Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review: Lamentable Lara

Do you have too much happiness in your life? Are you tired of uplifting adventure? Then have we got the game for you! Shadow of the Tomb Raider delivers non-stop frowning, pouting, and despair mixed with a whole heap of incoherent storytelling! Oh, and there’s a totally lame season pass! Act now and you too can witness Lara Croft go from gaming legend to insufferable whiner! Awesome, right!?

How’s that for a review introduction? Now that you already know things aren’t going to be very positive, let me summarize my feelings. Shadow is a technically competent game with fairly solid gameplay ruined by ineffective writing, dreadful storytelling, and a very unlikeable protagonist.

Lara never learned to share. If she sees a gun she wants, she takes it. It’s just her style.

Lest you think I’m some sort of hater, let me emphatically say I loved the first two games and was so hoping this game would bridge the gap between the young, apprehensive reboot Lara and the confident, witty Lara of the 1990s. Rather, we end the trilogy with a truly lamentable Lara and a very mediocre mess of a game.

A Different Developer

How did Shadow turn out so badly? The answer requires delving into the development details. The 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider, and 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, were both made by the very talented Crystal Dynamics. Then for some crazy reason, Square Enix handed over this beloved franchise to Eidos Montréal.

As a natural result, Shadow feels out of place and inconsistent. It fails to build upon the strong improvements of the critically acclaimed second game and feels like a lesser developer made a big jumble of everything…because they did.

Lara’s sad, despairing face would fit right in on one of those anti-depressant commercials.

Not only is the overall pacing and platforming inferior, the story and characters are unfocused. What should have been Lara’s triumphant time to shine turns into a muddled mess…a (forgive the pun) shadow of the prior Tomb Raiders.

“Clean behind your ears or I’ll cook them up for supper.”
– A native mother parenting…maybe she’s kidding?

The bottomline: the game is very playable but uninspired. Buy it for very cheap because it feels like a cheap imitation of the truly creative and inspiring first two games.

If only the whole game was a nice enjoyable stroll through the jungle with best buddies!

Now that you know my feelings, let me prove my case to you, starting with the good things.

Gorgeous Visuals! So Pretty!

By far the best thing about Shadow is the visuals. This game is stunning, the pinnacle of years and years of technological progress. The lush jungles. The realistically swaying foliage. The sparkly riverbeds. The finely detailed stonework and carpentry. Everything is so expertly crafted! The artists have done a truly brilliant job creating one of the most gloriously attractive adventure games!

There’s some really fantastic architecture and environments in this game!

More could be said on the truly outstanding visuals (Lara’s silky hair!), but you get the point. The game is a sight to behold!

Photographer Mode Mayhem!

Given that Shadow’s visuals are phenomenal, I absolutely loved using the photo mode to take a bunch of really quirky and interesting captures. Since the actual story is such a downer, it’s pretty hilarious how you can put a funny smile on Lara in the most absurd situations.

Thank you photo mode for letting Lara have some fun! If only she was really this happy…

I honestly think using the photo mode was the most enjoyable part of the entire game…which is probably yet another indication the game isn’t up to par…but look at my fantastic photos!

Here Lara comes to save the day, looking mighty fine I must say!

Nice Exploration, Rewarding Adventuring

World design allows for a positive sense of discovery. Although there are linear paths for progressing the story, the inter-connected zones are large enough to feel impressive and believable but never overwhelming. So this is good.

The underwater elements actually play fairly well, unlike most games. Pretty fishes!

Further enhancing exploration, just like the prior two games, each location can be returned to via Fast Travel to fully explore and locate all the fun treasures and goodies. There’s a satisfaction to be had knowing you’ve 100% cleared an area, having fully mastered the jungles and caverns and so on.

Every location has countless collectibles and treasures to find, all nicely laid out for Lara!

The same fundamentally strong gameplay loop of the first two games still exists: story setup, locating a camp, exploring a small area, and reaching your goal. Shadow is strongest when it lets you explore and play and discover on your own.

Detailed Town Hubs

There are a couple major towns that act as hubs for most of your adventure. These locations are extremely detailed, full of NPCs buying, selling, cooking, and doing other daily tasks. As alive as the locations feel, they basically act as a means to access merchants and side-quests.

There’s a limited economy in the game, but honestly the whole system feels unnecessary.

Paradoxically, the attention to detail in these mostly non-interactive areas is actually a symptom of Shadow’s misguided development. The game is much shorter than the prior two games, and I’d rather have had several more playable areas than a bunch of highly accurate NPC farming and fishing routines. Bizarre priorities.

Somebody spent a lot of time creating all this village hub detail. Not sure it was worth it…

Tombs and Raiding Thereof

Proper tomb raiding is still semi-infrequent. There’s nine tombs, although I explored less than half because I just didn’t find them as engaging as the prior two games.

Hi everybody! I’m Lara, and I enjoy smiling like a funny bunny in scary, flaming tombs!

