As Mission Impossible: Fallout has decisively proven, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a formula if it’s good and you know how to build on it. Tomb Raider had a great formula: its electrifying 2013 reboot was a bold, tight reinvention of Lara Croft’s adventures for modern times, while 2015’s sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider expanded on the idea and upped the action movie excess.
The problem with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third game in the reboot trilogy, isn’t just that it’s formulaic. It plays as well as ever, the pacing is spot-on, and it’s often extremely beautiful. But without any substantial upgrades to the action, anything to escalate the drama, or any way of generating genuine emotional resonance, it ends up feeling inessential.
Whenever Lara Croft returns, she’s going to need more than this.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider sees Lara, now a fully risen archaeologist / killing machine, travel through Mexico and South America in search of an artifact that will, as ever, stop extremely bad things from happening to the world. The good news is that Shadow abandons Rise’s lofty conspiracy thriller pretensions for a tighter, character-focused story. The writing is also less clunky than in the last two games. The bad news is that even though the story involves battling the same shadowy organization after you inadvertently trigger the Mayan apocalypse, of all things, it still manages to take itself far too seriously.
This is a game that involves wearing ponchos at La Casa Mexicana one minute and battling supernatural Mayan forces the next. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make efforts to make you care about Lara’s journey, but the previous two games were so cold and dispassionate in that regard that there isn’t really any room left for a payoff.
The Tomb Raider reboot series is often compared to Uncharted, and I think the comparison can be a little lazy given how differently the games can play out. But this is where the gulf in quality is most pronounced. Naughty Dog’s series can afford to coast with little innovation because its writing and action direction is consistently phenomenal. I always want to know what’s going to happen next, and that’s just never the case with Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
On the other hand, Shadow of the Tomb Raider does introduce a variety of new mechanics that are welcome additions. Extended underwater sequences are probably the biggest change. They bring the reboot back in touch with the series’s roots but with considerably better controls. These moments are atmospheric and effective, particularly if you share my intense fear of swimming through confined spaces — though even I quickly grew tired of a particular repeated quick-time event involving a moray eel.
Lara’s gravity-defying traversal abilities have expanded to include rappelling and climbing nearly upside down on overhangs, both of which help the exploration sections feel a little more off the rails without substantially altering that basic fact of the game’s design. The same goes for stealth: you can now do things like cake yourself in mud and hide in vines before you jump out and shank someone.
None of these new elements are bad, and for the most part, Shadow of the Tomb Raider plays just as well as its predecessors. The pacing is excellent, and the exploration / puzzles / combat mix is skewed less toward combat than ever. There are also fewer forced gun battles this time around, and the game is better for it. The ratio of tomb-raiding to head-shooting becomes even greater when you take a breather to explore the large hubs in search of optional crypts and tombs.
It’s just a shame that the pacing wasn’t mapped onto a coherent or compelling story. Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes for both spectacle and sincerity at once, and it just doesn’t work. The plot is so absurd, yet it’s handled with so little humor and self-awareness, that it becomes exhausting to get through — if not downright uncomfortable at times. One particularly ridiculous segment involves the aristocratic, extremely white Lara dressing up in Mayan battle clothes to successfully blend in with a band of attackers; the disguise is not convincing to the player nor to a small child in the streets who says, “Lara, your serpent mask disguise is good!”
The awkwardness of scenes like this is only exacerbated by the “Immersion Mode” setting that makes non-player characters speak in their native language of Yucatec, Quechua, or Spanish. I really liked the idea of this mode, but the implementation is disastrous. Lara still only speaks English to these characters, who inexplicably understand her perfectly (and vice versa), making the conversations far less immersive than if everyone were to speak English. Lara Croft is from England, I get it, but why include this mode at all if it’s not going to extend to her? There is literally a mechanic in the game that involves leveling up your language ability so that you can decipher the writing on ancient monuments. I think Lara could have brushed up on her spoken Spanish a little.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do much to tarnish the franchise, but it doesn’t do anything to advance it, either. It’s a competent game that amounts to less than the sum of its parts. And while an explosive final act delivers a welcome ramp-up in intensity, by the end, I was happy to be done with the story and this incarnation of the franchise.
Much like Mission Impossible movies, linear action games like this either need to blow you away with their direction or deliver on their story — preferably both. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does neither. As a fan of the previous two games, I was happy enough to blast through another near-identical adventure. But the series now finds itself at the same place it was before the reboot: stale and out of ideas.