'Shadow of the Tomb Raider': Game Review

An eye-poppingly gorgeous game that suffers from some poor timing — in terms of both cultural issues and the actual controls.
Courtesy of Square Enix

Lara Croft can't seem to catch a break. The character, who since her debut in 1996 has rarely gone unmentioned in discussions of female representation and objectification in video games, might soon be thrust into the middle of a whole new world (pun intended, I guess) of cultural criticism: the white savior motif, looted art and repatriation, cultural voyeurism.

Indeed, critiques of the game's issues in these areas have been trickling in since publisher Square Enix unveiled the first gameplay demo in April, but after the release, think pieces on the implications of a white British aristocrat fighting to save an ancient Incan city from destruction are a near lock to proliferate.

Square, along with developers Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, seems to be aware that its hero might be slapped with the "problematic" label, as the first thing that appears onscreen after starting a new game is a message reading: "Shadow of the Tomb Raider was created by a diverse and talented team comprised of multiple genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, religious beliefs and personalities. Although the game is not based on real-life events and represents a work of fiction, it was developed in conjunction with a historian and cultural consultants."

Nevertheless, there are several parts of the game where I found myself sucking air through my teeth, not least of which is a brief flashback sequence in which a young Lara explores her childhood home, Croft Manor, and geeks out over her father's private collection of priceless items stolen from colonialism's greatest hits.

Of course, it's the rare adventure/role-playing video game that doesn't include, as an element of gameplay, just … walking into houses and rummaging through people's cabinets for items and gold. But I'd be lying if this didn't feel a bit different sometimes.

Picking up a few months after the events in 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow opens in Cozumel, Mexico, where Lara and her best friend and traveling companion, Jonah Maiava, are searching for a dagger called the Key of Chak Shel. When Lara makes the impulsive decision to take the dagger from an underground temple in an attempt to keep it out of the hands of paramilitary organization Trinity and its leader, Dr. Dominguez, she unwittingly triggers the Mayan apocalypse. After a brief tsunami, she and Jonah set off for Peru to secure another relic, the Silver Box of Ix Chel, and prevent Dominguez from using the two artifacts to, quote, "remake the world."

Let me get this out of the way: The game is absolutely gorgeous. It feels like running through the "Jungles" episode of Planet Earth. There were several times when Lara would emerge from a narrow cavern on to a cliff, and the way the camera runs up and over her shoulder, revealing a panorama of sky and jungle canopy in glorious HDR, literal gave me chills. I was continually impressed with the way game director Daniel Chayer-Bisson uses the camera to great effect. The way it tightens in on Lara when she's squeezing through a crevice in the rock or how muddy water splatters on the lens when she lands in a puddle.
 
The game's expansive vistas and deep verticality make it feel immense. Even while exploring caves and crypts, you're never in a claustrophobic space for long. Lara always finds some enormous cavern or pit to climb out of or into. And the designers have certainly wrung all the environmental diversity they can out of the one biome.
 
And it's a good thing the game is so pretty, because lots of times I'm too busy oohing and aahing to think about how frustrating some of the gameplay can be. A lot of the climbing sequences are fairly boring with maybe one hard move. And the sequences feel repetitive because Lara's animations and sounds for, say, moving along a ledge — which you do a ton of — don't vary. Plus, certain movements are either too easy — like, if you're jumping onto a pockmarked wall with your climbing ax it's very hard to mess up — or inexplicably difficult: I spent 10 to 20 minutes trying to execute a swan dive. Both moves involve hitting one button to jump, and another to latch on or dive, respectively. Yet the timing for the latch, which probably should be tighter considering it's integral to, you know, tomb raiding, is extremely loose, while the timing for the dive — which you only use occasionally and never under duress — is set at "wake up your kids with your swearing."
 
The combat is much better. The stealth mechanics are great, and there's a satisfying variety of ways you can sneak up on people and brutally murder them. A personal favorite is firing a rope arrow into a bad guy's back and stringing him up in a tree. Also, unlike past Tomb Raider games, here you can regain stealth if spotted, which is nice because it's hard to last long in melee combat.
 
The system for crafting outfits and weapon upgrades never feels overwhelming. There are a reasonable number of gettable resources — no Breath of the Wild-style scrolling through 10 pages of just fruits — and small caches of rare items are hidden all over the world map, so you don't have to spend a week farming albino capybara hides to make a pair of boots. 
 
One aspect of the new-timeline Tomb Raider games I enjoy is the voiceover narration when you find a relic or document. Here, some of the scripts describing artifacts or recounting Mayan and Incan legends are pretty long, but I found myself listening to most every one. It's basically an audiobook on Central and South American culture within the game. And there are lots of cool little historical Easter eggs, like finding the expedition journals of real-life explorers who set out in search of the real Paititi, the hidden city at the center of the game's plot.
 
One final tip of the cap to Rob Bridgett, audio and music director, and composer Brian D’Oliveira for creating an intensely creepy atmosphere in the crypts. 
 

Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out Sept. 14 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.