Shadow of the Tomb Raider – Final Review

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s central narrative structure is largely devoid of any originality, the primary narrative motivation being a painfully overused one – the world is on the verge of destruction, threatened by an ancient force which, if not vanquished, spells doom for all. Responsibility for the world’s saving necessarily falls upon the shoulders of the protagonist, Lara Croft, endowed with a unique strength and thus capable of averting such widespread destruction. Indeed, much of the narrative is Lara’s story, and seeing her growth, her internal confliction, is certainly the most rewarding aspect of the narrative proper; she is immensely likable, her human presence grounding the narrative, while the introduction of a secondary character contributes to further narrative heft – Jonah, a boon companion of Lara since her new journey commenced in the original Tomb Raider reboot some years previously, is vital to the narrative. The camaraderie they display is steeped in believability, and cleverly and commendably, the developers rejected the inclusion of a romantic subplot between these two characters, a rejection many other developers would not execute. In this regard, with Jonah and Lara, the painful derivativeness of the narrative is transcended. It would be unfair, meanwhile, to state that the entirety of the narrative is lifeless and uninspired outside of Lara’s relationship with Jonah – some intrigue does periodically emerge, and this intrigue is most intimately connected to psychology, the narrative dwelling upon mostly bleak themes, mankind’s natural proclivity for darkness. Structurally, this bleak narrative revolves around a quest, the attaining of a pair of objects – an ancient dagger and a mythical, long-lost silver box. These objects, if possessed simultaneously, can avert the “cleansing,” a calamitous occurrence accompanied with an unending solar eclipse. Fair enough. Straightforward enough. The psychological dimension, though, revolves around a secondary power that the box and dagger imbue within their possessor – the capability to completely remake the world. Crucially, a central antagonist is introduced almost instantaneously – Dominguez. Expectantly, he seeks the box, the dagger, seeks the power to become a new creator. His motivations are complex, extending beyond the desire for total power, reflecting his profound psychology. His vision of this new world is ambiguous, though darkness is more paramount than brightness; he must be stopped. Painful cliché again abounds to temper these successful psychological aspirations, and the narrative is conflicted, alternately basic and engaging. Dominguez is a mostly compelling character and villain, being similarly divided, seeking to remake the world for both selfish reasons and for the benefit of those closest to him – even while villainous, he occasionally displays his selflessness. And so the pair grapple, Lara and Jonah pursuing Dominguez and the silver box simultaneously, travelling about isolated Central America in their quest, which, with the sprawling, sometimes overwrought nature of the narrative, eventually becomes a literal odyssey; for all the derivates, the narrative still maintains some ambition.  

