bigger world, higher stakes, and an unexpected spin on Lara Croft’s character make Shadow of the Tomb Raider the most ambitious of the modern trilogy. There’s a lot going on here, but it manages to keep most of its balls in the air throughout its 25-odd-hour running time. As both a rollicking, horror-kissed action-adventure and an introspective story about obsession and family, Shadow of the Tomb Raider works as a powerful finale to this particular chapter of Lara’s history.Shadow of the Tomb Raider tells a great story that continues the series’ tradition of high-concept, Indiana Jones-style mumbo jumbo. This time it’s centered around an impending apocalypse and the search for the ancient item that can prevent it that propels Lara through the dark guts of South America. Moments of big, blockbuster-style scripted action return; skin-of-your-teeth action sequences that hurtle Lara across crumbling earth and bullet-peppered buildings, and feel like wonderfully orchestrated roller-coaster rides. It’s a ton of fun.
Beneath that, though, the nature of obsession is once again the well-crafted underlying theme. It’s Lara who is obsessed this time, of course, and while the first act suggests a descent into narcissism (which could get tedious across 25 hours), her character is handled with a lighter touch. Lara isn’t so much narcissistic as awkward and introverted, only really comfortable when alone in her dangerous element. It’s a surprising and delicately-told development for the character and adds a shade of warm humanity that was not there in 2013’s Tomb Raider or 2015’s Rise of The Tomb Raider (and certainly not in this year’s dud of a film adaptation).
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also skillfully hits all the emotional moments needed to satisfyingly wrap up Lara’s quest that began in 2013. Her obsession is put into question, but we’re also reminded of the reasons behind it. A playable flashback sequence, in particular, does a wonderful job at illustrating Lara’s home life before she became a cold-blooded killer, and adds more poignancy to the finale.
It helps that Lara’s voice actress, Camilla Luddington, treads the tightrope between the vulnerable and the ridiculous with such ease. The tonal jumps the script demands might be jarring in lesser hands, but Luddington manages to convey empathy and introspection in one breath while believably talking about a magical artefact that can ‘remake the world’ in another. She’s well supported by series veteran Earl Baylon’s Jonah, who is her only regular confidant this time around. Jonah has always been a reliable voice of reason to Lara’s flights of fancy, but he, too, evolves in this iteration and the subtle shifts in their dynamic are fun to watch.
For the most part, however, Lara spends her time alone. The actual practice of tomb raiding takes the front seat here, and story missions feature fewer firefights than the past two games and more lonely traversal across cavernous, ancient architecture. In this regard, it feels more in step with the spirit of the original Tomb Raider games of the 90s and early 2000s, and it was a joy to feel so small and insignificant among such beautifully crafted spaces.
Perhaps more significantly, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s impressive world features the best puzzles in the series. Its puzzle-based story missions, optional crypts, and nine challenge tombs are giant, intricate affairs where ideas are rarely reused, forcing you to figure out their rules afresh each time. Whether it be ‘light four mirrors’ or ‘climb this spindly tower of death’ or ‘explore a giant freighter’, each one has its own mechanics and personality and, most importantly, is genuinely tough. A number of times I thought I’d exhausted all options before adjusting my thinking just a little, only to have the solution snap into place.
To make things even more challenging (or easier, should you have trouble) you can adjust the difficulty independently across the three main styles of gameplay: puzzle solving, environment navigation, and combat. Whenever I felt Lara’s voiceover or environment highlights were being too instructive and giving me clues to mysteries I’d rather solve myself I would up the difficulty and really lose myself inside the maniacal creations of developer Eidos Montreal.
The tombs deliver a wonderfully eerie atmosphere too. An omnipresent cult, an unnerving, string-based score, and an aggressive subterranean enemy type, The Yaaxil, mean Shadow of the Tomb Raider frequently feels like a horror game, which makes for wonderfully tense exploration as you wade through mountains of bodies or hear an animalistic growl in the distance. Once again, there’s that clever homage being paid to the 1996 original; in this instance to its weird, psychedelic heart.
Lara’s new overhang and rappel abilities give her a gratifyingly diverse set of movement options. Her rappel, in particular, allows for level design that’s much more vertical than anything this young Lara has seen before. The simple act of moving from one area to another is often a dizzying mix of up and down and side to side; swinging from one wall to another, catching yourself with your pickaxe at the very last second with animations that convincingly convey her struggle to hang on for dear life.
Swimming in large, three-dimensional environments is also, surprisingly, not too bad, thanks to tight controls that a handful of puzzles capitalise on. Though the fear of drowning is real, I never felt like I was being overly punished by turning in the wrong direction – a staple of all underwater levels – and instead felt tension rather than frustration.