Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a perfect game if no one spoke. The jungles, gargantuan ruins, and improbable contraptions you have to clamber through and over speak so clearly on their own. “Come with us!” they say. “Lara, come jump all over this grimy stuff! Find some gilded totem that lets you jump all over more stuff. Use your wits to dive into a deep well of teasing (but never daunting) puzzles. It’ll be great!”
Of course, I’ll come with you, Tomb Raider! The call to adventure is irresistible when everything works this well. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a balanced journey with the right ratio of beauty, cleverness, violence, and batshit insane ideas of how to do archaeology the right way. But then the characters speak, and the voyage’s pristine clarity is muddied by personalities and a plot that, though inspired at the outset, bring the whole point of the game into question. Every step in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a luxurious delight, but every time it demanded I think about why I was doing any of it, my only response was: good question. Good question.
Little has changed for Lara Croft since Rise of the Tomb Raider. Still waging a one-woman war against Trinity, the global paramilitary conspiracy that murdered her father, she finds herself in Mexico hunting yet another relic with cataclysmic power. When she reaches this particular McGuffin, it’s accompanied by an explicit warning beyond the typically vicious Rube Goldberg traps surrounding it: Do not touch this mystical knife or the world will end. Rather than let Trinity get their mitts on it, Lara snatches it up. This is a mistake, one that opens up a miraculous game space while holding immense potential for the series’ iconic heroine. Unfortunately the story portion fails to deliver.
What follows is, at least physically, the best of the modern Tomb Raider games that started with 2013’s reboot. Save for the introduction and a few late-game story digressions to set piece locales like a 17th century Catholic mission and an exploding oil refinery (is there any other kind in video games?), the game takes place in an expanse of Peruvian jungle. From the small river town to the hidden, thriving Inca civilization you discover chasing the second half of the Lara’s dangerous quarry, Shadow of the Tomb Raider unfolds with organic grace.
Rise of the Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics favored world design that plopped Lara Croft into dense pockets of small activities. They were deceptively cramped, leading to big action sequences that centered on shootouts flavored with climbing challenges and light puzzles. Eidos Montreal has instead dropped most of the combat. Gunplay sequences are sparse over the game’s 15-plus hours, and they emphasize stealth over blazing firearms. Even on the easiest difficulty, which can be toggled separately from settings for exploration and puzzles, aggression will get you killed quick. (Unless, that is, you’re in one of the fights against a horde of Mayan orcs. Then anything goes. There’s an orc queen for crying out loud. She gives Lara a sweet hat at one point. Don’t concern yourself with why there are orcs. Shadow isn’t particularly worried about it.)
In place of combat is an ever-expanding Peruvian jungle full of brilliantly realized puzzles and delectable video game rock climbing. Shadow of the Tomb Raider still has the scripted set pieces that are movie adaptation-ready — I died multiple times on an end-game landslide just so I could use repeat attempts to take in all the details — but it overwhelmingly favors splendor naturally revealed by exploring.
Whether it’s walking out of an overgrown path to discover a crumbling hydraulic tower, spotting a pirate ship trapped in a cave straight out of Goonies, or navigating a descending series of wooden barriers inside a volcanic basin that have to be burned with ancient oil wells, Shadow never stops revealing stunningly wrought sights and then asks: how are you going to climb this beast? Even more remarkable is that it never feels like it’s repeating itself or arbitrarily confining you. As a space to play in, Shadow is peerless.
Which brings us back to the knife and Lara’s decision to take it for herself. The story, billed for the third consecutive time in the series as the moment Lara Croft “becomes the Tomb Raider,” starts in the most promising place. After snatching the artifact, the world actually does start to end. The Mexican town Lara and her constant companion Jonah are partying in is ravaged by a tsunami. As she crawls from the wreckage, she screams at Jonah that she has to complete the artifact, that she’s the only one who can save the world and defeat Trinity once and for all. Jonah points out that there are people dying right in front of Lara and she’s not doing anything to help them. Lara is confronted with an inescapable truth: her obsession with revenge and uncovering the past isn’t just destroying her life. It’s destroying all life.
Had Shadow unraveled Lara as a character by pulling harder on this thread and revealing a new and evolving core for her as a person, it would be the pinnacle of the series. Shadow would have produced a narrative as successful as that of Tomb Raider 2013 but with technical play that’s just as accomplished.Instead, Shadow of the Tomb Raider intermittently halts its tactile pleasures for vignettes that are at best repetitive and at worst baffling. Is Shadow about Lara learning to not just take responsibility for her life but to overcome her obsessions? Is it about her learning to be a member of the global community? If she’s so selfish, why is she constantly stopping to help random strangers with their optional fetch quests? Is it about preserving endangered cultures like the people of the lost city Paititi? Or is it about her descent into complete sociopathy, which she seems to be sliding into every time she stabs someone repeatedly with a freaking airplane propeller she turned into a knife?
The more characters Shadow of the Tomb Raider introduces, the further it gets from the promising themes introduced in its opening. By the end, what seemed like a story about Lara finally joining the world outside herself instead concludes without really being all about her. Has Lara finished “becoming the Tomb Raider” or will that take another game?
In her first incarnation 22 years ago, Lara was pure video game id, a tooth-gritting athlete unfettered by history and morality. Since then, every Tomb Raider game has felt at least partially adrift as it tried to give her a soul. Tomb Raider 2013 did precisely that, but it sacrificed most of the series’ mechanical pleasure and identity in the process. In order for Lara Croft to be Lara Croft, Tomb Raider had to stop being Tomb Raider. Eidos Montreal comes very close to reconciling the two here but, though it climbs to impressive heights, it fails to stick the landing.