonah asks Lara what she’s going to do, and she says “I’m done searching”, instead wanting to focus on being around people. That’s a fair conclusion to her issues with empathy that came up at the end of the Cozumel sequence, but seems somewhat at odds with the idea that she’s supposed to have become “the tomb raider”. I thought the whole idea of that was her passionate search for knowledge?
After the end credits, though, she’s excited to go on an adventure again, so I guess maybe she still is the tomb raider? As far as I’m aware, this is the last game in the series, and there won’t be any story DLC, so I suppose that’s all we’re getting.
When it comes to overarching stories, I like to feel that there’s been a plan in place since the start. Of course, there are going to be changes and additions as time goes on, and stories evolve, but when it comes to major features, it’s a bit odd when they all come down to new things that appear in the final entry. For example, Lara’s father’s death is an ongoing plot point, and in the final game it’s brought up as a bit of a shock to Lara that Dominguez was behind it. Far aside from the fact that I’d have expected the leader of the villainous organisation to be the one to order a hit anyway, it just feels like a non-reveal given that he and his ambitions only came up in Shadow.
Speaking of anti-climaxes, at the end of Rise, Trinity decides to spare Lara for some unspoken purpose. In Shadow, it’s revealed that they maybe wanted to try recruiting her, but there’s no point at which they make a strong effort to do so during the game, and it doesn’t appear that they’ve been approaching her between the games either. The result of this is that it just feels like it was a quick excuse to explain away why Trinity didn’t snipe Lara at the same time as Ana.
The main development team switched from Crystal Dynamics to Eidos Montréal between Rise and Shadow, and the lead writer changed as well. If I was feeling particularly uncharitable, I’d suggest that they were already working on a separate game with a rebels vs empire storyline, and when they were put in charge of Shadow, they grudgingly added in a few details from the previous Tomb Raider game while maintaining heavy focus on their preferred narrative.
On a more reasonable level, I think the issues mainly come from the fact that there wasn’t a clear plan leading into Shadow, which was compounded by the change in team. Perhaps the original writer had a particular arc in mind leading on from Rise’s plot points, but never shared it, so those details just had to be explained away quickly and brushed under the carpet.
In one of the interviews I read before release, there was talk of exploring the issues with rich Lara messing around with other cultures, but that doesn’t really come up much either. She has regrets about the whole setting-off-the-apocalypse thing, but her interactions with the people of Paititi are largely restricted to trying to overthrow the cult of Kukulkan so she can help restore an entitled monarchy system, so I’m not sure what message they were trying to deliver here. There aren’t really any discussions of how she’s popping around smashing stuff, beyond her ignoring a request not to break things early on, and a brief little narration she delivers right at the end about preserving history.
While I’m sitting here complaining, I might as well grouch about the outfits system. Rather than letting you wear any old thing, the game restricts your outfits based on location and certain plot requirements. Because about half the game takes place in and around Paititi, you basically lose access to most of the available outfits for this much of the story.
As for the plot-required outfits, one of them is to disguise yourself as a cult member and sneak into their part of the city. I don’t think I really need to go into detail on why Lara, with her upper-crust English accent, doesn’t exactly pull off a convincing disguise, but it apparently works anyway.
I suppose I should balance it out a bit by saying what I did like. Most of that is to do with the gameplay, but I think I ought to touch on Dominguez first.
As an antagonist who generally comes across as personable but with a darker side, he interested me, though he didn’t quite get as much screentime as I’d have liked. Because his plotline was so heavily wrapped up in Paititi’s rebels vs cult storyline, of which I was not a fan, it barred me from fully appreciating his character, along with the fact that I never felt that he was really a proper candidate for Trinity’s leader. As a rival archeologist and well-meaning yet ill-intentioned antagonist, I found him to be quite engaging, and would have enjoyed a more detailed character arc for him (preferably far away from the fantasy-lite Paititi story, and probably not as Trinity’s leader).
The locations are gorgeous, and while they don’t give me the impending-apocalypse vibe, there are some amazing places to visit, and Paititi itself is particularly impressive. The architecture and variation of the tombs is also beautiful, though I probably mostly remember the Thirsty Gods tomb because I kept missing the obvious solution for far too long…
In terms of gameplay, it’s nothing too unexpected, but then I wasn’t here for a revolution, I just wanted a smooth and fun adventure, and that’s what it delivers. It’s also not so open world that it overstays its welcome, though in terms of endgame, it’s more about replaying on higher difficulties than it is about exploring the world further. I already got 100% of the collectibles and tombs in all the zones, which, given my lazy nature, would likely mean there’s not an excessive amount of content.
I was also surprised to find that the water sections didn’t ruin the entire game, except perhaps for those bits with piranhas. When it comes to stealth, I’m an incredibly impatient person, and even moreso when I’m stuck underwater.
As for the land-based stealth sections, they were actually decent enough, but probably easy for seasoned pros. Once I unlocked the option to booby-trap corpses, I breezed through these bits. Still, I got grouchy when I messed up, but that was mostly due to the aforementioned impatience kicking in.
The hunting aspect is fairly bland. Most of the time animals just sit next to hidey-holes, so you either shoot them down quickly or they immediately disappear. I’d prefer to have something a bit more like Monster Hunter, where you can actually chase down your targets, instead of effectively having them despawn on you right away.
Or, ideally, just scrap the boring item-collecting altogether. It adds practically nothing, and I’d rather spend that time delving into tombs or traversing dangerous canyons.
In conclusion, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a solid game that doesn’t shake things up too much. The story’s pretty silly, and doesn’t really deliver on any of its promises, but there are some moments of decent characterisation. It’s one of those games that’s not too quick, but short enough that it’s worth a couple of extra playthroughs. Overall, though, I’d say it’s one of the less-memorable entries in the franchise.