Survivor Reborn: Matt’s spoiler-free ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ review.
I’ve been VERY vocal about how I’ve disliked the Tomb Raider series since Crystal Dynamics took over from Core Design all those years ago. I felt that the series had become unrecognisable, derivative, and frankly it bored me.
So imagine my delight to be able to share this review with you. This is not just the best Tomb Raider game I’ve played in a good 18 years or so, it’s the best game I’ve played in a good long while, too. I am so excited for fellow fans of the classic games who will finally be able to come home after years in the wilderness.
THIS is the modern Tomb Raider game I’ve been longing for.
Allowing Eidos Montreal – who previously only assisted with the enjoyable bits of the reboot series, e.g. the optional challenge tombs – to take the helm has made a huge difference. My anxiety about how they would translate their skills at crafting RPGs to a different genre was totally without foundation: EM has shown a care and passion for this series that has been sorely lacking for a long time.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider stays true to the roots of the original series with its focus on platforming, puzzling and exploration. Combat has been reshaped: Shadow focuses more on tactics and movement (although it doesn’t bring back Lara’s legendary acrobatics), and less on shooting from behind cover. Out-manoeuvring your enemies using stealth and distractions becomes addictive and you truly feel powerful when clearing an area of enemies without them getting a shot at you.
Bringing back full underwater, 360-degree swimming makes a welcome return and these sections are a dream (or nightmare, in some cases) come true. Stunning sections with huge shoals of fish give way to terrifying areas where you are chased by piranhas or eels and have to hide while also trying to find the next air pocket to avoid drowning. I found myself holding my breath, silently gawping at the screen as I narrowly avoided death again and again. I had constant flashbacks to locations like Tomb Raider II‘s Maria Doria: if you loved the underwater sections in the older games, this is going to blow you away.
The implementation of custom difficulties allows the player to craft the experience THEY want, rather than adopting the broad players-want-combat-and-easy-puzzles approach that Crystal Dynamics’ games have, for the most part, focused on delivering.
This variable difficulty meant that there were times where I was genuinely stuck, both on puzzles and traversal. On several occasions I found myself just staring at the environment, not knowing if flinging Lara off a cliff would be the way forward or certain death.
While not as punishing as the classics, Shadow is challenging enough to be incredibly rewarding. At one time, I was rather lost and finally thought I’d found the way forward – only to find a secret instead. This used to happen frequently in some of the larger levels in Tomb Raider III and I was so chuffed to experience that again.
I will say this though: there are points where the game is determined to remind you how to progress, despite playing on the hardest difficulty. These on-screen splashes can be irritating, especially when you’re on New Game + mode and you already know where to go. Given the amount of player tailoring, this is really unnecessary and I hope it will be patched soon.
There were also a few instances when the game refused to understand what I was trying to do – a problem that has been prevalent since Crystal Dynamics took over and implemented the Soul Reaver engine. For example, there were a couple of instances where Lara wouldn’t grapple to a point she should have, but upon reloading it would work. This has always been an unfortunate consequence of the game interpreting player actions rather than having a firm set of rules (as was the case in the classics), but it certainly wasn’t a game-breaking issue and the platforming was so fun that it didn’t upset me as much as it had in the previous titles.
Moving on though. My god, the tombs!! Not just confined to optional side quests, the majority of the game involves finding ancient sites and solving puzzles!
Imagine that: MANDATORY tomb raiding in a Tomb Raider game! The death traps. Secrets within secrets. I was compelled to explore and dig deeper than I’ve wanted to in years and the content I found did not disappoint.
The changes Eidos Montreal has brought in aren’t just limited to the gameplay: the characterisation of Lara has also been tweaked. THIS is the Lara we should have had from the Reboot in 2013, and it’s as close to the classic era as the reboot Lara is going to get. Like classic Lara, she is warm and kind towards her friends and allies, yet cold and brutal to her enemies.
In stark contrast to the Lara in Rise who struggled to fight off a single intruder at home, this Lara is an absolute badass in a stand-up fight. More than just a marketing cliche – this really IS Lara at the height of her abilities.
