As several moderately innovative and popular intellectual properties wore their welcome (God of War, Uncharted, Batman), the over-extended life of the seventh home console generation became a void to fill with shot-in-the-dark reboots. The user base was strong enough that even risky projects, such as Darksiders, could turn a profit or at least warrant a spin-off or sequel. No doubt the public saw Tomb Raider as a long dead franchise at this point but that’d be a real joke perpetuated by journalists with relatively strong ADHD or zero research skill. There had been at least one Tomb Raider title published every year since the first game was hit the PC in 1996 leading all the way up to the self-titled ‘reboot’ in 2011. The idea that Crystal Dynamics were ‘taking back’ the rightful territory the franchise had blazed several trails with is surely absurd in hindsight. What they’d done with Tomb Raider (2013) was not original or elevated but it was particularly well done. The cinematic presentation, perspective, control scheme, and general ‘summer blockbuster’ arc of the Uncharted series was not an original conception either but, to say that the reboot of Tomb Raider was a breath of fresh air using old bones is exactly right. It was a distinctly ‘adult’ title that saw the character of Lara Croft become ‘real’, vulnerable and conflicted as she was thrown down a tunnel of gore, acrophobia inducing hell, and treacherous death by way of the malevolent Trinity organization… And then she became an insufferable, callous and self-serving bitch in the second game. All is well again as this Tomb Raider reboot reaches the completion of its trilogy though I can’t help but wonder why it took a literal possession by a snake god to knock some sense into Croft’s unusually destructive self-exploration.
Packed with collectibles and given all manner of weaponry Tomb Raider (2013) was much like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in the sense that waves of third-person shooting would alternate with platforming and exploration based puzzle-solving until the game ramped up to a large-scale boss fight. Large set-pieces could easily swarm with a hundred men who’d offer mild challenge as they shouted and ran towards you willing to die for unclear reasons. Around this time journalists were heavily focused on murder, death and guns in video games and the only angle that made any sense at that point would explore ‘cognitive dissonance’ in video games. A ‘hero’ in a game would unquestionably kill hundreds, maybe thousands, of people (and animals) for the sake of saving one person or freeing their world from tyranny or oppression. This brought Tomb Raider into the conversation because the characterization of Croft in that ‘reboot’ started with what I believe was her first adventure and this meant killing man and beast for the first time… and then doing it a thousand times more. By the end of the game you are a she-Rambo bounding up a tower ready to destroy uh, some kind of supernatural force. Honestly the final boss and the ending of that first game was godawful. Anyhow, the point was that Croft’s characterization appeared innocuous, numbed to the piles of death she’d powerfully killed in her crusade. This was such a worthless conversation to have about the game in hindsight and unfortunately it heavily influenced the second game, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015).
Rise of the Tomb Raider was one of my most anticipated games that year until I’d learned it was an Xbox 360 exclusive title. I’d have to wait for the Playstation 4 version (which came with all DLC) in 2016, which was fine as it was a better version. They’d done what Eidos Montreal had done with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided in the sense that the game was divided into a series of smaller ‘open world’ sections that’d tie together in a ‘metroidvania’ style that prompted re-exploration over time. The first game’s strongest suit was its sense of exploration and thankfully the actual tombs you’d raid in its sequel were more than doubled and the gameplay would balance beautifully to a seventy percent exploration/puzzle solving and thirty percent combat ratio. That second game had excellent graphics, some nicely varied environments, some of their most clever tomb puzzles, and an interesting system where you’d have to collect information in different languages/mythologies to be able to learn more. If you dove into the relics and item descriptions there was something curiously educational hidden within a horrible storyline where Lara Croft essentially becomes a raving spoiled brat who believes she, and only she, can save the world by exacting her revenge on the organization that murdered her father when she was a child. This second act of the story made Croft an insufferable character, a posh twat who’d have a Kratos moment a few too many times. It wasn’t strength, though, it was always cruelty on her part and I pushed through the end of the game just to finish it. I was done.
