The most recent story arc for Lara Croft has dipped into how she came to be the rough-and-tumble Indiana Jones-inspired adventurer we all met fully formed decades ago. Along the way, though, there have been a fair few examinations of her violent tendencies, creating what is essentially a post-modern meditation on the state of gaming culture in the ‘90s (when Croft’s first iteration hit the original PlayStation).
The modern incarnations of the series have stuttered a bit in their character construction, though. The inability to marry the sometimes ruthless actions of this intrepid woman with the cerebral consideration of the ancient and the lost has left her adventures feeling a little stilted.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is, for better and worse, the most extreme iteration of this phenomenon that we’ve yet seen. Now, the oil and water can’t be blended at all, but each is so rich that it can be easy to gloss over the lack of cohesion.
Croft’s latest adventure is harrowing, to say the least. Due to some run-ins with an Illuminati-like organization bent on triggering a worldwide divine renewal, Croft and her kind companion Jonah look towards the jungles of Peru. There, they expect to unearth a McGuffin that will stop a potential apocalypse. Those campy, over-the-top madcap adventure stakes are standard fare for these kinds of games, but here they bump against the grimmer, more intense focus on serious gore and intimate evisceration in a way that doesn’t quite gel.
Sure, Indiana Jones’ madcap adventures included some gory moments—see the face-melting of Agent Toht. But Lara’s journey is quite distinct. Since her 2013 reboot she’s been crushed, beaten, fallen, and snared ad nauseam, pushing the limits of her spirit and her body in a dogged struggle. While at first she fought only to survive, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is intent on making it clear that Croft now risks much of this pain by choice.
She doesn’t have to be the one to snatch the artifacts; she doesn’t have to be the one to quest through sunken caverns and forgotten temples. In these creaking ruins, stable ground and even breathable air are a gift, through Croft often dives in without apparent worry that either will ever run out.
The weight of this self-imposed risk comes from the degree to which the player—while often in control—must guide Croft through coursing waters and collapsing tunnels, across perilous traps and through claustrophobic gaps. Rapid-fire button combinations make up the bulk of this play, but those with slower reaction times can eliminate those in the settings menu.
Thanks in part to some great work from vocal and motion capture actress Camilla Luddington, we really feel Croft’s pain in some harrowing scenes. She suffers, believing she has to give every ounce of strength to her pursuit.
It’s in these most thrilling moments, though, that we come to understand the treacherous nature of her adventure. While the site of ancient Mayan pyramids may be gorgeous beyond belief, it’s a struggle for Croft to simply exist here.
Traps and puzzles help round out the challenge, creating an interworking system of pieces that could work well almost entirely on its own. Rappelling and swimming, sussing out ancient secrets, and unearthing ancient treasures all work together in the service of a sturdy, internally consistent narrative, working through Lara’s past as a relatively sheltered young woman who was, in time, driven to kill. And the arduous lengths you go just to get from A to B establish that intense and prolonged suffering is a vital concept in this vision of her story.
Sympathetic stealth violence
The vision of Lara as a dogged, tenacious survivor clashes inexorably with the competing vision of her as a cold-blooded and ruthless jungle predator.
Besides the adventuring and questing, of course, this big-budget game needs some guns and people on which to use them. Were it any other game that concession would be tonally consistent with the rest; big stakes often means that the importance of individuals can be subsumed into the larger narrative, particularly when those stakes are as comically over the top as the Mayan apocalypse.
But Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t let us lose track of the weight of Croft’s surprisingly intimate killing. The lethality Lara wields is on par with many ‘80s action films and will have her jamming a pickaxe into a worker’s gut before swiftly delivering a second blade to the temple for a quick and brutal kill. Croft isn’t just mowing down rooms full of nondescript guards with a machine gun—she’s taking a personal interest in each and every victim.
Most of these lethal moves are ones Lara wields from the shadows. She stalks and hunts this time around, making for some even more intimate moments between her and her prey. And, honestly, a good bit of Lara’s violence comes across as pretty sympathetic. When she crawls through her own personal hell and back as she has, repeatedly, through these three games, there’s room for those violent tendencies and profound anger to find a home in her character.
Where it all falls apart, though is when these pieces grind against the bombastic melodrama of it all. It’s hard to find any grounding when you oscillate between pontificating about the role of an ancient holy dagger to watching a child plead for his life while being swept away by flood waters because you meddled with forces you don’t understand.
The good news is that all these parts work well on their own. The new stealth systems you can use encourage a lot more thought and planning in your approach. Stalking your foes through vegetation and across the jungle is thrilling and some of the better environmental stealth seen in recent years. And while the last two Tomb Raider games introduced tonal problems by having Lara go “full Rambo” by the end, this time around she becomes a bit more Predator.
That’s enough of a difference to give a good bolt of life to the franchise and offer up some very distinct sorts of tension. Provided your suspension of disbelief can handle the shocks, there are plenty more pacing gems to be found here. Exploration is a lot more action-heavy and much more immediately stressful this time around, while the careful approach and navigation of stealth shifts what was once action into some of the quieter moments you’ll find.
By opting for a more intimate and dramatic look at gore and violence, and then treating those lives as disposable, at least in terms of play, Shadow brings home some uncomfortable feelings. But, in a medium that’s been so steeped in viscera, perhaps the excessive bloodshed has its place.
Regardless, Shadow stands as near the best version of what it sets out to be. Luddington’s finale is a grand one, and well worth it for fans of the series. Even if it can’t quite manage to keep all its balls in the air.
- Phenomenal level design and pacing that keeps the focus on adventuring
- Creative, environmental puzzles
- Strong accessibility options
- Tense moments and commendable acting overcome the melodramatic plot
- Overwrought and overwritten plot strains suspension of disbelief at times
- Lara’s violence doesn’t mesh with the cartoonish, overblown narrative.
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