Review – Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Here we are at the end of Lara’s origin story trilogy. Some may argue that it’s trying too hard to capture the success of the Uncharted series and should go back to its roots. I feel that it has never been so engaging and while it’s still not perfect, Shadow of the Tomb Raider felt more like a classic Tomb Raider than the first reboot game or Rise. So was this a fitting conclusion to Lara’s origin trilogy? Well, not exactly, but it was definitely a fantastic game. Let’s take a look.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (let’s just call it SotTR from now on) starts off with an intense bang and right before the disaster ends we get a flashback to just a few days before this incident. Here is where SotTR sets its pace and you already get the feeling that it’s going to be much more exploration than just killing. The opening scene is used as the tutorial as well as set up the story of Lara putting in motion the Mayan apocalypse. She goes through all the hard work to find this world ending dagger, steals it so Trinity can’t use it for evil, only to set off the apocalypse herself and then get the dagger stolen anyway.
The overall story and the use of Trinity is pretty cookie cutter and often times overused. I don’t want to include spoilers, but Trinity is used too frivolously and forced into unrealistic plot points where the complete removal of them would have been acceptable. It almost feels like they weren’t intended to be used as often, but some decision came down the pipeline that there needed to be more ties to Trinity as the main baddies. However, the story itself with Lara is played out well with her remorse for what she did as well as how her and Jonah connect and figure out how to save the day. Lara and Jonah are the real stars of SotTR providing some good writing this time for both characters that showed a lot of emotions.
About midway through the story things take a fairly dark and creepy turn which I absolutely loved and was not expecting at all. This plot point does end up leading to an extremely over the top finale and somewhat of an easy scapegoat for the overall story elements, but all and all it was a turn worth having. The finale did land with an extreme whimper and it did not at all feel like a fitting end to Lara’s origin trilogy, but from start to finish it was a fantastic ride. The real savior of SotTR is its world, exploration, gameplay, and the wonderful tombs.
I was quite impressed with just how little SotTR relied on mass killing for most of the game. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of killing, especially during the final act. But the side missions, tombs, exploration, platforming, and puzzle solving heavily outweigh the combat sections. Besides the opening tutorial section where you kill two guards to learn stealth and how to use the bow, you go for another couple hours into gameplay without running into another Trinity soldier. This does depend on how much you explore and want to do tombs in between because running through main missions is where most of the fighting will happen.
You’ll notice immediately that the general gameplay feels exactly like Rise. Not much has changed on the gameplay front besides the re-focus on exploration and tombs. You’ll still be jumping and barely grabbing on to ledges, them breaking with you needing to press ‘X’ (or whatever your action button is) to regain your grip. Using your pick axes to climb on softer rock walls, using your bow and rope to create zip lines or to pull things to you. It still very much feels like Rise and to be honest I was extremely worried by that, at first. Luckily, as you continue you will start to see the refinements in the gameplay and mostly the tombs, puzzles, and level design.
There are still open hub areas in SotTR, but there are only a couple large ones which is where you’ll run into most side characters and get your side missions. From the hub you then have multiple narrow paths that branch off, which makes it feel a bit more focused over all. Unlike Rise, the side missions are not terrible and there aren’t very many of them. Rise had some very menial tasks of shooting down some drones or going to collect this or that. While there are still a couple side missions that are fetch quests, they will at least have you explore the settlements and learn about its people and history. Other than that, there is a mission where you need to solve a murder, another where you rescue a child that is about to be sacrificed by her father, and at the end there is a moral decision of interfering with a tradition so old. The side missions this time around actually felt important.
The tombs actually became my favorite part of SotTR due to their variety and puzzle solving. While the majority of the puzzles won’t stump you for very long, especially if you have played Rise or action adventure games in general, but they are still well done and fun to play through. One tomb may have you exploring a large Galleon in a cavern, one will have you using wind to move massive flame pendulums, and others will be more traditional exploration and platforming puzzles. SotTR is at its best during these moments and less during the big fight scenes or set pieces.
Unfortunately, the set pieces and ‘close call’ moments are really over used and are not effective at all. The landslide set piece immediately reminds you of the avalanche scene in Rise, there are multiple chase scenes, and numerous times that you almost get stuck and barely escape being drowned or crushed. It is used too often and like the fake ledge breaking in the platforming sections, it becomes a stale way of forcing tension that isn’t believable.