So, why jump back into the franchise? It dawned on me halfway through Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey that I’d made a huge mistake in favoring it over Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which I’d bought on sale during the Winter of 2018. Looking back on the previous game I’d realized that the core gameplay of the rebooted franchise had been very focused and well-polished compared to the senseless open-world games I’d been playing. After being so unsatisfied with the priority of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I wanted to get back to Shadow of the Tomb Raider immediately as I’d felt the game started very strong. The opening moments find Lara in Mexico with her partner Jonah as they begin a trip from Cozumel that tips them to an ancient hidden city in the Peruvian jungle said to house the Silver Box of Chak Chel that would bring a storied Mayan apocalypse (a ‘cleansing’) characterized by an eternal solar eclipse. It quickly became clear that Rise of the Tomb Raider was intended to be a period of growth, a ‘terrible twos’ phase where Croft was meant to be a brat and Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the story of her reaching maturity and that heroic level of humanistic sense and confident action. So, it took one fully shitty game to get there but this third game is easily the best of the series yet, it has some vicious flaws that stem from the corporate greed Square Enix are now well known for.
If you do not buy the DLC Pass (~25.00 USD) you will miss roughly twenty percent of the ‘tomb’ exploration and challenge content in the game and if you don’t start with this content installed you’ll miss it along the way. Now, the vanilla version of the game is ripe with content that is beautifully realized, expansive, and very fun to explore with hundreds of things to do. It is much like Metroid: Prime or Rise of the Tomb Raider in that you’re funneled through interconnected areas taking note of things you can’t access until you have certain abilities (machine powered rope pull, shotgun, upgraded knife, etc.) but the main difference is that you’re never gated from story progress should you choose to ignore the collectibles and extra challenges. This time around the skill progression is actually tied directly to completing Challenge Tombs, several of which are story related and required but most of which are not. As I dug, scraped, crawled, climbed and swam through these tombs I fell back in love with this franchise and truly began to enjoy Shadow of the Tomb Raider as a pure gameplay experience. It took me back to the (now poorly aged) joy of the Sands of Time trilogy on Playstation 2/Xbox.
All of this and I’d say I spent roughly ten percent of the game in combat. Why? Well, game designers have smartly begun to allow players to tune the gameplay experience to their play style. What does that mean? At the start of the game there are three metrics you can toggle to affect the experience and the difficulty level of each. Puzzle difficulty affects visual cues and hints given, Combat difficulty affects how easily enemies go down and how many appear, and Exploration difficulty affects visual cues and the number of button presses (and thier timing) necessary for climbing and other actions. I lowered the difficulty of combat and kept the rest at normal to emphasize the main reason I play games like this, exploration and puzzle solving. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is at its most clever when presenting platforming based puzzles and when this is tied to non-guided exploration it becomes a fun and relatively intuitive experience. If you’re interested in the combat this time around, the innovations here are primarily in the realm of stealth with some Arkham Asylum-esque takedown options from above and the use of guerrilla camouflage. There are a few very-late game additions, such as the use of poison darts that’ll cause enemies to fight amongst themselves and slathering yourself in mud to hide from soldiers using thermal goggles but, these encounters are so few and far between that there is little to no interesting challenge applied. If you do each challenge tomb as they come, you’ll have too many guns to choose from and so many bullets that you will be well prepared for the few situations where gun combat is necessary, from there it is just a matter of mowing down anything that comes for you. Hunting animals and certain mystical underground poison-throwing natives isn’t as straightforward but offers no great challenge even at normal difficulty. I know difficulty in games is too subjective to discuss for most folks but in any case, whenever you have trouble you have the option to turn on the training wheels and just move on.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was a gorgeous game that kept you clambering through the Russian snow for many hours before discovering a tropical Hidden City (much like the one in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but smaller) and this time around you’re in the jungles of central Latin America from start to finish. It’ll feel like you’re staring at a very busy pair of crumpled camo pants as you adjust to the early color palette of the game which is densely detailed and a million shades of grey, brown, green and yellow. Crypts, caves, ruins, deep underwater passages, sheer cliffs, and ancient ceremonial temples contrast beautifully with jewel-blue skies and various weather effects. It is a beautiful game and a lushly realistic jungle fantasy that’ll feel a bit like bigger and better versions of the 80’s jungle set pieces in films like Indiana Jones. Then, uh, well… and then you’ll have to face the very awkward reality of the natives. Insular and living off the land without any of their waste or garbage in sight the most ‘video game’ feeling you’ll get is perhaps for the sake of not being faced with the reality of how much re-purposed garbage truly is a part of many native cultures around the world. The environs are too clean and things like poop don’t factor into the immersion on hand. Not a huge deal, though the real issue pops up as you might be prompted to have conversations with all of the natives in the sprawling and well-considered temple adjacent city of Paititi where most of the main story and quests take place. It serves as an uncertain hub for a good third of the game and houses several of the most key vendors for exploration and weapon enhancements. They’re wooden people, prone to ramble on for a minute or two at a time with information of no consequence. Lara isn’t rude but much of the interstitial dialogue involves their complaints of an insular existence and her condolences amount to very blatant and general sympathy. In fact, if only to redeem her previous (personality-based) transgressions it seems the dialogue of Shadow of the Tomb Raider jumps at the chance for her to show maturity and compassion for the native people, even those that would manipulate and/or kill her are spoken of as if museum pieces. At some point this becomes absurdist, a cartoon where she-Rambo has time-traveled back to ancient times with this weirdly sedentary native village full of people who don’t poop and just want someone to vent to.
