Lara Croft makes one last attempt to prove to us she has what it takes to become the Tomb Raider she is destined to be. Taking a backseat as a sole collaborator, Crystal Dynamics placed this last entry's fate at the hands of the developers behind Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. With a mammoth budget of $135 million, Eidos Montreal's pressure to finish the trilogy with a bang could certainly not be any less, especially with the hefty amount of marketing pushing Shadow of The Tomb Raider to be "Lara Croft's defining moment". Can Ms Croft shine beyond her shadow?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider's story picks up a mere two months after Lara's encounter with Trinity in the cold wilderness of Siberia. Still with questions, Lara's obsession to stop the evil organisation at any cost takes her to a hidden tomb in Cozumel, Mexico. Thinking she is one step ahead as she finds a mysterious dagger, Croft soon finds out that might have been a grave mistake, as a terrible tsunami destroys the city. Left with no dagger by the game's main villain, Doctor Dominguez, and a city's destruction on her consciousness, our guilt-ridden adventurer travels further into the jungles of Central and South America to restore a world free of apocalypse.
Just as with Rise's breathtaking Siberian mountains, Shadow's environments brim with life. Every shot of the surrounding landscape vividly pops out as more than a pleasant sight to the eyes; it's hard to not stop and admire the beautiful scenery the jungle has to offer. Such admiration can come in the form of the newly introduced photo mode. This mode, while not a new implementation in recent video game releases, certainly is a welcome addition to a franchise with stunning environments.
Adding to the grandiose scenic views of Latin America is the faithful detail emphasised on the community that resides in the hidden city, Paititi, and even early on in Mexico. Cozumel has streets filled with food vendors, kids playing with flares, and various altars representing the importance of 'El Dia De Los Muertos' or 'The Day of The Dead'. With the inclusion of Immersion Mode, as you traverse the city, you will hear people talk in their native tongue. This feature is a hit and miss as its "immersion" only works when you don't talk with the local people.
If you start interacting with them with Immersion Mode on, Lara starts responding to their comments in English, which makes the interaction seem rather awkward. It's a shame, since a main concern we have with games depicting Mexican culture is when Mexican natives are depicted talking among themselves in English, with a pronounced accent for the sake of English speakers. As someone who is of Mexican descent, this author talks full on Spanish with families and friends. Immersion Mode is a step in the right direction, but one that is not executed at its best.
However, the best type of immersion within the game kicks in with a double hammered dose of tombs and overall exploration. A common criticism of the franchise was the lack of tombs which defined the series from its very conception. Rise started to sprinkle in more intricate tombs, although they were mostly present outside of the main quest, and not a whole lot to justify the name its taking. Hearing the fans, Eidos Montreal made sure to address this absence -- tombs are everywhere. The main quest is riddled with tombs to solve, overtaking the combat-heavy sections this franchise seemed to have taken a liking to. You'll often find yourself wanting to deviate from the main campaign to explore the deadly hidden tombs that await you in the world.
The addition of more tombs and crypts makes puzzle-platforming more enjoyable than the previous entries. Players are given new mechanics to tackle more than nine tombs (without counting the main campaign ones) and crypts with another familiar return from the classic entries: underwater swimming and wall running. While they might seem small additions, they certainly add to the exploring experience. Most notably, swimming takes you to explore wondrous underwater ruins and entices you more by placing resources, relics, and murals to uncover within, the latter's numbers of which are also cranked up.
Yet, when analysing artifacts, we unfortunately drifted off and eventually didn't bother to read their descriptions, since it never goes more than that. We thoroughly enjoyed collecting and reading about artifacts in Rise, because now and then, we'd hear Lara make comments that told us about her. Letters were sometimes read not by Lara, but by the person who had experienced that moment. Recordings were tied to her own personal story, which allowed us to know more not just about the characters surrounding her, but what she had been up to before the events of the game.
As previously mentioned, while puzzle-platforming makes a satisfying return, combat takes a backseat in the overall game. When it does make an appearance, players are rewarded when taking a more stealthy approach to dispatch enemies, as taking them head on will make waves of enemies seem brutal. While the stealth approach builds up tension when confronted, it makes weapons other than the bow seem useless. Mainly because throughout the game there are merchants with whom you can trade gold and jade for weapons, which seem unnecessary, especially since the weapons you are initially given can be upgraded with a few combat sequences. Rarely did we find ourselves changing or having the necessity to buy more weapons than the ones we already had.
A feature which we also ended up only using because Trophies required to were the Focus, Endurance, and Seeker plants which enhance your combat. For instance, Endurance plants make Lara more resistant to hits for a brief time. With not a whole lot of combat going on, these modes did not shine enough for us to use.
The game has a promising start, teasing to address the psychological consequences of murdering hundreds of soldiers on this iteration of Lara Croft, and teasing to explore that our heroine has a variety of personality facets. While the game does a better job of defining more of her personality, the story itself never reaches its promising potential. It's like the game keeps climbing a ladder, but it never reaches the top. The narrative jumps from one plot point to another without fully paying off at least one. Even Lara and Jonah's relationship, the most pleasant arc of the entire story, never seems to pay off more than what we already knew.
There are some moments, for instance, when they are in disagreement, but then it's never explored in depth because it wants to tackle more of the story's overall mystery. This results in highlighting the poor structural pacing the story has. It's disappointing since both Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon give such strong performances that, for the majority of the time, overshadow the secondary characters that are presented. Again, these characters are presented with promising arcs, but end up lacklustre. The game's main antagonist falls into this pit in which the game tries to portray him as a sympathetic villain, but it's never quite achieved, making its intent to blur the lines of good and evil fail as well.
The overall structure of the game's story unfortunately starts to lose itself midway through the game, ending up with a disappointing final act that seems like a retread of last game. It's frustrating, since so much of this trilogy focuses on taking itself seriously, and in this instalment, the story is the weakest aspect. Even more so, as Brian D'Oliveira composes a much more memorable soundtrack than the game's predecessors. D'Oliveira does a wonderful job in encapsulating what the story could not. He's able to capture a haunting and sombre tone throughout the tracks that reflect the game's overall theme of descent. This nicely juxtaposes Bobby Tahouri's "epicness" that he conveys in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and D'Oliveira even beautifully manages to subtly play with Tahouri's main theme in his soundtrack, most notably with 'Trinity Pursuit'.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider shines in exploration, offering stunning scenic views that enrich the pursuit to walk among the greater open world. It's filled with rewarding puzzle platforming tombs that emphasise the return of new and old gameplay mechanics. However, the same can't be said for the story, as Lara's journey is concluded with a tired and tried formula that never reaches the potential it displays in certain cutscenes, despite its promising beginning.