Tomb Raider series has stayed with Crystal Dynamics for a long time now but it was ultimately time for a change. Fans of the original games will recall how they were more about a sense of discovery, exploration, puzzles, and survival. This changed for the worse when the series was rebooted just at the end of the last generation. It started to feel like big set pieces, gunfights and action remained the focus. There were barely any tombs to explore and the story suffered because it tried to be a little too serious. The writing was also relatively weak and felt like it was merely focused on producing situations where Lara can suffer in the most horrible way.
I don’t think the first Tomb Raider reboot was that bad. It possessed a sense of mystery around it with the Island. Some good characters went through their own twists and it all tied up in the end nicely. It was the sequel that tried to one-up its predecessor and delivered a story that focused a little too much on family matters. It was at this point that I found the writing to be superficial without any meaningful development for the characters. So heading into Shadow of the Tomb Raider, my expectations were a little low because the early demo and trailers weren’t inspiring me with any confidence.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider represents the result of how to gather the feedback from fans and implement it into a sequel. It possesses all the elements of what has established the Tomb Raider series such a prominent name in the first place. It offers plenty of tombs, puzzles that will cause you to think twice and carefully look at the environment, and tries to avoid shootouts that seem to go on indefinitely. The focus over here ideally is on exploration, solving and figuring out puzzles, and a story that deals with a mistake but ultimately leads to a redemption arc.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, for the most part, you will be visiting ancient temples, exploring the wild jungles of the Amazon Forest and discovering secrets as Lara goes on a quest to undo her worst mistake that could lead to a Maya apocalypse. There are many new characters including Dominguéz and Unuratu from the ruined city of Paititi. Lara Croft herself has on top grown as a character after suffering through so many hardships. One of the most badass moments in the entire series happens near the end when Lara Croft demonstrates her skills in a way that I won’t spoil, but it is such an impressive scene that conveys us an idea of how she has evolved into a mature and brave adventurer.
The relation between Lara and Jonah is conveyed brilliantly in the game. They go through so many hurdles in their relationship across the course of the story and it all culminates beautifully by the end of the game in an emotionally effective scene. I wasn’t expecting the story to be that good so it gripped me with surprise. I think this might be my favorite story in the entire Tomb Raider series. It has emotional and tense moments and offers plenty of twists of its own that you will grow together with the characters and feel like a part of the story.
This is the first Tomb Raider game that includes a significant primary hub in the form of the lost city of Paititi. It is divided into several minor hubs that are linked together through fast travel that can be performed at campsites. The world map that you will see at the start will be gradually expanded, and new regions get unlocked as you make progress in the story. In each region, you can discover secrets including hidden tombs that offer challenging puzzles but can lead to rewards. They are optional but I highly recommend to go through them since they make the experience a lot better.
Don’t expect to go into this game thinking there will be much cover-based shooting since, for the majority of the game, combat takes the backseat. The focus is solely on exploring the unknown, uncovering the mystery of the Maya apocalypse and fighting a creepy religious cult. The game can also be entirely played with stealth instead of trying to kill all enemies with your weapons. It is encouraged through various means by giving you places to hide. Each encounter is carefully designed around stealth and even if you get detected, it is possible to hide until the enemy loses track of your location and then continue hunting again. One example of stealth encounter is late in the game when you use mud to mask your body heat after new enemies get introduced that can use thermal detectors to find out Lara’s hiding place.
The improvements carry over to the gameplay. Lara receives her trustworthy bow by default, but there will be plenty of options to obtain modern weapons or upgrades for them. Skill allocation is a choice for the player as they are divided into three different categories: Seeker, Warrior, and Scavenger. Not all skills are available at once and some are tied to either story progression or clearing the secret tombs. If you want to basically discover every secret and make it easier to uncover them, focus on the seeker skills. If you want to improve combat, the warrior category is the way to go here. Scavenger is for those who are into conserving resources while focusing on stealth.
The three unique categories go in hand to shape the combat encounters based on your experience. They can also make much difference in how you approach each encounter. Stealth can be improved if you have focused on the right skills, or resource gathering can be made easier. Speaking of which, there is a lot to collect as resources from rare animals to items used for crafting ammo or health. It is possible to go through even the hardest difficulty with ease if you have invested in the proper skills. In my case, I decided to play on the hard difficulty. It removes the health regeneration aspect which can make the game feel more immersive. You can counter this by unlocking a skill that lets you recover health from gathered herbs.
It is honestly remarkable to observe how the developers have approached the design for this game. Giving the player their own choice on how they approach it. This extends all the way to the difficulty options which can be customized in several aspects. It is divided into three categories: combat, puzzle, and exploration. You can tweak them from easy to hard difficulty, and it has a profound effect on how the game plays out. The ideal difficulty for a newcomer is normal while those who have played the previous games should start on Hard. Deadly Obsession is the ultimate difficulty, and the lack of checkpoints makes it a bit of struggle unless you are up for the extra challenge.
I tested the game on a base PS4, PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. The best experience is offered on the Xbox One X where the native 4K resolution truly shines on a big screen. PS4 Pro is not a slouch either, but you can tell the resolution just doesn’t hold up that well next to the Xbox One X version running at native 4K. There are also enhanced textures in place on the Xbox One X which give it a significant advantage against the PS4 Pro. Both consoles offer an unlocked frame rate option that seems to hold more closely to the 60 FPS target on the Xbox One X compared to the PS4 Pro. Thankfully, there are no major frame rate drops on the PS4 Pro even if you use the high-resolution option but the base PS4 suffers from it during scenes with many post-process effects or open sections when roaming around the main hub of the lost city of Paititi.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review (PS4/XB1)
Game Reviewed on: PS4/XB1
Game description: As Lara Croft races to save the world from a Maya apocalypse, she must become the Tomb Raider she is destined to be.
Final Score - 9/109/10
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has ultimately achieved the potential of a modern Tomb Raider experience after the series lost its identity with the reboot.