Every entry in the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy has made the sly, winking promise that we’re being led to the rebirth of the too-cool, self-assured, no-nonsense, dual-wielding Lara Croft of PlayStation 1-era infamy. It’s only now, as the trilogy draws to a close, that the question of whether we want or need that Lara Croft back is ever raised. More importantly, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s aimless and unexamined portrayal of Lara begs the question if we, the players, or even the developers at Crystal Dynamics themselves know who exactly that woman should be. This is the fabled Tomb Raider we’ve been meaning to see rise for five years, and yet, as Shadow goes along, it becomes clear that not only do we not know exactly what kind of person Lara is supposed to be, but that it ultimately might not even matter.
Following the events of 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara devotes her life to thwarting the evil pseudo-Catholic secret society Trinity in all its endeavors. In her haste, however, Lara haphazardly swipes an ancient dagger from a Mexican temple, unintentionally setting the doomsday of Mesoamerican prophecy into motion. And as the only way to fix her mistake is to complete the end-of-days ritual, as foretold, Lara finds herself making a trek to the legendary hidden city of Paititi, only to discover a cult has other plans for the apocalypse, mostly involving the ceremonial slaughter of their enemies.
Once Shadow gets to Paititi, though, Lara’s arc, such as it is, takes a sidestep, and something far more unique and powerful unfolds before our eyes. Paititi is the massive, lush, jaw-dropping hub area where you spend the vast majority of the game—a living, breathing, indigenous society full of gossip and folklore, trials and tribulations, families and criminals. Paititi is in political crisis when Lara arrives, with the cult, worshipping the serpent god Kukulkan, usurping leadership of the city. The rightful queen, Unuratu, and Etzli, her son and heir, are leading a small but failing rebellion from the shadows.
Never before have these myths, these people—really, this area of the world—been portrayed in our digital media ecosystem with such grace or attention to detail. And the cherry on top is right in Shadow’s options menu: a toggle for Immersive Voice that allows nearly all of the game’s NPCs to speak their native language, including Quechuan and Mayan dialects. The best, and most powerful story arc in the game belongs to Unuratu and Trinity’s leader, Dominguez. The soft-spoken but determined villain has history with the city, and his side of the narrative addresses various diasporic conditions that come to a head in probably the best dramatic moment in the game.
Devoid of context, this is the action-adventure title of our dreams, executed on an astonishing technical level.
This would be truly incredible if not for the fact that your avatar through all of this is still Lara Croft, whose role here vacillates on a scene-to-scene basis. At the drop of a dime, she goes from brilliant, proactive archaeologist, to damaged post-traumatic goods with daddy issues, to cold-blooded angel of vengeance, to kind-hearted saint—and none of these personae mesh with the narratively fascinating aspects of the game. At one point in the campaign, Lara—an amateur archaeologist, and as such someone who should know how explorers will rape a country at the expense of its people—argues with Dominguez about the bloody methods he’s used to get to this point, and tries to counter his very real concerns about Paititi being colonized with the fact that she lost her father at age nine, a trauma that two Tomb Raider games prior to this one went to great lengths to try and resolve. For her to conflate it with the potential annihilation of a people is nothing short of tone deaf.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Lara is the only non-brown person in a several mile radius, and yet a few late-game story beats put pieces of this narrative in her hands that absolutely should not belong to anyone but the indigenous people she means to save. Bless Camilla Luddington, who absolutely commits to everything Shadow throws at her, but her everything-emotionally-on-the-table performance winds up emphasizing just how aimless and aggravating Lara Croft’s very presence ends up being by the end.
For those who can roll with the narrative punches, the gameplay here is stronger than it was in 2013’s Tomb Raider and its sequel. And in a nice change of pace from most sequels, Lara has most of her moveset from the previous game at the start of Shadow’s campaign. Veterans of the series can jump right into action for a good hour or two before they encounter the first curveball. New to his game is a rappel function for Lara’s climbing axes and an herb-crafting system where healing, defense, and combat enhancement items must be made on the fly before they can be used. Firefights aren’t harder in Shadow, but your ability to deal with your mistakes is. After all, health regeneration isn’t nearly as fast as it was in the prior games.
The actual tomb-raiding still employs a healthy mix of pulse-pounding traversal in dangerous, unsteady places and tricky but forgiving Rube Goldberg-style problem-solving. The location is also a big plus in the game’s favor. Rise’s dull, drab, and mostly grounded-in-reality Siberian locales have been traded for fertile, achingly beautiful jungles, clear blue tropical waters, and ornate temples full of gold, blood, death, or all of the above. Those looking for a welcome change of pace, though, will find it, again, in the options menu, where the difficulty levels for combat, survival skills, and puzzles can be adjusted independently, with the harder puzzle and survival options removing any unnatural environment markers, forcing players to use nothing but their powers of observation and deduction to find hidden items, make camps, and spelunk effectively. It’s brutal, but it’s a welcome change of pace.
In regard to its gameplay, there’s no doubt that Crystal Dynamics has perfected the kind of game that Tomb Raider should be in the 21st century. Devoid of context, this is the action-adventure title that dreams are made of, executed on an astonishing technical level. But it still doesn’t feel like the developers have decided exactly who or what Lara Croft should be, something that should have probably been locked down before they built a story of such import around her. Lara should be angry about the beautiful civilization whose citizens lay dead at the hands of a murderous cult. Instead, three games down, she’s mostly still pissed about her dead father.