Posing questions is easy. Answering questions is hard. If you need proof, look no further than Shadow of the Tomb Raider ($60 on Humble). As the culmination of Lara Croft’s reboot trilogy, it falls to Shadow to reveal every secret hinted at by its predecessors, 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider.
“Who’s behind Trinity?” “What are their goals?” “Why has Trinity spared Lara’s life?” So many loose threads, begging to be tied off. But as I said: Answering questions is hard.
It belongs in a museum
Here comes the disclaimer where I say like, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t a bad game.” Because it’s not, or at least not in the traditional sense. It’s more of the same—same gadgets, same weapons, same Lara-almost-falls-to-her-death-but-doesn’t false drama.
It isn’t exciting per se, but the formula works. I’d actually argue Shadow of the Tomb Raider is better than Rise in this respect, insofar as Shadow’s map is a lot more cohesive than its predecessor’s mid-game environment change. It flows, almost mindless at times as you glide from collectible to collectible. Here’s a wall, bust it down. Here’s a chasm, cross it.
Shadow resembles nothing more than a theme park, the most extravagant log chute ride of your life. It’s low on danger, high on reward. Over three games Tomb Raider has become an expert at micro-dosing dopamine. If there’s a path, chances are there’s something to find at the end of it.
That’s my long way of saying: I played Shadow of the Tomb Raider for 20 hours and reached credits with an 86 percent completion rate. 86 percent's way more side content than I’d usually do in an open world game, which tells me Shadow’s doing something right on that front. Even now, I feel drawn to hit 100 percent—hoover up those last few icons, and for what?
Which is not to say the mechanical side of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is without problems. On the contrary.
Bugs are one thing. There are a lot, including some frame rate issues during background loads, but I assume most will be polished or patched out in the coming weeks. My favorite was a scene where Jonah’s whole head disappeared and left only his haircut behind, a la Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Oops.
Controls feel loose though. Sloppy even, if we’re being blunt. You know how in previous Tomb Raiders you’d jump and realistically Lara should’ve fallen short, but she’d sort of magnetically attach to the nearest wall and keep going? Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes that to the extreme. Every jump feels too long, and Lara ends up gliding sometimes 20 or more feet through the air like she’s filled with helium. It’s unsettling, and one of those aspects that can’t simply be patched back out. Entire levels are designed this way.
I’ve got other quibbles too. The enemies are dumb as rocks even on harder difficulties, and Lara’s guns feel insubstantial, especially the shotgun. The map is confusing bordering on useless in a lot of vertical-oriented areas (i.e. most tombs). Essential equipment is relegated to vendors, which is about the most boring way to earn a reward. Swimming is as tedious as I expected, albeit beautiful. And outside the main characters, a lot of the voice acting is surprisingly sub-par.
But by and large I enjoyed playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I especially loved the puzzle-centric tombs. There aren’t many, and they aren’t revolutionary or anything, but for some reason it makes me nostalgic to do a silly “Align the mirrors” puzzle or what-have-you inside of a creepy bat-filled crypt. It’s very ‘90s action-adventure.
Don't they know it's the end of the world?
The story though. Oh wow, the story. I’ve finished Shadow of the Tomb Raider and I would be hard-pressed to tell you the specifics or follow the logic from beginning to end.
It starts strong. We played the intro back in April, in which Lara enters a tomb in Mexico, finds an ancient Mayan dagger and a prophecy about the end of the world, ignores said very clear warning, takes the dagger and triggers the apocalypse. An entire town is washed away in a flood, Trinity steals the dagger, and Lara chases after to try and prevent any future damage.
Pulp? Yes. Trope-heavy? Sure. But it wrings some great character moments out of both Lara and faithful companion Jonah, with the former wracked by guilt over the flood and the latter trying to say “I told you so” in the kindest way possible.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider can’t even keep its own story straight though, let alone resolve three games’ worth of questions. Leaps of logic abound, most of which come to a head shortly after you reach the main hub of Paititi, maybe six hours in.
I’m going to go ahead and list some MILD SPOILERS in the next few paragraphs. No names or anything, but feel free to skip ahead.
Anyway, I could list off contrivances for days. The MacGuffin you’re hunting has been missing for 400 years and nobody thought to check on it, but everyone acts like they knew they’d need it right around now. There’s an entire faction of underground demon-people that I can’t even begin to explain, as well as a Christian connection that's played up and then immediately dropped again without any real resolution. (Also a terrible Stations of the Cross-based puzzle that as far as I can tell has no in-game reference materials. I had to Google the answer.)
The leader of Trinity is the most illogical person you could imagine. And the answers to those questions up top, Trinity’s motivations and all? Utter nonsense. It completely dispels the illusion of Trinity as this conspiratorial globe-spanning shadow op, and not for the better.
On a smaller level, there’s a rebellion brewing in Paititi, but the leaders walk around in public unharmed and untouched—until suddenly that changes for no apparent reason, and the leaders are arrested off the street.
Oh, and Paititi is an indigenous South American tribal village, one which is described in an in-game document as “like going back in time 500 years.” What’s more, Lara is the only white person in the entire village and as far as we can tell doesn’t speak the language, but the rebels put her in a blue dress (no mask even!) and suddenly everyone accepts that she belongs there. One character has the gall to say “These clothes won’t keep the guards from noticing you forever” as if it’s not immediately obvious Lara doesn’t belong here.
There are more—a lot more—but for the sake of brevity let’s move on. The point is, multiple times in the game I paused and thought “Wait, what?” but no explanations were forthcoming. Many are small nitpicks, but pick at enough of them and the entire plot unravels. And unlike Rise of the Tomb Raider, the documents don’t really fix the problems. A lot of key information is hidden in collectibles again, which I still find annoying, but the plot holes exist whether you go hunting for additional information or not.
The ending suffers too, seeing as it’s built on the back of all these broken plot strings. There was a point where I thought “Oh this is interesting,” right at the end—but then it’s immediately revealed as a red herring too. Events wrap up, our heroes spout some “What we’ve learned here today” platitudes, and credits.
It’s unsatisfying, is all. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as I said up top, isn’t a bad game—at least by traditional metrics. It’s just not a good game either. It falls in that weird gray area of okay, like Mad Max or a Shadow of War. There’s not much of substance here, certainly not on the story side and, after two predecessors that play almost exactly the same, not really on the moment-to-moment gameplay side either. The optional Challenge Tombs are great, but they're only one small part of the whole.
What should be a victory lap, a stunning denouement that sets up an older and wiser Lara Croft, instead feels like the least vital entry in the trilogy. Maybe it’s time for another reboot—or at least a reinvention.