Despite some of the absurdity of the storytelling when prefaced with the ‘thoughtful summer blockbuster survival action movie’ tag it is an easy plot to grab and push through without any truly damning issues. With that in mind and coupled with the exploration and light puzzle solving it did begin to feel like a comparison with the God of War (2018) reboot made a lot of sense on a very base level. The story is not intrusive and the moment to moment actions of the player revolve around approaching each area as a set of puzzles to solve or vistas to enjoy. It might be this perspective that kept me engaged as I easily whipped through the games challenges, completing 98% of the collectibles, hunts and various required actions before beating the game. To be sure this is the ‘darkest’ chapter of the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy and that means tons of dead bodies, skulls, blood, and well… Far too many caverns filled with dead native bodies. The locales are ornately arranged, fun to traverse and just perilous enough to avoid being the weird 2012 (2009) [The John Cusack movie…] series of hilariously close shaves that Tomb Raider (2013) was. I appreciated the suspense as much as I did the sense of solitude and exploration that’d often mix in with horror, which was again reminiscent of The Descent (2006). In this case Trinity was less the villain than they’d ever been and didn’t really become a tangible enemy until the start of the third and relatively short act that places Croft and her team in a nearby mission settlement and then at the final ceremony in a gigantic subterranean cave where the games blatant supernatural elements come into play. This feels too ridiculous for words to really explain but the key to the fight is actually stealth and that was a surprise considering how much firepower you’d amassed up to that point. Here Croft has her epiphany as the game ends and it all might seem a bit cloying for a moment but they’ve tied up her origins story in a somewhat meaningful and enjoyable manner. I’m not particularly interested in seeing where that character goes in the future but this third chapter was the right move and one I hadn’t necessarily expected. It feels final, complete, and I can move on to other things appreciating the ride.
There are a few really stupid things that irked me while playing, such as the natives speaking Spanish and Croft responding in English as if she was wearing a Star Trek communicator with a universal translator on hand, but none of those smaller details mattered when I’d finished the game and looked back upon it fondly. Having completed it just about a week ago, I’m surprised to have been left with a positive impression was a fun world to explore with plenty of clever puzzles and movements to master. This is the opposite of how I felt upon completion of its predecessor; At the very least it is redeeming to have a good gameplay experience after a series of lackluster ones. Great sound design, responsive controls, mostly intuitive progression, sharp graphics, and gameplay that can be tweaked for your enjoyment all add up to an easily recommended game. It’s mass appeal is intentional and very baked-in, with exploitative DLC plans stringing the player along all the same. I think the value that I’ve retained comes from loving the first game, hating the second, and now loving the third and this will absolutely vary depending if you enjoyed the previous games or played them at all. It’ll all mean a bit less to the newcomer without the last two games for context, flawed as each game was. Ultimately I found Shadow of the Tomb Raider above average and can give it a mid-to-high recommendation in general and a bit higher if you’ve already followed the arc of the reboot up to this point. Just keep in mind you might need to shell out 30% more money (or wait for a bundle) to see everything Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics have put into the game.
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