Since 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, Lara Croft has been trying to find herself and her role in the world. Thrust into one ordeal in the first game, before chasing after her father’s legacy and butting up against Trinity in the second, not much has changed as Shadow of the Tomb Raider open. If anything, she’s even more obsessive in her pursuit of Trinity, doing anything she can to get one step ahead and inadvertently setting into motion a cataclysmic chain of events.
The centrepiece of this new adventure is Paititi, where instead of uncovering a long lost city of dead, Lara stumbles into a bustling vibrant civilisation right in the heart of the Peruvian jungles that has remained almost untouched by the outer world. It’s a big city that’s easy to get lost in, stacked with the secret boxes and collectible bits of loot that you can find throughout the game, tons of people to talk to, llamas to pet, and branches off into the nearby jungles and temples. It’s not the only hub in the game, but it is by far the most impressive and the one where you spend the most time.
As before, the Challenge Tombs aren’t really part of the main story path through these areas, but are instead tucked away in hidden areas for you to find and explore. They’re well worth making the detour for in this game, with the traversal to actually reach them a big part of the challenge and some really nifty environmental puzzles to take on once you get there. They go deeper, they’re darker and creepier, and they can delve into the nuances of particular gameplay ideas.
Getting through the world is a joy as it pushes the limits of believability. Lara’s movements will be instantly familiar, but are augmented most notably by a new rappelling cable, seamlessly switching from clambering around on soft rock to sliding down to pendulum along a wall, swing toward a ledge or simply descend into the abyss. Shadow artfully blends different types of traversal together at points, bringing certain combinations together in interesting and challenging ways that add a real thrill to the action.
Shadow symbolically emphasises descent and darkness through its environments, from the shade given by the jungle to the near pitch blackness of certain crypts and passageways. It’s a great looking game, but I do wish Lara’s flashlight was on a bit more often to help with puddles of absolute darkness. There’s also more swimming sections with improved controls that make getting from one pocket of air to the next easier. Brace yourself for some underwater stealth, as you hide in weeds to avoid angry eels and schools of piranhas.
The story weaves together and wraps up some of the narrative strands of the previous two games, most importantly the threat that Trinity continues to pose to the world and the role that Lara’s father had through his own treasure hunting escapades. Paititi helps to throw this into a different light though, where there’s more lives at stake than just the core and guest cast. There’s also some real strain in her and Jonah’s friendship at some points, as her single-minded pursuit of Trinity puts others at risk, but it feels like the lessons that Lara learns along the way are only skin deep. There’s a disconnect for me between her character growth and the brutality of the combat on show.
That’s another area that has been expanded upon in Shadow, with the ability to break from combat and revert to stealth helping to emphasise the fragility of Lara in a gunfight. Sure, you can still hunker down behind cover and play like a traditional third person shooter, but the fearful reactions of the Trinity soldiers are more justified when you’re striking from the bushes, from the trees, covering yourself in mud Predator-style and hiding in tree roots. Breaking line of sight after you’ve been discovered lets you shift from going loud, to stealth and back again.
Honestly, Lara is just vicious in this game, as she has been since 2013’s reboot. The stealth kill animations are still as visceral as mainstream video games get, enemies get strung up in trees, and the story takes Lara to some darker places both figuratively and literally. It feels like she reaches her lowest point in a particularly action packed stretch of the game, before coming back to a form of redemption and closure through the final act.
Oddly, some of her new tricks are only unlocked quite deep into the game, as rewards for completing Challenge Tombs, or are tucked away in the sprawling new skill tree that gives you so many options within its three branches. Hallucinogenic arrows are an odd one to hold back for so long in the story, given how they were regularly demoed prior to release, making them more useful for a New Game + run through. You need to go out of your way to unlock vestiges that can be restored into new tops and bottoms to wear, some of which lend Lara some neat perks.
Perhaps one of the best things about Shadow of the Tomb Raider is your ability to truly customise your play experience. You’ll go on the same journey as any other player out there, but as you start a new game you can independently set the combat, traversal and puzzle difficulty, letting you amp up one or reduce the others to your tastes. Personally, I settled on having the traversal and puzzle difficulty higher, meaning I had less time to react to a loss of grip and had to deal with not having white lines marking every ledge – 95% of the time, the path ahead is still quite obvious, but there were quite a few moments of me staring at the scenery, searching for the ledge or jump to make. Further to this, you have tons of accessibility options, to turn rapid button presses off, make crank turning directional pushes instead of stick twiddling, and more. As soon as I found these options, I turned off the tiresome button mashing.
Another neat twist is being able to switch the dialogue from English to the native tongues, albeit with everyone magically being able to understand each other and totally not suspecting a thing when a white English woman is wandering around and speaking a totally different language. It’s called Immersion Mode, but ironically broke the immersion at a few key points where Lara is masquerading as someone else.
In fact, the main problem with Paititi is that the interactions with its many citizens aren’t particularly consistent in quality. Camilla Luddington’s voice acting has its high points in amping up the stress and drama of certain situations, but when talking to NPCs Lara often sounds detached and overly morose. Some of my favourite interactions are with children, where she actually sounds a little playful and jocular, and it’s a levity of tone that feels missing in some other parts of the game.
Building on the foundations of Rise of the Tomb Raider, there’s more depth to the actual tomb raiding, more flexibility in the combat, and the city of Paititi is a hub that you can easily get lost in as you explore it and the surrounding jungle. So, while Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s story lacks some of the meaning and impact that it sets out to, this is another action packed romp for fans of the series.
Version tested: Xbox One X – Also available on PS4 & PC