While navigating Central America, manifold different secondary characters and locations are introduced, the most profound, bustling place being the isolated village of Paititi, nestled amongst the mountains of Peru in near total isolation. The leader of this village, Unuratu, becomes a central ally for Lara and Jonah both, lending her indefatigable strengths to their cause, desperate to halt Dominguez and his destructive machinations. She is a fierce individual and accordingly a very likable one, and this likability thus contributes to the immense sorrow felt upon her death, she dying in defense of her people, its customs, while the frightened and mournful Lara looks on, realizing this death is partially attributable to her own actions; even while striving for good, wherever Lara travels, death and tragedy seem to follow in her wake; the sense of guilt she feels here is palpable, which only bolsters her character’s complexity. After this valiant warrior’s passing, her youthful son ascends the hypothetical throne, and fast shows himself to be a capable leader, finishing what his mother could not upon her premature death . In many ways, this narrative is their story, just as much as it is Lara’s and Jonah’s story; it is impossible to discourse with these simpler, purer indigenous peoples and not experience sympathy for them, to feel frustration at the potential destruction of their very existence. The link established here does, again, contribute to narrative heft, while also evoking a considerable degree of agency; should Lara not act promptly, eradication is a certitude. The cast of central characters, then, is rather small – there is Lara, Jonah, Unuratu, Dominguez, and a scant few other, more minor characters. But the Paititi people, as a collective, morph into a central character, being of immense narrative importance, even while most of them are unnamed, even unvoiced. Just as Lara feels an instinctive bond for Jonah, she shows an instinctive bond for all of these individuals, and seeing the swelling nature of that regard as the narrative progresses is another tangible illustration of her commanding character growth – Lara is far from static. So the narrative opens in Mexico, where in stealing the fabled dagger Lara initiates the cleansing, and then the narrative winds and winds ever onward, punctuated by destructive, demoralizing occurrences, like a volcano eruption, pointing towards the gods’ agitated status. While an ultimate objective is indeed emphasized – the narrative is very focused and structured – almost unexplainably the narrative can feel directionless; sometimes a protracted span of time can pass with relatively little consequential actually happening. Still, interest is maintained throughout, even if the conclusion is a terribly predictable one, though this predictability is countered somewhat by a final display of poignancy. Dominguez has been eliminated, and Lara has access to the dagger and box both. The hero wins in the end, of course – here is cliché. But immediately following his death is a vision, showing a youthful Lara discoursing happily with her mother and father, both deceased in the present moment. The implication is that, if Lara did remake the world, she would remake it so that they could be reunited, to never again be separated. That this is her greatest desire is immensely telling, communicating her great humanity and her profoundness – it is a startling conclusion, though an epilogue of sorts is rather deflating; the preceding narrative was largely one of bleakness, and accordingly the excessive sentimentality which emerges here is jarring; this final tonal imbalance is a minor failing.    

The world-building marks a major triumph, boasting many immersive attributes and much technical excellency, in addition to artistic creativity. Creativity is sharply and perfectly balanced with realism, most observable in the deliberately scaled back environmental diversity. In so many game worlds, an excessive number of differing biomes are present – one moment an arid desert may be explored, the next some vast, snowy tundra. With this game, though, such division is rejected, and one cohesive vision is achieved, a logical cohesion – the entire narrative transpires in a relatively confined area. Still, manifold different atmospheres and sensations are evoked, some areas almost haunting in construction, particularly the many caverns explored, with stalactites and stalagmites, eeriness arising owing to the sun’s absence. And then, there are the diametric opposites of these confined areas, the various jungled forests boasting considerable openness, wherein the expansive draw distance is most observable, with towering, heavily forested mountains looming overhead always, communicating player smallness and insignificance. Many of the jungles are, expectantly, heavily canopied, blotting out the sunlight, while the breaks in this canopy allow that selfsame sunlight to filter through, blinding and beautiful; it is difficult to describe the external graces of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, even if the South American locale, with Mayan temples and decaying structures, is somewhat overused in fiction. A sharp contrast is observable in the environments, too, particularly when considering the isolated forests and the more densely populated city centers, like Paititi, a location absolutely bustling with life, featuring dozens and dozens of NPCs, behaving realistically, some remaining stationary to execute some task or other, others moving to and fro, performing errands or simply delighting in the urban denseness. Paititi specifically feels more alive than even the most well-developed open world game, a monumental achievement. Here, corrupting civilization has been mostly rejected, the NPCs wearing traditional indigenous garments, many still speaking indigenous languages, remnants of a past existence that they desperately desire to preserve, at whatever the cost. The isolation of this city, meanwhile, directly communicates humankind’s abundant resiliency; these peoples are geographically detached from the outside world, and yet manage to achieve prosperity; their civilization is profound, and clearly the developers’ efforts here were painstaking, showing further aspirations for humanness and believability. The openness of this gameworld, meanwhile, must also see brief mention. The game rejects a pure open-world approach, though the environments – whether speaking of Paititi or any of the myriad forests – are dense, abounding in secrets and collectables. Exploration constitutes a considerable portion of the gameplay experience – many of these gorgeous environments will be crossed and recrossed – and while it is possible to play this title like an open-world game, opening the map, placing a waypoint and then promptly travelling to that location, the experience is most impactful when this approach is rejected, when exploration becomes a wholly organic act; stumbling upon secrets tombs or crypts naturally and unaided is thrilling, satisfying, and this approach thus seems to be the “proper” approach. But whether heavily relying upon the map or rejecting it outright, intuitive, empowering locomotion options heighten the joys of exploration.  

