In my head, there is only one way a Tomb Raider game opens. It’s probably because my first exposure to the franchise was in the late 00s when the video games were losing themselves, and the films weren’t helping. But I always imagine Tomb Raider stories opening with the least fun part of being the Tomb Raider. Laura riding her horse around Croft Manor. Suddenly dismounting, she takes out her dual pistols and takes target practice on the lawn. Then Winston brings her cup of tea and an artifact, and she’s off on another adventure.
That vision of Laura Croft does not comport with the rebooted Tomb Raider series at all. In fact, up until Shadow of the Tomb Raider, our rebooted Laura had never set foot in Croft Manor. And she’s far better for it. This version of Laura is much more rugged. A no-nonsense archeologist whose mind is always on the importance of her next discovery.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Laura pinned under a rock at the bottom of a cave. The first thing the player has to do is get the rock off her leg and climb up through the small crack overhead in hopes of catching up to Trinity. To call the sequence claustrophobic is to undersell it entirely. Leaning the joystick forward to encourage Laura as she wormed her way up the chasm was panic-inducing, without any other action at all.
Avoiding the Shadow
Shadow of the Tomb Raider brings Laura Croft out of the unexplored tundra of Siberia and into the inhospitable jungles of Central America. Laura is on the hunt for a two ancient relics this time: a silver box and the key which unlocks it. Legend says that when the key and box are united, they allow the user to avoid the Mayan apocalypse and the death of the sun.
Of course, these legends are actually true. If it isn’t immediately apparent to Laura, then it indeed is to the player. How many times must we bump up against some sort of ancient local belief before we immediately recognize it as the stone-cold literal truth? Just as the player suspects, Laura is immediately thrown into a paranormal world where ancient myth is a modern reality.
This repetition is in no way a knock against the game’s narrative. Of the recent trilogy, this game is the quickest to dispense with the veil of ignorance. Laura continually assumes nothing until it is proven. That is a scientific way of thinking that characterizes an expect. It fits her archeologist’s mind entirely.
The game quickly moves Laura through a series of villages, caves, and tombs as she attempts to avert the apocalypse. Along the way, in classic Croft style, she makes new friends and loses some close allies. As a story, the game isn’t the tightest or most original narrative ever written, but it fits perfectly within the Tomb Raider mold.
What’s Left for Laura to Learn
That being said, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is probably the most Tomb Raider of the trilogy. Challenge tombs and hidden crypts are so plentifully planted all over the map that you might fall into one without meaning to. And the addition of city centers in this game gives Laura the opportunity for more organic and varied side-quests, from finding a lost relic to killing a gang of human traffickers.
But those are just adjustments: aspects of the games which were present in Tomb Raider and Rise that have been winnowed down to a sharp point in their third iteration. The real innovation of Shadow is the underwater gameplay.
Eidos Montreal and Square Enix have reimagined entirely how Laura behaves underwater. And they’ve found a great way to show it off with massive chunks of the game which require some kind of submerged swimming. Along with a new control system, Laura’s been given new underwater maneuvers and attacks she can perform, and underwater enemies like piranha and eel which will peel the skin from her bone if they get a hold of her.
It’s hard to say whether the new underwater controls are meant to be thematic or merely practical. The game takes place in the Amazon. It may have been too absurd to not ask for a playable character who can move underwater. And in a certain sense, it doesn’t matter. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is possibly the only game that hasn’t made me roll my eyes every time an objective marker was underwater. So that’s a win one way or the other.
But for a game that is so interested in pinning Laura down and watching her rise up nevertheless, it’s an exciting addition. Laura could dive underwater in previous games. But whenever she did, she was limiting herself. In Shadow, Laura’s limitation becomes one of her many strengths. Now, be it land, air, or sea, there is nowhere from which Laura Croft isn’t deadly.
Becoming the Tomb Raider
At the end of each game in the rebooted trilogy, I felt like I was ready for Laura’s real story to begin. I’ve enjoyed each of the games in the new series, but their prequel status has always bred a feeling of anticipation. At the end of each game, I felt like now I was really ready to take on the mantle of Tomb Raider and take on the world. Instead, the next game always responded with another step I had to take before achieving full Tomb Raider status.
But at the close of Shadow, Laura is most definitely the Tomb Raider. She has grown from a scared girl on an island to the master of any situation. The developers and the players have developed with her. Now that the developers have mastered the world building and character development that Laura needed, I’m excited for the series of games these “prequel” games were actually the prequel to.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider ends the way I always expect a Tomb Raider game to begin. With Laura taking a cup of tea from Winston at Croft Manor. It’s about as far removed from the anxiety-inducing opening climb as one can imagine. There’s no cliff to scale, no plane to crash. Not even a pistol to shoot. Looking around the room, there’s no danger at all. But that has been the point of this Tomb Raider trilogy. Now that Laura Croft has arrived at her destiny, there is no danger left for her. All that’s left is the fun part.