Crafting and the skill tree make their comeback, which is fine with me. I enjoy evolving my character over time and doing some gathering to upgrade. Thankfully, this time around there is a lot less grind for scraps and hunting animals to upgrade your gear like in Rise. It’s more streamlined and with the more linear sections, you run into hunting spots much easier. If you want to upgrade all weapons fully, then you’ll need to do a bit of grinding, but your average exploration will grant you enough to fully upgrade multiple weapons.
The skill tree has the usual unlockable skills for Seeker, Warrior, and Scavenger. Seeker abilities range from upgrading your survival sight to show items, collectibles, and traps, to collecting ammo automatically after stealth kills and bartering. Warrior abilities range from auto locking on to enemies vital spots while zoomed in, to firing up to three arrows at once. Scavenger abilities were my bread and butter since this is where you get to flesh out Lara’s over powered stealth skills. Scavenger lets you chain up to 2 stealth kills, doing a stealth kill with no chance of alerting enemies, and crafting all sorts of specialty arrows. Some skills will actually be locked behind challenge tombs which gives you even more reason to play the best part of the game anyway. My main issue with the skill tree is the design and layout of the tree itself. It’s a horrible eyesore.
The gunplay still feels very similar to Rise, still not perfect and a little floaty, but serviceable nonetheless. I am 100% a stealth guy so my main weapon was my bow and stealth takedowns anyway, but there will be sections in the game that will force you to use some more firepower. You still have access to shotguns, rifles, and pistols with various models to upgrade. My issue with the gunplay is the lack of punch every gun has. They all feel like you’re shooting the airsoft version and it made me want to go right back to my bow.
The graphics for the most part are gorgeous despite some muddy texture work in areas when you get close up. The forest sections are dense and lush with greenery and wild life, the mud effects are great looking, and some sections are downright jaw dropping. I played on the Xbox One X, so I had the ability to swap between Performance and Visual Mode. While I’ll always prefer playing with higher framerate, the Visual Mode on my second playthrough is a stunning one. The majority of main character models are greatly detailed while the side characters and general townsfolk have noticeably less quality with a lot of repeated models.
The sound design is a bit of a mixed bag and one of my issues with it may be a bit of a nitpick, but it snapped me out of the immersion really quickly. The voice over work is generally really well done; the actress who does Lara is fantastic as well as the actor for Jonah. My nitpick here is that the indigenous folk all speak crazy good English. There wasn’t even an attempt with most of them to give accents or broken English or anything. My other main gripe as I mentioned above, is the weak sounding guns and while the soundtrack isn’t terrible, it’s nothing to write home about.
So was Shadow of the Tomb Raider a fitting end to Lara’s origin story? Not exactly. Is it still a fantastic game worth your time? Absolutely. It may not fix every issue from Rise, but it did bring back that classic Tomb Raider feel of exploration and puzzle solving in a more prominent way. It gets rid of the heavy grind and bad fetch quests, but still has a fairly weak story. The ending may not have been the ending I was expecting, but the ride there was a great time and much better written for each of the characters. If you have already invested your time into this new trilogy, then it’s worth it to play this finale.
Bonus tip: If you want to have a good laugh, I implore you to use the Classic Lara skin from Tomb Raider 2. It makes the cutscenes absolutely hilarious.
Lush forest, crumbling tombs, and most character models are very well done. Some muddy texture work and too many re-used character models for townsfolk.
Action adventure platforming at its peak with some fun puzzles and great exploration and discovery. Gunplay is decent, but not perfect, and the focus on stealth can make combat too easy.
Voice acting for Lara and the other main characters along her journey are acted and performed well. Some side characters, town, and enemy chatter can be a bit flat. Also, the soundtrack is decent, but nothing special.
Fun Factor: 8.5
I enjoyed the refocus on exploration and discovery more than the combat driven Rise of the Tomb Raider. Tombs are a blast to find and complete, but the main story is fairly weak and there are too many reused tension moments and set pieces.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Reviewed on Xbox One.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available now on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.