Despite this exciting premise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a mixed bag from a narrative standpoint. There are stretches of boredom, where the games relies on tired tropes like a plane crash stranding the characters in the jungle, interrupted by periods of pure brilliance that will stand as some of the best moments in series history. Once the plot really gets going in the second half, it becomes genuinely engaging and makes it hard to put down, if only to see where the story is going to go next.
Unfortunately, for the first half of the game, the story is is hard to get invested in, and it's not just because of cliches, but also due to other issues. One of the biggest problems is the supporting cast of characters are a step down from what was seen in the 2013 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Besides Lara and Jonah, the characters don't get enough development for the player to truly care about what's happening to them, and this goes for allies as well as villains. There are moments that are meant to tug at the heartstrings that fall pretty flat because of this.
Lara, however, is absolutely fascinating in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, though it seems like her portrayal here is going to be polarizing. Whereas the previous games painted Lara as a desperate survivor and sympathetic adventurer, Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes her unlikable, which is an interesting direction to take her character, to say the least. Lara in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is often portrayed as selfish and sometimes even cruel, murdering people without a second thought and literally putting the whole world at risk due to her arrogance - and then making excuses when being called out for it.
Some fans may not like this version of Lara Croft, but as her character develops over the course of the game, it becomes clearer why the developers went in this direction. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara may be at the top of her game in terms of ability, but she's at one of her lowest points as a person, with tunnel vision that makes it difficult for her to focus on anything except her treasure-hunting goals. For these reasons, Lara may not be as likable as she was in past games, but she is infinitely more interesting.
The story this interesting take on Lara navigates is a bit underwhelming, due to the aforementioned lackluster supporting cast and a by-the-numbers plot. The apocalypse is put into motion, and Lara must travel to Peru to stop it by finding a special artifact before the villainous Trinity organization does. As previously stated, the second half is when the story really gets interesting, but even then it never evolves into something that feels truly unique.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider's story has some other issues as well, mainly when it comes to consistency and continuity errors. For example, there is a cut-scene where Lara is clearly shot in the arm, and the game makes it a point to emphasize this. However, this wound magically disappears moments later, which is a great way to shatter any sense of immersion. It's also a little jarring when Lara reaches the lost city of Paititi, and interacts with what essentially amounts to uncontacted people that somehow are able to speak perfect English.
Narrative issues aside, the rest of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is mostly a success. The core gameplay in particular is tremendous, especially with the improvements made to mobility. Lara's grappling hook adds a whole other dimension to traversal, and the many climbing sections are made even more exciting because of it. There are various points in the story where a sense of urgency or danger is added to these climbing sections, that turns what would otherwise be standard climbing gameplay into rather tense moments that will leave players on the edge of their seat.
Tension is used quite a bit when it comes to Shadow of the Tomb Raider's gameplay. Puzzles often have hazards that can kill Lara in one fell swoop, so even what should be basic puzzle solving is made more exciting than usual. Swimming, which has been given a much larger focus in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, sees Lara traverse through narrow passageways that will leave players feeling claustrophobic and wanting to get back to the surface as soon as possible. However, there is sometimes the added danger of piranhas in the water, meaning players have to hide from them while simultaneously racing against the clock to make sure Lara is able to make it to the surface before she drowns. In general, swimming and water levels are hard to get right, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider's swimming sections are flat out intense more often than not, and their expanded focus is welcome.
Combat also has more weight to it, as Lara is more brutal than ever before, and the new focus on stealth over cover-based shooting helps emphasize that point. Gunfights are actually fairly uncommon in Shadow of the Tomb Raider unless players want to play that way, with most combat encounters pushing players to stealthily take out enemies one by one. Whereas past games made Lara feel vulnerable, Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes her out to be a silent predator, capable of using a variety of new tricks to take out large groups of enemies without ever being seen.
To put it bluntly, caking oneself in mud for camouflage, hiding in the darkness, and then leaping out of the shadows to viciously stab an unsuspecting foe to death with a makeshift knife is just badass. Of course, players can go into almost every situation guns blazing if that's what they prefer, but there is more satisfaction and challenge when playing stealthily.
Speaking of challenge, the developers have called Shadow of the Tomb Raider the hardest game in the series to date, but that's not really all that true. In fact, we found it to be rather easy when playing on the normal difficulty settings for combat, exploration, and puzzles. Luckily, players can customize the experience to their liking; someone more interested in combat than puzzles can make combat more challenging while making puzzles easier.
Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider's gameplay is superb all-around, with some minor weak points. Crafting, for instance, lacks any kind of challenge because crafting materials are everywhere, to the point where we usually couldn't pick up any ingredients because our supply was full and we didn't need to craft anything. Plus, a click of a button highlights all relevant objects and crafting materials in the nearby area, so it comes across as almost pointless at times.
Throughout Shadow of the Tomb Raider, players can explore villages that serve as hub worlds filled with people that have various side quests for Lara to complete in exchange for rewards. Unfortunately, none of this side content is all that compelling, and spending time walking around villages talking to random people is the least interesting thing players can do in the game.
On top of that, the game lacks replay value and is relatively short. Those who don't find the side quests to be all that worthwhile will fail to find much to do after beating the game's main story, which can be done in under 10 hours without rushing. New Game+ mode isn't a very enticing reason to replay the story either, especially since it means going through the weaker bits again, but its inclusion is still appreciated.
Considering this, one may wonder where Shadow of the Tomb Raider's massive budget went, and the answer seems to be to its jaw-dropping visuals. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a drop-dead gorgeous video game, with incredible details in the environment and expansive, breathtaking views of the larger game world. Especially when played on the Xbox One X, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a top-tier visual experience and a significant leap forward for the series in terms of graphics. Any complaints we have about it graphically would just sound nitpicky, as there are truly few games in the world that look as good as this one.
Presentation-wise, there's also something to be said about Shadow of the Tomb Raider's sound design. Lara repeating the same voice lines endlessly when trying to solve a puzzle can be a little grating, but otherwise Camilla Luddington has yet again done a remarkable job. Meanwhile, the sounds of the jungle, whether it's the growl of a jaguar, the buzzing of insects, or the rushing of distant rivers, really make the game world feel alive.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider gives players a lifelike jungle environment to explore, plenty of deadly puzzles to solve, and no shortage of tombs to raid. It certainly has its flaws, but most players will be able to overlook many of them. The series continues to struggle with giving players a compelling reason to keep playing beyond the end credits and aspects of the narrative could have used more work, but it's still a mostly satisfying conclusion to Lara's origin story.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider will launch on September 14 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided an Xbox One code for this review.