The puzzles and platforming seem less creative and clever but good enough I suppose. Like the second game, the reward for raiding a tomb is a skill unlock, which is nice.

Customization & PC Port

The game provides excellent options to customize your play experience. Separate difficulty options for combat, exploration, and puzzles is welcome. An option to simply hold the key down instead of mashing it to pry things open is extremely blessed for those of us who despise the totally obnoxious button mashing events.

The option to change the difficulty for the various gameplay elements is nice.

Graphically, the game allows excellent customization of visual quality, scaling well with various hardware. Options to turn off Depth of Field, Motion Blur, and other often disliked visual effects are welcome.

The game runs well on PC (after a few early patches). There are very brief engine hitches when transitioning areas, but otherwise this is a very solid PC port with excellent keyboard and mouse support and good performance for most. See our original PC Performance Analysis article for more information.

I only encountered a few bugs and issues, to the game’s credit. My favorite bug was a man NPC talking with a woman’s voice.

The Lush Listening Experience

One must give massive kudos to the dazzling sound design. From the creaking boards to the crisp crumbling of cavern rocks and the many ferocious sounds of nature, Shadow is an immersive aural delight.

More photo mode fun! Yes, Lara walks on water (no she doesn’t).

As you scale rock walls, impactful clinks and jostling boots sounds fill the sound stage. Breaking open crates has such a satisfying crunch. Delicious!

The voice acting itself is superb, as expected from a title of this budget. There’s an option to listen to dialogue in the native languages, which is nice for those seeking more immersion and who don’t mind subtitles.

“I like this world…
It’s not perfect, but everything I love now is in it.”
– Jonah

The musical score is adequate but unremarkable. Hence, I will remark no further on it!

Quality Motion Capture and Acting

Shadow’s story is presented with very competent and well-directed cutscenes, just like the first two games. Full motion capture allows for excellent lip syncing and a level of believability that puts you right into the action. It’s clear this is a triple-A, big-budget game.

There’s an elaborate skill menu because I guess triple-A games need this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, despite the presentation being so good, what is actually presented is pretty poor. It feels like such a waste to spend so much effort telling such a limp story, which brings us to the game’s many failings.

Lara’s Unfortunate Personality

Lara has been rightly criticized in the prior two games for lacking a positive personality. She rarely if ever smiled, cracked a joke, or even laughed at the madness or her adventures. As such, she really needed to lighten up and become a bit self-aware.

Lara just can’t shake that “I’m so sad inside” look. She should really count her blessings!

Lara saw a psychologist at the start of the second game, so I was hoping she would be more balanced this time around. Presumably this third game would continue maturing Lara to get her to overcome her dour ways. This is not the case.

“The sun is dying. Soon the world will be erased.”
– Some positivity to brighten your day.

The new developers have tried to expand Lara’s personality. She’ll bust out a smile and laugh from time to time, but it feels very forced and weird considering Shadow doubles down on Lara being a selfish, overwrought jerk.

There are some flashback segments, with beautiful visuals and touching moments, but these sections feel very inconsistent given the harsh tone of the rest of the game. It’s like they wanted follow the brilliant Uncharted 4, which handles flashbacks fantastically, but didn’t have a clue how to actually show Lara developing into the person she is today.

Lara is disgusted by this manual labor of the natives. She’s used to the rich kid life it seems!

The overall writing of Lara’s character just feels confused. They brought in a new writer for this game, a woman who helped write Assassin’s Creed Liberation and Black Flag. Oddly enough, both those games feature vastly superior writing, so something went very wrong during this game’s development.

“I could have had a family.
Everything could have been different.”
– Lara

Playing as Lara just isn’t very much fun because I don’t know why I’m rooting for her. Why should I care about her? Sure, this adventure is a grand and bombastic ride…but why do I want to go on a ride with such miserable company?

Forced Stealth and Other Sins

I wish I could tell you this man is ok…but Lara violently murdered him seconds after this photo.

Halfway through, the game decides it would be fun to make you “lose” all your weapons…stop me if you’ve played this one before. Yes, the classic “we spent all this time making this stealth segment so you’ll darn well play our way!” because who doesn’t love forced melee-only stealth sections? No.

Lara’s in an oil field because the developers wanted something that could explode real big!

Speaking of stealth issues, you’ll be in the bushes, a prompt to melee-kill a soldier will appear, and you’ll successfully drag his body into the bushes. Except moments later soldiers will spot you for some unknown reason. This is a fail. Also there’s no blind-fire from cover, which is very aggravating. It’s like they’ve never played the Uncharted series.

I told you it was going to explode all pretty like! Lara’s totally inflamed by bloodlust!

I will give the game respect for attempting smarter enemy AI. If you kill an enemy and he doesn’t return to his usual patrol, enemies will know and come looking. It’s a small thing but does add realism.

Platforming Issues

Most of the jumping and platforming sections are inferior to the prior two games. I found myself unsure where to jump and often dying because of poor design and lack of polish. Lara refuses to grab ledges or land jumps if you don’t do it exactly as the developers intended. This isn’t fun.

