The third installment of the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy, 2019’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider finds Lara Croft, well, pretty much where we left her.
Playing through this game, I was struck by a similar feeling to when I played through Rise of the Tomb Raider: crippling deja vu. Is it just me, or have Crystal Dynamics just released two add-ons to the absolutely stellar first Tomb Raider? To be fair, it’s been a long time since I played the 2013 release, but I was blown away by it. It’s easily one of my favourite, most surprisingly great games of the past few years. Many agreed, so I suppose you can’t blame the developers too much for sticking by what worked, but 6 years later it just feels a bit meh, however, that being said, I found Shadow of the Tomb Raider bizarrely compelling from a gameplay perspective at least and I did enjoy it.
What I enjoyed most is that the core systems here are still very good. I know I’ve just criticised the game for not breaking from convention, but the gameplay is what made the first so good and I was happy that it still felt satisfying to climb and jump and generally raid tombs as Lara. The tombs themselves are good, not too long or difficult so as to be a slog, but challenging enough to feel rewarding. A lot of the puzzles you encounter are quite clever too and this is where the game shines really.
The new gameplay additions, though few, are all sensible and logical and help Lara feel like the experienced raider she is now – you can now rappel from great heights along with more verticality when climbing and now properly swim, and the game gives you plenty of opportunities to use these in missions and while exploring. Side quest have also been fleshed out considerably, and many times I found myself more compelled by these than what was going on in the main missions.
A special mention must go to the DLC, which is a series of side quests all built around a tomb to explore. I found these pretty enjoyable; short, sharp and fun and with plenty of rewards for someone with the time to delve into them.
All of the side quests are found in the hub areas which are fun enough, and visually pretty interesting, while offering up something different than dense jungle locations for you to explore. Speaking of visuals, SotTR looks pretty handsome; the environments and lighting are wonderfully immersive though I found some of the character models slightly dated looking, along with the lip-syncing on some NPCs being a bit off but overall, it’s a good looking game.
Like I previously mentioned, the series, in my eyes, has just kind of stagnated. It’s very strange to me to see a second sequel, on the next generation of consoles, feel so samey and bland. Rise of the Tomb Raider was similar; the only thing I remember from that game is that a bit of it was set in snow. Whenever I think I’ve remembered something else, it turns out it’s from the original, and I fear Shadow won’t age much better, though I do think it’s more memorable than Rise.
In terms of gameplay, not too many issues arise really though I found some of the action sequences and stealth segments to be a bit reliant on trial and error, and there’s an over reliance on stealth segments that just get a bit repetitive. In fact, though there is quite a bit of variation – missions and tombs – a lot of this game boils down to repetition and by the end I was just achievement hunting to keep myself going.
What I struggled with most was the story; I found it to be incredibly boring. I tried to be engaged with these characters but I couldn’t, and, unfortunately, I found myself skipping cut scenes. I don’t know what it is about Lara in these games, or Jonah or any of the characters that you’re supposed to be rooting for. I think they’re just unmemorable which is a shame. To be fair the game attempts to delve into Lara’s past here and explore her relationship to her parents when she was young, but this for me wasn’t particularly strong. It seems a lot of these character strands seem to just dip in and out when they fancy it or when there’s a lull. That same old Trinity-are-here-to-ruin-things trope takes up most of the story, along with the impending apocalypse inexplicably caused by Lara, that seems very rushed and muddled and for me it just felt like the narrative hadn’t progressed at all really.
I like these games, don’t get me wrong. There isn’t anything inherently bad about this or its predecessor; they take all that was fantastic about the first game and keep it at the forefront. The issue I have is that it’s 6 years of absolutely no innovation and a stale story that didn’t need 3 games to tell it. Now I’m not saying every game has to break the mold but I do think more had to be done with this series. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is certainly not the least memorable; it’s expanded game world and sheer amount of things to do and collect kept me pretty entertained though the disappointing story had me struggling to keep my eyes open. I think that’s where its main issue lies: this is the 3rd game of an origin story and I don’t think that much has happened despite the developers seemingly banking on the weight of Lara’s narrative to keep people invested but it all falls a bit flat for me.
Absolutely worth a play if you enjoyed the previous two but at the same time, it’s failure to budge from convention is its biggest undoing.