Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a frustrating experience. The 2013 reboot of the beloved series catapulted the iconic Lara Croft back into the zeitgeist of contemporary gaming culture. It was a fantastic offering that took a dated, over-sexualised character, and reimagined her as a positive female lead with layered depth and plausibility. Tomb Raider was a total triumph, and while its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider fared almost as well, I didn’t find myself connecting with it as much as the first game in the rebooted series.
I went into Shadow of the Tomb Raider hoping to enjoy myself more than I had with Rise, and in a lot of ways I did. However, the better experience didn’t come with some considerable caveats in terms of narrative and Crystal Dynamics’ treatment of Lara’s character development.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider picks up a couple of months after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider. While tracking a Trinity cell (the bad guys!) to the Mexican town of Cozumel, together with her BFF Jonah, Lara finds a cursed Mayan dagger and some vague warnings about an apocalypse. Owing to the fact that Lara is now quite literally obsessed with preventing Trinity from doing absolutely anything, she swipes the dagger before Trinity forces are able to, and thereby triggers said Mayan apocalypse. It’s then up to Lara (and by extension Jonah, although I’m willing to bet he’d rather be doing virtually ANYTHING ELSE) to find a silver box in a hidden city in order to stop further apocalyptic occurrences and the end of the world. It’s a very MacGuffin-heavy plot, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the narrative took the same amount of care with developing Lara’s character as was shown in 2013’s Tomb Raider.
The Lara in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is essentially psychotic. Gone is the underdog we all cheered for in Tomb Raider, and in her place we have a self-serving, obsessed narcissist who becomes literally responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Instead of having a complete psychological breakdown (like any normal person would) at the realisation that her actions have led to the total destruction of an entire community, Lara focuses inwards (like any true narcissist) and insists that she’s the only one who can now save the world. The fact that her self-imposed mission to save the world also conveniently marries up with her predisposition to thwart Trinity at every turn, raises further warning flags regarding our heroine’s psychological stability.
The developers have definitely decided that one of the main themes of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is for Lara to face the greater consequences of her actions. That would be great and indeed a fantastic thematic device to drive narrative if Lara actually responded to the consequences in a way that was relatable. Part of what made the Lara of 2013’s Tomb Raider so amazing was that she was freaking out during her arduous experience on the island; her actions made us all think to ourselves that “yeah I get you, I’d be a total wreck by now as well”. But Shadow’s Lara is completely detached from her actions.
Her obsession with Trinity and finding answers borders on the grotesque, and nothing makes this more clear than in the opening section of the game when Lara witnesses a little boy fall to his fiery death because of her callous unleashing of an apocalypse. Her seemingly shocked response (“No! Damn it! Fuck!”) is completely hollowed-out by her immediate shouting match with Jonah, during which she comes close to acknowledging how awful she’s been, but instead doubles-down on her mission to stop Trinity. Jonah, who by now has taken on a Jiminy Cricket role for Lara’s unhinged psyche, sums up the overall problem with Lara’s character: “Not everything is about you.”
Lara is an awful human being in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and it seems like a complete narrative misstep when compared to the Lara of previous games. I’m not sure whether Crystal Dynamics meant to explore the psychological unravelling of Lara Croft, but if they did then they’ve handled it poorly. In one fleeting moment of self-examination, Lara muses that she “didn’t mean to interfere” with a hidden city lost in time and cut off from the modern world, “but Trinity is here”. So preservation of an unspoiled, ancient culture be damned, because there are bad guys to stop. By the time the credits roll there’s very little atonement and no introspective realisation on behalf of Lara, and that feels incongruous when compared to how carefully her character development was treated in the past. I found it very hard to get behind Lara’s actions throughout the game as they consistently came across as selfish with zero remorse, and the result is a lead character that’s hard to empathise with. It’s a disappointing turn of events considering the effort shown in previous games to lift Lara out of the doldrums of “sex symbol” and portray her as an actual human being with scope and authenticity.
While the plot and characterisation of Lara leave a lot to be desired this time around, Shadow of the Tomb Raider does include some fantastic elements and is at its best when you’re exploring jungles or solving the reboot series’ signature Challenge Tombs. The smaller Crypts, with their unique gear rewards at the end, are just as enticing, and I often found myself enjoying these isolated moments of gameplay the most.
The stealth portion of the game is a joy to play, and Crystal Dynamics has done a superb job in conveying a sense that Lara has honed her combat skills and is now the most capable combatant in almost any confrontation. No matter the odds, she’s able to triumph, and there’s a terrific feeling of accomplishment that’s fostered as you slink your way through dozens of enemies, picking them off one by one and watching the remainders’ panic grow. The Predator vibes are strong as Lara covers herself in mud to avoid thermal vision, and sticks to the undergrowth or canopies. For the Trinity forces, Lara is as much of a predator in the jungles of Peru as the jaguars are.
Visually, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers up some stunning environments and set pieces. I enjoyed the numerous jungle settings far more than the snowy regions of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and as a result found myself spending more time exploring and finding hidden Crypts and Challenge Tombs. Again, those are excellent and frequently offer up some very clever puzzles. Sound design is also phenomenal and deserves recognition for its ability to make these environments just that much more immersive. Ancient wooden structures creak under Lara’s feet, rain drops pop softly among the leaves of the jungle canopy, and currents and bubbles sound stifled and claustrophobic in the numerous under water sections. Speaking of underwater sections – piranhas suck, and the game could have definitely done without those cheap enemies.
No single moment is quite as atmospheric and creepy as the section set in the Mission of San Juan, however. It happens towards the end of the game and sees Lara and Jonah exploring an ancient Christian mission that focused on the Stations of the Cross. It’s a superbly created gaming sequence in terms of artistic design and feel, and without a doubt one of the standout moments in the entire reboot trilogy.
Finally, one of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s greatest accomplishments is its unique take on difficulty settings. You can adjust the difficulty of each of the three main gameplay pillars: exploration and traversal, combat, and puzzles. I opted to leave combat and puzzles on normal difficulty, and cranked exploration and traversal up to the hardest setting. I can thoroughly recommend doing the same as it removes the white guidance marks on the environment and makes climbing and exploring that much more engaging. Being able to customise each of the three gameplay pillars’ difficulties is such a great idea and means that you can make Shadow of the Tomb Raider as casual or as brutal as you want. Developers take note – more of this, please.