I’ve just finished playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider: read my thoughts on it.

NOTE: There are minor spoilers here and I certainly talk in detail about elements I am happy and unhappy with, but there are no game-ruining spoilers and I haven’t spoiled the plot-twists.

As a long-time fan of the franchise (since beta of Tomb Raider One more than 20 years ago!) I’ve been looking forward to Shadow of the Tomb Raider as the conclusion to the trilogy of rebooted games the franchise launched in 2013—I’ve been very curious about what their plans were for Lara. So, for me, this game was very much about Lara’s story and Lara’s character development as it was gameplay.

Furthermore, as a writer myself, story for me is a critical component of games so I will be splitting my first thoughts on Shadow of the Tomb Raider into two parts: Gameplay and Story.

GAMEPLAY

Gameplay is very similar to Rise of the Tomb Raider and there weren’t any dramatic differences—a few extra mechanics here and there (such as the very entertaining ‘hallucinogenic arrow’), but overall very similar to Rise, and I enjoyed playing Rise. Shadow’s main narrative took me 14 hours to complete.

The Good:

  • Photographer mode! I had so much fun taking photos of Lara smiling awkwardly in piles of half-rotted corpses… oh, and taking photos of the pretty environments too, of course… For example, I took the header image all by myself using this mode.
  • Absolutely fantastic combat system that allows you to choose many, many different ways of disabling and taking down enemies. No two people will approach a group of enemies the same way. In my opinion, your ability to fight in your own preferred style is the biggest strength of these games.
  • The ability to toggle gameplay difficulty not only during the game but for different components of the game was very useful. If you like puzzles like me, you can play those on ultra-hard. If you’re a wuss about boss-fights like me, you can play those on ultra-easy. Overall an excellent idea.
  • Well-spaced checkpoints mean that when you have those ‘WHAT! I PRESSED THAT FUCKING BUTTON!’ moments during exploration, you don’t have much space to retrace to get back to where you died.
  • The Batman-style ‘survival instincts’ gives you a lot of information about your environment and is spammable and useful.
  • The finale was appropriately challenging without being infuriating.

Remember me gushing about Photographer Mode? Here’s a suave photo of Lara I took using the mode during a (very serious) cutscene. I giggled a lot.

20180913144659_1

The ‘Needs Improvement’:

  • Throughout the game, I came across a lot of environment-traversing bugs: I’d throw my grapple, I’d jump in the right direction etc, but the game wouldn’t register that I’d pressed the button and I’d fall to my death. The was a particular jump-grapple near the end of the game I needed to do 32 times before it finally Very frustrating; but at least (as per above) the check points were close and I didn’t need to repeat too much.
  • The game crashed four times during a single playthrough.
  • There’s a great deal of long swims in the game, so I don’t understand the reasoning behind not putting in a breath-timer. Many times I wished I knew how long I had left. It didn’t build tension, it took me out of the game and made me wish there was a timer!

All in all, I felt the narrative part of the game was a little too long and was padded a little too much with unnecessary story events (as I’ll discuss further below), but at least the gameplay in between them was very enjoyable. If you’re uninterested in the story and just like an entertaining game, I don’t think you’ll feel like you wasted your money on Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

STORY

Here’s where the game gets a much less glowing review from me.

I wouldn’t say I was disappointed per se, because after how Lara’s childhood was already retconned in Rise and how Sam Nishimura was unexpectedly and unceremoniously shelved in the second game and its linked books and comics, I already knew the studio wasn’t as committed to story as they were to gameplay. I would have to say I expected an adequate if mediocre story from this game and I got exactly that. There were certainly fantastic parts where I was moved, shocked, or impressed—but overall, I was not emotionally engaged, and the story was not the highlight of this game.

To be frank, though, I don’t really think the studio intended the storyline to win any awards; when you compare the effort put into story and dialogue for similar games like Uncharted, the difference is stark. Uncharted has a strong commitment to story and consistent characterization and the comparison leaves Tomb Raider in the dust.