Here’s a forced chase scene…better jump at just the right time or replay this 10 times!

The weaker platforming makes sense since this is Eidos Montréal’s first attempt at making a game like this, but this is why you don’t give the third game in a beloved series to a new developer!

To the game’s credit, some of Lara’s death-defying physical stunts are quite impressive. When the huge leaps and last-second grabs work, it’s a sight to behold. But it’s still roughly the same thing we’ve seen in the four Uncharted games and two prior Tomb Raider games.

Climbing up the cultist ladder! It’s funny because I’m infiltrating a cult at this point!

The Story and Its Many Failings

The biggest problem with the story is it’s very hard to follow. I found myself constantly questioning why the next event was happening. There are all these different peoples and artifacts, with no inherent connection, and the game never bothers to try to explain much.

Since the actual story is silly, I created my own tale. I made friends with Jibby, the blue frog (brog). He says he’ll bring about the “frogpocalypse” if I obey his every word. And I believe him!

Lara sets off the end of the world at the start. Should we explain how? Nah, just mention the Mayans or whatever. Lara must find the one relic to save everyone. How do we know this? Who cares! Some guy’s journals from the 1600s are somehow still legible and will guide us! Why? Who knows! Just shut up and play!

“When I took the dagger…
I felt like I woke something up.”
– Lara stating the obvious.

At one point the story has you put on an enemy’s outfit and mask and somehow this totally tricks the bad guys into thinking you’re one of them when talking face to face. Nevermind that you’ve got a British accent, are the only Caucasian, and are known to the whole camp as working with the other side. Talk about the power of a new set of clothes!

I’m pretending to be one of the bad guys…apparently the outfit has totally fooled him!

Shadow is one of the most tonally inconsistent games I’ve played. You go from simple treasure hunting, to end of days destruction, to sweet and innocent childhood flashbacks, to slavery and human sacrifices, to a serene church, to painting the world red with bloodthirsty murder. How about just telling us one consistent, understandable story like the prior two games!

Laughable and Confused Villains

The game also continues the story of “Trinity”, the villainous organization from the second game. However, the explanation of how Trinity connects with the events of this third game is preposterous. There’s virtually zero time spent explaining why Trinity would even be involved in these events.

“Sometimes we all need to remember what we’re fighting for.” – Lara speaks true…too bad I’m not sure what I’m fighting for.

To me it’s painfully obvious that Crystal Dynamics, the original developer of the first two games, was going to conclude the Trinity story in their third game, but Square Enix yanked the franchise from them (because of money, no doubt), and Eidos Montréal was left to come up with this wreck of a story. Very sad indeed.

Here we see Lara lamenting the messy and inferior third game. She knows it’s a letdown.

Season Pass Trash

I must call out Square Enix for creating a season pass that contains no meaningful story content. You get 7 more challenge tombs (yawn) featuring cooperative play for some crazy reason. The second game’s season pass at least gave us alternate game modes and a story DLC that tied in well with the main story. Fail.

Concluding Remarks

Shadow is dreadfully serious and yet tells a ludicrous story about cults and cataclysms. Lara comes across as the biggest dolt, never seeing how absurd her own story is.

The game’s at its best when it’s pure gameplay: traversing jungles, exploring caves, and murdering bad guys. There’s fun to be had in the brief times we can play how we want, but why must we be forced along such a dubious story with such a tiresome protagonist?

If this game was the first of the series, maybe we’d say it’s a good start and hope the sequel is better. However, this is the game after the sequel!

Shadow is a huge step backwards and honestly might have permanently killed this rebooted Lara. Shame on Square Enix for treating Lara like this, and shame on them for selling us an inferior product!

A sad end to a promising tomb raider.

  • Gorgeous, lush visuals
  • Excellent art design
  • Well-realized town hubs
  • Photo mode so fun!
  • Exploration is nice
  • Decent gunplay & stealth
  • Crisp, impactful sounds
  • Very high-budget

  • Lara is so dull, whiny
  • Incoherent main story
  • Contrived plot devices
  • Ridiculous villains
  • Tonal inconsistencies
  • Campaign is too short
  • Season pass is terrible
  • Square Enix, enough said

Playtime: 22 hours total. Nick completed one playthrough in about 20 hours with a few extra hours doing some side-quests. There’s still many collectibles, side-quests, and tombs to explore, but why bother?

Computer Specs: Windows 10 64-bit computer using an Intel i7-3930k CPU, 32GB of memory, and a nVidia GTX 980 Ti graphics card.

 

Nick McCaskey

Nick’s been a PC gamer for over 20 years, having grown up on first-person shooter games (he’s very proud of his Quake 2 tournament trophy). Nick also loves deep, engrossing role-playing games, and he’s also more famously known as Brumbek, the creator of Static Mesh Improvement Mod for Skyrim. Nick believes the essence of enjoyment is to play and ponder video games. Contact: Email