The strength of the writing has also allowed Camilla Luddington’s performance to flourish. While some of the dialogue feels stilted and there are still moments where Camilla’s accent feels forced, on the whole she’s far more natural here than in either of the previous two titles. I found myself genuinely liking Lara, and I’m stunned by this the more I play.
The long-derided, family-focused backstory is given little attention, but Eidos Montreal made those few moments count with a few poignant flashback/dream scenes that I found very engaging.
See, I had always found the original “classic” backstory more compelling than the reboot: a disowned daughter who pursues her passion rather than conform to a stuffy, upper-crust existence. Reboot Lara, on the other hand, was more interested in following in her father’s footsteps and restoring the family name. In short, I felt that Lara was unrelatable unless you’re the wealthy, privileged sort.
Shadow largely ignores what came before and shows a loving family, rather than one concerned with trivialities such as reputation and legacy. It was both heartwarming and sad to see, knowing the tragedy that befalls them all. In showing us Lara’s family, rather than simply telling us about it (as been the case up till now), Eidos Montreal finally got me to care about Lara’s loss. Kudos to Jill Murray and the writing team for pulling the threads together and showing what good, solid plotting can do.
The aesthetics of the game are on point too. Even on the standard PS4, this game is absolutely beautiful. It astounds me that there is a vocal minority of people who really believe that Shadow is a step backwards, graphically, from Rise. There simply isn’t a comparison here and I can’t wait for the naysayers to see this up close with their own eyes.
Some of the environments are rather dark, being so far underground. This isn’t a problem in itself, and the lighting effects are amazing in these areas, but Lara only switches her torch on at scripted times – and sometimes she forgets! I blindly stumbled into a spike trap once or twice, only for Lara to switch on her torch upon reloading. There are no spare buttons on the pad, unless you switch off Survival Instincts (which of course, I had already done). I hope this is patched at some point; for instance, the player perhaps could control the torch with a swipe of the Playstation’s touchpad.
The sound design is great with periods of silence (except for ambient noise), along with authentic-sounding tracks using instruments from the part of the world Lara is exploring. Subtle audio cues when you’re on the verge of setting off a trap, or being set-up by piranhas, made my skin crawl in a good way.
Moving onto the story. The plot actually surprised me. I shan’t spoil it, but let’s just say that the villain and his motivations are far more complex than you might think. This jars with the established story of Trinity from Rise where they came across as nothing more than a shady organisation concerned with world domination. However, the fact that Shadow throws out what came before means that Shadow can stand alone without anyone having to struggle through its dreary predecessor.
I also greatly appreciated the slow-burn style of some of the creepier elements of the plot. The horror notes that Shadow strikes made me wonder if some of the abandoned concepts of Ascension were being revisited. I was so genuinely relieved to make it out of certain sections alive (and relatively unscathed): Shadow really was nightmare fuel at times.
Over the course of the story, Lara makes peace with her past and is ready to move on with her life. There may still be unanswered questions, but Lara appears to know enough and is finally ready to let the matter rest. Gone are the paper-thin side characters of the past, too: Lara comes to know a few well thought-out characters whom I actually had feelings for – good or bad – as the story progressed. There’s also a lovely scene after the credits which you must stick around for.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a wonderful ending to what has been a polarising era in the Tomb Raider series. Truly, Eidos Montreal has crafted a game which should please both classic and reboot fans alike.
Words cannot express how happy this game has made me. It has been a long time since any game has hooked me this much; I found myself dreaming about it, getting up early/staying up late/rushing home from work to play it.
Quite simply, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is easily the best of the modern Tomb Raider games and I would put it in my top three Tomb Raider games of all time. If this is indicative of the future of the series, I simply cannot wait to see where Eidos Montreal and Square Enix take the series next.
Written by Matt Taylor. Edited by J. R. Milward.
Tomb Raider Reborn: A Franchise Saved by Matt Taylor / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.