The Good:

  • The new narrative characters were well-written. The character I liked the most was Queen Unuratu. She was a strong, sympathetic character and I found myself smiling when she was on screen, especially toward end of that particular narrative. Her plot twist was a shock to me: I didn’t expect it and it was well-written and well-directed. Credit were credit is due: she’s a great character.
  • The story that went along with the last 15% of gameplay was fabulous, unexpected (although well-foreshadowed!) and very climactic. The Crimson Flame element of the finale was very well done.
  • None of the female characters were in any way sexualised. All of them were treated with respect and (aside from my gripes below about the overarching story) they were all well-written.

The ‘Needed Improvement’:

  • Just like Rise of the Tomb Raider felt like a standalone game that should not have been called a sequel of Tomb Raider 2013, Shadow of the Tomb Raider was thinly connected to Rise and 2013 by the ‘Trinity’ organisation and Lara’s family issues, but was otherwise a completely separate story. The attempts to connect the stories in the game were thin and the story would have been fine by itself. The Tomb Raider trilogy isn’t really a trilogy—not in the way you’d expect it to be. Each story doesn’t build on the last to form a huge finale in the third game that feels satisfying for the storyline of all three games. Not at all: each game has an entirely different story. If the studio wanted to take a completely different direction for every game that’s a completely valid desire, but trying to connect the stories in-game weakened them as a whole. They should have just treated them as three completely separate stories connected only by Lara Croft.
  • The entire storyline needed an edit. It did not build tension in a linear and predictable fashion (which a game should do), and instead had all these tiny crises that came out of nowhere and had no bearing on the plot.
  • The main storyline was ‘Lara starts the Cataclysm/s’, but aside from the odd earthquake and a couple of other events (none of which felt really connected), I didn’t really feel the terror of that. The game should have built up from sunny blue skies to dark, rolling clouds, earthquakes, floods and landslides (etc) in a slow and linear fashion so by the climax you weren’t sure what was going to happen next, but you knew it was terrifying. Instead, we got mostly blue skies in between events which pressure-released the tension and stopped the story leaning forwards urgently towards the climax.
  • There was no main message. I didn’t come away from this story feeling like Lara had learnt something or had an experience that had made her a better person. I think the game was trying to deliver a message to me, but I didn’t receive it.
  • The entire first 80% of the story is a jarring series of linear events that feel like they don’t have much to do with each other. There was a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, and still I feel like I have no idea what happened.
  • Much of the first 10 hours of gameplay felt very, very padded like a student trying to lengthen their essay by rehashing things that have already been established many times.
  • Jonah’s and Lara’s friendship isn’t that believable to me. They fight when the game requires them to, they’re best buddies when the game requires that of them, and the dynamic between them is not consistent at all. They’d be having a normal conversation and then suddenly they’d be shouting at each other?! The suddenness of it took me out of the game because it just didn’t feel at all like a relationship between two people who choose each other’s company. This is a particular issue to me because Lara and Sam’s relationship did feel real to me in Tomb Raider 2013. I absolutely believed Lara loved and cared about Sam and was desperate to save her. I didn’t believe that any of the times Jonah was taken hostage (which is, what, like 5-6 times now?). CD has proven to us they can write good dynamics: Lara and Sam were believable, Lara and Jacob (from Rise) were believable, Lara and Queen Unuratu were believable. There is nothing about Lara and Jonah’s relationship to me that feels more than a plot device.
  • As per the above, Jonah’s characterization isn’t consistent, either. Sometimes he’s shouting at Lara that not everything is about her, sometimes he’s gentle and calling her Little Bird while they share stories of their childhood. There’s virtually no transition between those events, either.
  • There are continuity issues not only in Lara’s relationship with Jonah, but in general. For example, Lara yells at Jonah not to use a communication channel because “They’re listening! They’re listening!” and then in literally the next scene she’s using that same channel to try and contact him with no explanation for it.
  • Lara’s development wasn’t consistent. One moment she’s cool, calm and, “I’m coming for you, Rourke, I’m going to kill you,” and then next moment she’s kneeling in the mud crying because she’s killed a bunch of people and everything’s hard. No attempt is made to explain this, even though you could probably come up with a reasonable explanation for it. She’s tired, she feels like she’s made a bunch of mistakes, etc. It’s important to clearly explain why characters behave inconsistently if they do, but none was provided.
  • I felt emotionally disconnected from Lara’s whole family arc. So, that meant that when the story came to a head I didn’t really care what decision Lara made about it. I wanted to care. I wanted to feel torn between ‘doing the right thing’ and other options Lara had, but I didn’t, and I didn’t feel like Lara really did, either.
  • Likewise, I wanted to care about Jonah and I wanted to worry about him when he was in trouble, but I just didn’t. He’s been held hostage so many times now that I’m numb.
  • A minor gripe: Lara was apparently inconspicuous as a lily white only-English-speaking woman in a tiny Peruvian village with little contact from the outside world. Also, everyone spoke perfect English.
  • As a bit of a side note, I played the first 6 hours of gameplay on stream, and when Abby appeared, my (mostly lesbian) audience exploded in a frenzy of, “OMG A LESBIAN!!” She has short hair, she’s butch, she’s wearing a band t-shirt, a snapback, aviator sunnies and black boots. We all read her as gay—all of us. So you can imagine our surprise 30 seconds later when she hits on Jonah. Given how badly the studio treated the Lara/Sam audience (of which they knew there were many), the decision to put a gay-coded woman who is very heterosexual in game is very tone-deaf to their audience. I felt insulted.

