Games Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PS4, 2018) lives in the silhouette of two better titles

The closest media analogue I can think of for Shadow of the Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’m sure I’m the latest in a long line of critics to make this comparison, but it’s an apt one on just about every level. Shadow represents a stark shift in tone, character and quality from 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. It is darker, grimier, and gets itself into some rather questionable territory in its depiction of indigenous people. It also doesn’t seem to like Lara any more than she likes herself, and it spends a lot of time hung up on rather jagged self-critique.

After a hunt for a Mayan dagger in Mexico goes awry, unleashing a series of apocalyptic weather events, Lara Croft heads into the Peruvian jungle to the city of Paititi. The sinister Trinity paramilitary organisation intends to combine the dagger with a silver box of legend to remake the world and it’s up to Lara and her intrepid bud Jonah to shut them down once and for all. It’s a story as nutty as any in the rebooted Tomb Raider series, full of supernatural goings-on, long-lost tribes and artifacts of great significance buried in thousand-year-old tomb that also contain sophisticated climbing puzzles.

On the surface, Shadow doesn’t depart much from the template established by Rise — all the weapons upgrading and crafting remain, along with a few new mechanics including the ability to cover Lara in mud for an extra layer of camo, and an expanded skill-tree designed to give Lara an edge. There’s a problem with the skill tree, however, and it’s that I don’t really want anything it offers. I wound up with as many as eight skill points unspent, flicking back and forth between different options, trying to find something that would be useful to me. It feels like a skill tree that’s been padded out to feel larger than it is and, I suspect, this has a lot to do with where the game occurs in Lara’s personal arc.

The Lara presented in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the natural conclusion of the growth arc that began in the 2013 reboot. In that title, Lara was untested, fighting to survive and developing her new set of skills as she went. In Rise, she was more accomplished, hardening her heart and sharpening her skill set, fearful of degree to which she’d come to crave her new high-risk lifestyle. In Shadow, we have a Lara Croft at the top of her game, a skilled adventurer and well-used to the dangers of her profession. The trouble is that, after everything she’s done to reforge herself to suit this life, Lara doesn’t seem to like the person she’s become very much at all.

She creates havoc wherever she goes, her tunnel-vision approach to getting what she came for often ends up ruining the very tombs she works so hard to uncover, and her actions frequently upend the lives of people who’ve been living peacefully in the area. Wherever Lara Croft goes, trouble seems to follow, and her constant need for new adventure means she rarely sticks around to deal with the aftermath of the current one. Shadow doesn’t shy away from any of this, putting Lara’s increasingly reckless behaviour front-and-centre. Almost everyone she comes into contact with correctly identifies her as a troublemaker on sight, and even her relationship with the steadfast Jonah is beginning to fray.

It’s an interesting narrative swerve, but one that comes at a price: it makes Lara very difficult to empathise with, which seems to be the point. If you’ve played the previous two games, you know exactly how she came to be like this, but you also wish she’d get ahold of herself. Lara tells herself that everything she does is to bring Trinity down, and that she therefore holds the moral high ground. But what happens when Trinity are finally removed from the picture? Can she stop, or is she doomed to repeat the same destructive, willfully selfish mistakes? Is she really better than Trinity? Has she ever been, at any point? It goes to such interesting narrative places, and it gives actor Camilla Luddington material she can really sink her teeth into. It’s rare to get this kind of clear-eyed self-analysis in a AAA video game, but I fear the grim-darkness of it will turn a lot of players off.

The game’s biggest stumbling block is the artistic juggling that’s gone on behind the scenes during its production. With Crystal Dynamics stepping back from the franchise to work on Square-Enix’s expansive Avengers project with Disney, the bulk of development duties fell to Eidos Montreal, who had previously only run support on the series. And you can feel it. This is not to suggest that Eidos Montreal aren’t an accomplished developer in their own right — they are, and their take on the Deus Ex series remains interesting and imaginative FPS-RPG design — but Tomb Raider feels like it might be a stretch for them. Eidos does everything they can to keep the ship steady, but there are a few moments of jank that kept me from being totally absorbed into the game’s world. Aiming with any weapon other than the bow felt quite floaty. Quicktime events and action-packed cutscenes seem to start with a hard jump, breaking the immersion. It makes you appreciate how incredibly good Naughty Dog have become at blending gameplay and cinematics into a cohesive whole.

Another hurdle lies the game uneven attempts to mask its load times. Shadow regularly finds an excuse to slow you down for a second while it hurriedly moves things around behind the curtain — having Lara wade slowly through thigh-deep mud or crawl slowly through slim crevices — and sometimes it still doesn’t buy enough time to complete the load. On more than one occasion the game halted entirely, bringing up a loading bar and text reading Wait While Streaming. I wondered if this was going to be patched out because it didn’t seem like it was supposed to be client-facing, but its been almost a week since launch and its still there.

Visually, there’s never been a Tomb Raider title quite this beautiful. The game communicates the heat and humidity of the Peruvian forest perfectly, and the artistry behind all of the game’s plantlife convey the weight and density of the real thing. When Lara pushes past a plant with broad, wide leaves, its possible to feel the weight of them. She doesn’t appear to be brushing aside a weightless digital artifact, but a living thing. The tech and art direction at work here is really quite remarkable, and it’s a shame the rest of the game doesn’t quite measure up to it.

Ultimately, it feels like Shadow of the Tomb Raider needed a stronger push one way or the other — either for Crystal Dynamics to return to the series when they were ready, or the room for Eidos Montreal to make the game their own instead of being pressed into service as a cover band. Fair play to EM, they’re doing their best, and when they get it right it’s really something, but for most I fear this will mark an uneven swan song for the series that modernised a gaming icon.

 

THREE AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Camilla Luddington pours her heart and soul into Lara; Interesting narrative heading
Lowlights: Mechanically uneven; Obvious load masking; May be too Temple of Doom for some
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro with a promotional copy provided by the publisher.

 

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.