'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' Is Peak Lara Croft

The gaming icon returns for the final entry in the origin-story trilogy.
Courtesy of Square Enix

Three years since the last Tomb Raider release in 2015, Lara Croft is set to return to consoles in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

The upcoming game from Square Enix keeps the gritty realism of the recent reboots — first introduced in 2013's Tomb Raider — of the long-running action franchise. Shadow wraps up the origin trilogy started in 2013's Tomb Raider and continued in 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.

On Thursday, Square invited a small group to the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles to get their hands on the upcoming game, showing off the first hour of gameplay for the ultimate entry in the new trilogy.

Like the past two titles, Shadow showcases a grittier, more realistic world than the 1990s version of Lara Croft. The demo launches in Cozumel, Mexico, as Lara is following a lead on a lost artifact, trying to undercut the sinister Order of Trinity before they get their hands on the valuable piece of Mayan history.

Maneuvering through a Dias de los Muertos celebration that invokes memories of the opening scene of James Bond movie Spectre, players move Lara through a crowd of celebrators adorned in colorful skull masks as she stalks a group of armed grunts into a series of crumbling, dangerous ruins.

The game handles stealth and exploration well, offering a guide to the next objective while also encouraging the player to engage with characters inhabiting the world. As engrossing as the opening moments are, with realized voice acting and more-than-passable character animations, the game truly engages when it gives way to the series' bread and butter: tomb raiding.

Within the claustrophobic confines of an ancient, dilapidated Mayan tomb, the game finds its true legs. Platforming is handled ably, with engaging puzzles challenging the player to move from sinking platform to rising platform to crumbling edifice with precise movements lest they incur the wrath of a brutal death and dreaded "game over" screen. 

The tight balance here is finding a way to manage frustration and genuine challenge, and the demo manages to strike a happy medium. While the exploration is demanding — one wrong leap, step or push can lead to an instant, violent end — the feeling of accomplishment when the feat is mastered is ultimately satisfying, and lends itself to the the game's overall tone; that of delving into deadly, hitherto-unexplored ancient ruins.

The plot moves the origin tale of Lara Croft forward satisfyingly, with developers Eidos Montreal continuing their savvy take on the character. Croft continues to be an engaging character, and the players' emotional connection is key not only to the narrative, but to the gameplay, as keeping the character alive in such precarious situation is of paramount concern.

The game's visuals are beautifully rendered, though the environments seem to have received slightly more care than character models in cut scenes. Set pieces are big, striking and memorable, with a particular flood sequence upping the ante both in its visceral engagement and ethical resonance.

As is the case with the past two games in the series — and the recent Alicia Vikander-led film — the game hits at an emotional level that rings true even during a short playthrough.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC on Sept. 14.