This is Abby:

20180913175910_1

 

All in all, Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a reasonably enjoyable game and the gameplay was challenging and interesting, so I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my money. However, as the Tomb Raider franchise goes, although the game mechanics are top-notch, Shadow definitely isn’t one of the stronger games for me because of the decisions made about the story.

When I think about how emotionally connected I was to Tomb Raider 2013 and how desperate I was for Sam to be alright and for Lara to get off the island okay (not to mention I was in tears when one of the main characters died), this third Tomb Raider game just doesn’t reach that level. There were certainly moments of brilliance and moments where I could see good foreshadowing had been made, but the story padding and inconsistencies in characters weakened the rest for me.

The ‘ending’ of the trilogy didn’t work for me. It felt sudden. I don’t feel like I’ve come on a long journey with Lara over the three games in the way I would have liked to. The end of a trilogy should leave you feeling exhausted but satisfied—I don’t feel that way at all. It’s a shame, because I know what the franchise can do because Tomb Raider 2013 was so incredible.

I feel like this reboot was a huge missed opportunity to take us through a journey of Lara’s first desperate kill in Tomb Raider 2013 to the smooth assassin who easily takes out 20 enemies in an area in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. She was already that smooth in the beginning of Rise, and I just don’t feel like Lara’s emotional development progressed much in the second two games.

Overall, I’m still sad about Sam being so poorly shelved, I’m disappointed in the inconsistencies in Jonah and about the fact that three games give us three completely different pictures of what Lara’s family was like and very clearly contradict each other. I felt like more attention should have been paid to giving us consistent characters and strong, meaningful storylines that make you think about them for a long time after you’ve finished the game.

Tomb Raider 2013, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider are all very enjoyable gameplay-wise. All of the games had good characters. However, in my opinion, only Tomb Raider 2013 had a strong, emotionally engaging story that left me with a feeling of achievement and relief when I’d finished it.

I’m disappointed CD didn’t choose to build on the incredible story and characters they started in Tomb Raider 2013 and instead chose to take the story in a different, fragmented direction. For me at least, that decision weakened the trilogy and the second two games just left me feeling ever so slightly unsatisfied.

I wanted these games to be unforgettable—but they’re not. They were fun, I enjoyed playing them, but the weakness in their stories mean I won’t be thinking about them now the trilogy is over.

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