Ever since 2013’s “Tomb Raider” reboot, Lara Croft has been on a successful run. The iconic video game heroine was redesigned to be more grounded and relatable, a change further developed in the 2015 sequel, “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” Even the new “Tomb Raider” movie starring Alicia Vikander was decent — for a film based on a video game, being decent is no small feat.
In this year’s “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” developer Eidos Montreal (in collaboration with Crystal Dynamics) crafts a conclusion which builds on what makes the series great, though most additions are insignificant. There are satisfying moments throughout, but the final chapter of Lara’s origin story ends with a flicker rather than a bang.
With an updated graphics engine, “Shadow” immediately impresses. The South American jungle setting and Mayan architecture are intricately formed, making the world much more interesting to look at than the snow-covered locales of Siberia from “Rise of the Tomb Raider.”
This detail also carries over into Lara’s character model. Her facial expressions during cutscenes are top-notch, while the cuts and scrapes that gradually gather on her skin show a person who has endured a great deal. The only downside are character animations, which can look unnatural and aren’t held to the same standards in realism as everything else.
Whether it’s the semi-open worlds, crafting or unlockable skills, the newer “Tomb Raider” titles have done enough in terms of gameplay to separate themselves from Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted” series, a franchise which has drawn heavily from Lara’s earlier efforts.
Even so, I wish “Shadow” had a stronger supporting cast to compete with Nathan Drake and company. There aren’t any other characters as compelling as Lara Croft, which is a shame considering you see some of them quite a bit.
Lara’s best friend Jonah, a New Zealand-born chef with no background in archaeology or treasure hunting, has somehow made it into all three games in the trilogy. With few redeeming qualities, Jonah is a bland, below-average character who pales in comparison to Elena Fisher, Victor Sullivan and the rest of the “Uncharted” ensemble — it’s absurd how much screen time he’s given.
The opposite problem can be seen with Lara’s enemies. The main villain is Pedro Dominguez, leader of the paramilitary organization Trinity. He takes on a second, more confusing role later in the story, a narrative decision that’s poorly explained and will seem out of place to most.
The other antagonist is Commander Rourke, Dominguez’s second-in-command who is full of firepower but short on personality. Similar to the villain in “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” Dominguez doesn’t have enough of a presence — this would be an easy fix if they had scrapped Rourke’s character entirely.
The story’s pacing is handled much better compared to the previous two games as action-packed events are now balanced with slower emotional beats. The gameplay could benefit from this same balance, as puzzle sections outweigh the combat and platforming.
Having more puzzles beyond the optional challenge tombs is great, but some will wish there were more enemies to shoot or cliffs to rappel down. Although Eidos Montreal tries to expand on the “Tomb Raider” formula, there are more gimmicks introduced than groundbreaking innovations.
With most combat encounters encouraging stealth, a new feature allows the player to coat Lara in mud as camouflage. While it adds to the gameplay loop and survivalist theme, you can take cover in foliage with or without the mud, so it’s a feature that feels unnecessary.
Another attempt to make stealth scenes more complex lies in the underwater sections, where the player needs to hide from schools of piranhas. Evading the deadly fish adds tension to swimming, but it comes off as excessive, as if the developer threw it in for the sake of wanting to include more.
Other encounters with wildlife are far more entertaining: One scene has Lara square off against a pack of jaguars, while another involves supernatural enemies like in previous games. The environment itself is also a threat, as natural disasters caused by the Mayan apocalypse lead to intense escape scenes.
“Shadow”’s over-the-top moments channel the PlayStation 1 era of “Tomb Raider” games, and frankly they’re my favorite parts. If future titles don’t let you shoot dinosaurs while dual wielding pistols, then battling jungle cats is the next best thing.
These sections are thrilling to watch, but dated controls can make them troubling to play. The player still isn’t able to run-and-gun or blindfire behind cover during shootouts, which makes fighting up close a chore. It seems the developer was aware of the combat’s shortcomings, as there simply isn’t much of it when compared to the puzzle-solving and platforming.
Gaining new skills and upgrading weapons make for solid progression, but doing so is often a process of picking the next available upgrade instead of putting actual thought into these decisions. This subconscious style of play seeps into exploration as well.
You’ll constantly press one button to search for collectibles and another to pick them up. On the normal difficulty, playing through “Shadow"'s story can feel like you’re on autopilot, waiting to be told where to go and what to do next. The player is rewarded for walking off the beaten path, which can lead to challenge tombs and other lucrative secrets.
The quality varies, though, as the side quests I completed were bare-bones and uninspired. Many become fetch quests where you need to collect so many items or defeat so many enemies, a problem prevalent in many of today’s games.
Lara’s voice actor Camilla Luddington has put on great performances throughout all three “Tomb Raider” games, but even she can’t hide her boredom while delivering the dialogue for these side jobs — it’s a boredom you’ll likely share when doing them.
Another issue with voice acting comes from the hints you receive when solving puzzles. If there’s a lull and you don’t solve the next step right away, Lara will indicate what to do next, repeating the same line until you complete that part of the puzzle.
It’s more annoying than it is helpful, but it’s a feature that can be turned off by changing the difficulty. You can also adjust the challenge of combat and exploration, giving players a more tailor-made adventure.
When I beat “Shadow,” a sense of accomplishment or closure was missing. The ending keeps the series open to sequels, but as far as the origin story goes — how Lara Croft ultimately becomes the Tomb Raider — this trilogy isn’t given a satisfying conclusion.
Fans of the first two titles will enjoy what this latest entry has to offer, but “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” doesn’t do enough to warrant a purchase for newcomers. With “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” “Red Dead Redemption 2” and a host of other blockbuster releases coming out this month, it’s a game worth getting on sale during Black Friday — or whenever you’re finished with the rest of 2018’s lineup.
Final Grade: C
Brandon Arbuckle is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.