The gameplay is largely a vacillation between the quiet and the loud, with many different gameplay systems seeing implementation, some prioritized for a fair span of time, only to disappear, lending a wonderfully unpredictable aspect to the gameplay. The primary gameplay pillars are as follows: simple exploration; platforming; puzzle-solving; stealth sequences; and sequences of open combat. The rotation of gameplay systems not only results in unpredictability, but also ensures that repetition and staleness are rejected outright, fortunate when considering how lengthy the narrative can in time become. Certain of these aspects will no doubt be divisive, owing to the differing tastes present from player to player. Some may cling to the gunplay, reveling in its bombasticness, while others may delight in the quiet, contemplative puzzle-solving, presenting a cerebral challenge rather than an active one. The puzzle design, meanwhile, is superb, the puzzles challenging yet intuitive and logical; a bit of careful scrutiny, some experimentation, is all that is required for success here. Some people being indifferent to puzzle solving, though, these sequences can be laborious, may reject them in favor of the combat, which is ironically far more derivative and unoriginal than puzzle-solving. But derivativeness does not instantly equate to unenjoyability – far from it; combat offers its own enjoyment. Almost from the first, Lara has access to a bow, a lethal construction which can incapacitate these early foes with a single, carefully-fired arrow to the head, the enemy collapsing upon impact, while the silent nature of this weapon ensures its continued value in the narrative’s myriad stealth sequences, where it will be coupled with the diverse stealth takedowns. This weapon remains viable throughout, though a perfect pacing, a gradual escalation of challenge, cuts down on its potential lethality, as is observable when enemies in the late game begin to wear helmets, objects the conventional arrow cannot penetrate. And so, reflecting the perfect pacing, more and more tools are provided the player to counter these new defenses, pistols seeing an introduction, followed by assault rifles and a shotgun. Fortunately and crucially, weapons from all four classes can be wielded simultaneously, the game rejecting the highly restrictive two-weapon limit present within so many other modern titles. This increased carrying capacity enhances player flexibility, and the combat is a unique mixture of the tactical and the frenetic. In a critical departure from the earlier Tomb Raider, meanwhile, multiple varying weapons for each weapon class are present; there are numerous shotgun models rather than simply one unchangeable shotgun, while all of these weapons are upgradeable, each weapon having distinct attributes, statistics. Still, the starting bow is as useful as a bow acquired in the late game, meaning experimentation is far from a necessity. When considering these things collectively – player freedom, a unique admixture of tactical / daring, the perfect pacing and balance, the litany of different weapons – logic says that combat should be characterized by profound successes, but in practice it is rather lackluster, is eclipsed in enjoyability by the contemplative puzzle-solving; the quiet is, for me at least, far more preferable than the loud. Reflecting this perspective, the rather elaborate, quiet, stealth sequences are uniquely exhilarating, oftentimes seeing the employment of heavy shrubbery for concealment, while a maintenance of the high ground is often crucial to success, to undetection; stealth is not halfheartedly implemented, but does instead display a considerable degree of depth, as the cautious must be balanced with the bold. Still, the disruptive nature of combat lends it great and lasting value – to spend an hour in quiet exploration only to be presented with waves of menacing enemies, raining down bullets upon Lara; the unexpectedness of the entire affair only enhances the sequences’ impactfulness.  

