I’ve been critical in the past of the reboot Tomb Raider franchise and at least once, the series proved me wrong. So, despite my criticisms at the ridiculous notion that Shadow of the Tomb Raider was still part of the origin story for Lara Croft, I was hopeful for this new entry in the series.
I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s trash. It’s beautiful, but trash.
Look at the Shiny Shiny: Shadow of The Tomb Raider is visually stunning. Gorgeous really. The jungles, landscapes, temples and vistas can often be breath-taking. My favourite thing though is the water, from the smallest pond to the largest lake it’s all clear and gorgeous, even if it’s full of sunken temples and vicious piranha swarms—even though most piranha species aren’t really dangerous to humans, but that’s something for another time.
Boring Plot: Shadow of the Tomb Raider fails to raise the stakes, even with a world-ending plot, particularly because aside from four extremely localised natural disasters—localised around Lara specifically and failing to kill any important character—it doesn’t really feel like the world is ending. There are no lasting effects on the game’s world and those big events happen so far apart from one another that all tension evaporates. Doesn’t help that the villains are painfully dull and Lara’s characterisation makes her incredibly boring and unlikable. It’s been three games and she still doesn’t have a personality. What she does have and is still an annoying major factor, are her daddy issues. Oh, and she’s now officially a vicious murderer. Also, they somehow expect you to care for new characters with very limited screen time, and that’s never gonna happen.
Bland Re-tread: If the boring and short plot wasn’t bad enough, it’s even worse when you realise, quite early on, that the entire game is just a formulaic re-tread of the previous one without any of the charm that Rise of the Tomb Raider had. It’s once again a search for a MacGuffin while fighting Trinity, in an exotic locale and you meet a village of people seemingly lost to time which guard or are directly related to the MacGuffin in question. And of course, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has its own version of the Deathless and Oni, because this game was made with a checklist.
Dull Exploration: You know, I miss the days when Tomb Raider games had fun exploration and platforming. Rise had some of it and with its climbable arrows there were some fun moments in the end game. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider all exploration consists primarily of these three activities: swimming, climbing and rappelling—there is so much damn rappelling. Neither of those is really fun. Also, if I never have to see Lara squeeze through a narrow wall or barrier I’ll be delighted. It happens in every single damn place you visit. Everyone built their temples with tight walls to make passage uncomfortable.
Wasted Skills: The skill interface in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is beautiful, just another shiny shiny to distract you from the shallowness. The skills themselves range from combat and movement stuff, to even having merchants sell new inventory, which I thought was weird as hell. But the strangest and worst thing is the sheer number of combat and stealth takedown skills for a game with barely any combat. I spent about 70% of the game just swimming and rappelling and fought a handful of soldiers that were too few and too far in between. Only the last hour of the game ramps it up and it’s nowhere near enough, so why have so many fun ways to kill people when there’s barely anyone to kill?
Shallow Apocalypse: Why would you bother with an end of the world plot with natural disasters when those disasters are going to matter so little? The flood at the start of the game is just that, one town flooded. No further consequences. Lara’s plane gets caught in the apocalyptic storm and she violently crashes. But everyone survives without a scratch. Earthquake happens and only destroys a tiny village once more. But the locales you visit, where you do your exploration? Oh that remains untouched, which completely kills the tension. Every character makes it sound like the world is ending but it’s a lie, the areas you explore remain as pretty and idyllic as ever. So why bother? They should have made every disaster have lasting consequences, have them affect the regions, change the landscape, you know make it matter!
Simple Puzzles: I praised the puzzles in the tombs on Rise of the Tomb Raider and instead of doubling up and making the new ones even more complex, we get single-room puzzles with very little challenge. The most complex one involves shining light rays to jade bits to raise or turn platforms and it’s incredibly simple. In fact there isn’t a single complex puzzle in the entire game, or many puzzles for that matter. I did more stealth encounters than puzzling and I completed all challenge tombs. And as I’ve said, there isn’t that much combat either, stealth or otherwise.
Slow Chase: You know those big action moments where you’re escaping something and everything else is being destroyed? Those big set pieces where Lara inherits the Drake reverse Midas Touch and every ledge breaks at the slightest touch? In Shadow of the Tomb Raider those are astoundingly boring, mostly because the developers and designers tip their hands and make it clear in how little danger you are. That platform that looks about to crack? It won’t until you jump off it. All that destruction from the flood? Oh that’s just creating new walkways for you to move on. But by far the worst happens in the Hidden Village, where you’re being chased by guards in the stupidest chase scene I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly slow (Lara’s not even jogging), short and fails to deliver in any conceivable metric especially when you realise the guards don’t make any hostile movements towards you. Doesn’t help that they all boil down to sequences where you only press forward and occasionally jump or climb.
Surface-level Immersion: There is an option to set your level of immersion when it comes to in-game language. If you turn it on, then the native characters will speak in their own tongues and the major ones in English. Though it’s a step in the right direction it ends up actually destroying all immersion. Nothing takes you out of the game more than listening to Lara talk in British English to a child from a hidden Mayan village. He’s talking in his native tongue and she’s responding in English and he’s fine with it, when that makes no sense whatsoever. Was it too much to have Lara’s actor do some more lines in those languages? That would’ve been truly immersive. But nope, pointless half-measure it is.
Inventory Woes: Aside from the ridiculous bit of using skills to unlock new merchandise, an issue I ran into while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider was my resource bags maxing out constantly, to the point where I started selling off everything I had. Part of it is that everything you can buy is ridiculously expensive, so you’re not getting new weapons or outfits—top & boots or full body, crafted and with special bonuses—to sink your resources into that often. And even if you do, or find a handful in crypts and from quests, you can max them out incredibly easy and most of them aren’t really big upgrades. In fact, the best weapons and armour you can get are of course included in the super-duper game editions, because greed is a big thing for developers these days. I had those, but I decided to use the ones I unlocked or bought in-game only, to see just how much they locked behind a pay-gate.
Pointless Upgrade Requirements: In the two other Tomb Raider titles, you came across barrier requiring different tools and weapons to open and it was instantly clear why you needed them, such as a grenade launcher for the bolted metal barriers. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider you have the classic fire-arrow obstacle and the rope ascender barrier from earlier games; but there’s also a shotgun barrier and a sturdy knife barrier with no visual difference between these and the regular bits you can clear with your other tools. Same for the boxes you can pry open with your climbing axes and the new ones you need lock-picks for. You’re already using the axes as a crowbar, why lock-picks? Also, who decided that most of these tools should only be available from a merchant later in the game? So much stuff got dumped on merchants, like it was the easiest way to include items they couldn’t place in the very short story. In fact, considering Lara’s had them on two games already, why not give her the ascender from the start?
Army of Clones: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is indeed visually beautiful, at least in terms of landscapes. Where it’s not is with its characters, particularly the secondary ones. I think they had two models for children, women and men and just swapped them around incessantly. I spoke to the same guy with different names and too many of the same kid. No variety whatsoever. The phrase “all these people look alike” applies perfectly to the people you meet in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.