Platforming is an unexpected delight, that delight attributable both to its intuitiveness and its overall cinematic nature; scripted sequences abound, as when Trinity swoop down upon the Paititi people in their helicopters, shooting bullet after bullet as Lara climbs this way and that, crossing gaps with grace, organically adapting to the destruction those selfsame bullets inflict upon the environment, crumbling. From the first, Lara has access to a pair of climbing axes, which permit the ascending and descending of craggy surfaces, very generously distributed throughout the environments; their employment is almost a constancy, while Lara can rappel from those surfaces at any moment, an action frequently necessitated. Similarly crucial is a wieldable grapple of sorts, which can be extended mid-leap, attaching to an overhanging object, permitting the clearing of especially lofty gaps. Rope arrows see similar implementation, used in a variety of different scenarios, principally puzzle-solving and environmental manipulation. When considering these tools collectively, then, the player is immensely empowered, and many of these tools will be employed simultaneously, and in clever ways, in the game’s many optional tombs, immensely challenging and demanding regions which are often very cerebrally engaging and visually spectacular. One notable tomb sees navigation of a derelict, fairly ancient Spanish galleon, abandoned and left to rot in a lofty cavern, only accessed with considerable difficulty; indeed, with many of these tombs, simple access can be a protracted affair, given their concealed nature. Once the tomb proper has been entered, the player will leap about from mast to mast, manipulating the environment with rope-arrows or the careful employment of ubiquitous levers and cranks, the entire affair lasting some fifteen or twenty minutes, so profound and elaborate is the level design. Another tomb sees careful manipulation of winds and shutters, wind being used in a destructive fashion, to move objects in the environment with great speed, whereupon they destroy the first object of contact, permitting advancement. These tombs are fairly numerous – numbering nine or so in total – and considerable attention could be lavished upon each one of them, each having a distinct identity and atmospheric ambitions, while the puzzles proper can be wildly different in construction and objective. Still, neat summarization is easy and natural here: these challenge tombs offer perhaps the most enjoyment and engagement to be found in the entire experience; their praise cannot be championed enough, which makes baffling the fact that these tombs are entirely optional, can be skipped outright. To skip those tombs is almost like an offense, though such skipping is, again, quite logical – some players are drawn to combat, towards more intense scenarios. That inclination, if possessed, is acceptable, understandable. But those who do delight in quiet puzzle-solving and platforming will find abundant delight in these tombs. Crucially, too, rewards for their completion are valuable and useful indeed. Rather than being rewarded with experience points or a paltry sum of currency, the player receives unique skill, some skills being very empowering. The tombs, then, evoke abstract satisfaction at a difficult challenge surmounted, while they also provide the more tangible reward represented in these skills.   

When considered in its totality, Shadow of the Tomb Raider meets with near incomparable successes; the mistakes characterizing the earlier games in this reboot trilogy have been rectified; here is a steady march of progress. Inevitably, the game could be derided as excessively similar to its predecessors, and indeed true risks are relatively absent, but the central foundation established with Tomb Raider in 2013 was a sound one. Some losses are present too, the more Metroidvania elements defining that first game seeing omission, logical when considering that, by this point in her saga, Lara has long expanded her arsenal of gear. This omission could be reckoned as a success, meanwhile, in that it enables the game to establish its own distinct identity away from those earlier titles. But if an objective failing could be lavished at the game it is related to the skill system, perhaps included solely out of expectation – such progression systems have gradually grown to become commonplace in the industry, even within genres such as this one, traditionally detached from role-playing games. Expectantly, a skill tree is in place, and while superficially it may seem complex and sprawling, with three differing branches and manifold different purchaseable skills, many are lackluster or are highly situational in usage, not altering the gameplay experience in any substantial fashion. True, certain abilities do make more enjoyable the overall experience – like those found in the tombs – but were this system absent or at least scaled back somewhat, relatively little would be lost. Crafting has a prominent presence, too, and it is notable that certain purchased skills permit the crafting of alternate ammunition types, like flare rounds or various poisonous arrows. These objects do result in greater player empowerment, flexibility, though they are never needed for success – the standard arsenal of weaponry is often sufficient, provided the player plays wisely rather than excessively recklessly. But this flawed progression system is the only substantial blemish on the title, though the narrative’s occasionally overwrought nature, its derivativeness, is a minor flaw. And overwrought the game sometimes is – it can be very lengthy, dependent upon player investment. But with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, that investment is richly, singularly rewarded. A rather open-ended conclusion suggests Lara’s odyssey is not yet concluded, but this temporary swansong is largely one of perfection.

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