Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the last chapter of the trilogy, started in the 2013 by Crystal Dynamics, which tells the origins of Lara Croft. The title has been entrusted, this time, at Eidos Montreal, manufacturer known for having developed Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. My curiosity for the game came about as a result of this change of developer. As a great admirer of the work done by Eidos Montreal with the Deus Ex saga, I was curious to find out how the software house had applied its experience to a historical intellectual property like that of Tomb Rider, also having the arduous task of concluding satisfactorily a trilogy that has successfully restarted the franchise.
Will Eidos Montreal have been able to collect the baton left by Crystal Dynamics, or will the latter run of the new Lara Croft end with a disastrous tumble?
Lara ... the same story every time!
The story of Shadow of the Tomb Raider starts, as is natural to expect, with a treasure hunt. Our heroine Lara Croft is in Mexico and is following in the footsteps of the Trinity, the secret society responsible for her father's death. What the Trinity is looking for is a "key" which, if inserted in the correct "padlock", is said to be able to give divine powers to the owner. Lara manages to anticipate the Trinity and recovers the artifact, but in doing so triggers a series of calamities that foreshadow a Mayan apocalypse, which threatens to obscure the sun forever. Lara will therefore be forced to remedy the damage caused and to stop the imminent end of the world. A new search will begin, this time in the direction of the Peru jungle.
The early hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider are quite dense from the narrative point of view. Particular attention is focused on the character of Lara who, face to face with the consequences of her recklessness, is in the grip of guilt. In these early stages of the game, there are frequent films and linear sequences that aim to introduce the characters of the story, specify their motivations and deepen the relationships that bind them to each other.
In general, the narrative of the title does its duty without overdoing it. The events follow one another in a rather straightforward and predictable way, new and more or less interesting characters cross the road with Lara without impressing them too much. The story told remains, however, coherent and consistent from a thematic point of view throughout its duration and is sufficiently intriguing to spur the player on to go on to see the conclusion. The resolution of the events takes place in an undoubtedly spectacular way and manages to reach a climax which, however, is "deflated" due to excessive banality. A more courageous and controversial ending could, in our opinion, elevate the narrative. The concluding bars of Shadow of the Tomb Raider doInstead, decrease the history of the title in anonymity.
But is it also played in this video game?
The focal point of the Tomb Raider series has never been, however, the narrative compartment. Overcome the first story-driven beats, even Shadow of the Tomb Raider focuses mainly on gameplay, divided into its three distinct phases: exploration, enigmas and combat.
The exploratory part and the resolution of puzzles will take up most of your playing time in this new chapter of the series. The main story will offer a good excuse to let the player travel to forgotten places of worship and underground ruins, in search of the artefact that can stop the Apocalypse. The rhythm of the events is excellent, considering the alternation between sections of exploration, climbing, combat, resolution of puzzles and, very rarely, spectacular scripted scenes (the so-called "set pieces"). New mechanics and tools are introduced consistently throughout the main quest, making the game experience varied and stimulating from beginning to end.
Still on the subject of "rhythm" and exploratory phases, the climbing sections are generally fluid and almost never confusing. The camera, the level design and the various environmental clues will always be able to direct us towards our next goal, towards the next wall to climb or the next leap to make. The speech is valid especially at the higher difficulty levels (of exploration) where the "white paint", which clearly indicates which surfaces are interactive, is removed. I strongly recommend disabling this option, as it is completely superfluous and, in my opinion, counterproductive with a view to immersing yourself more in the world created by Eidos.
Within Shadow of the Tomb Raider the actual exploration will consist mainly in these phases of climbing and "light" platforming and in the collection of resources and collectibles scattered around the vast and detailed macro-areas, interconnected with each other and full of secret passages. Not only forests but also inhabited centers that act as nerve centers, or "hubs", where it will be possible to shop from merchants and undertake a handful of secondary missions. Particular praise should be given to the design of the secret city of Paititi, which is truly impressive in detail and attention to detail. That of Paititi is a vertical map, intricate in its design, which brings to mind Prague design inside Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, another city reproduced beautifully by Eidos Montreal.
The excellent level design does not stop, however, only at the secret city. The spearhead of this Shadow of the Tomb Raider are the "graves of the challenge", underground structures in which we can meet while wandering around the game macro-areas. These tombs are majestic, disturbing and impressive in their operation. Inside them you will find the most interesting puzzles of this new chapter. Enigmas that, although not too complex to solve (once all the elements of the puzzle have been identified, it will suffice to simply activate them in the correct order to arrive at the solution), especially because of their scenic effect.
The graves of the challenge are, therefore, secondary content that is absolutely worth exploring. To these are added the crypts, which unlike the tombs do not present complex puzzles, but are usually challenges of survival from traps and other environmental impediments. The secondary missions, on the other hand, are rather repetitive. We are often asked to go back and forth in more or less large areas to talk to various NPCs in a passive way, with very little chance of real interaction.
The combat within Shadow of the Tomb Raider plays a more marginal role than can be expected. In the first two thirds of the adventure the fighting matches are few and far between. The rhythm becomes more action-oriented in the last of the three acts of adventure.
The combat situations are well differentiated: the enemies faced range from wild animals to elite soldiers, all in possession of an aggressive artificial intelligence. Most combat arenas can be dealt with furtively or by shooting wildly, or by using a mixture of the two tactics since, new to the series, it will be possible to return hidden after being detected by the enemies. The arenas are also sufficiently complex to allow a variety of different approaches.
The thing that makes you turn up your nose in the Shadow system of the Tomb Raider is the lack of care placed both in the animations section of the melee and in the feedback of the blows on the enemies. It seems that, despite the general technical evolution of the series, the animations have remained at 5 years ago, and these animations in particular have not aged well ...
The stealth approach remains, therefore, the most satisfying of the two options. Use mud to camouflage, chain stealth eliminations from trees, bushes or with a bow and arrow it will make you feel the predator alpha of the Peruvian jungle.
Still remaining in the battle theme, the "tools of death" available are the classic bows, assault rifles, shotguns and pistols, all customizable and upgradable by spending resources collected around the world. At defensive level we will have, instead, a wide choice of alternative costumes, which in addition to changing the appearance of our heroine will also grant some marginal bonuses (for example: greater resistance to melee damage).
In addition to classic firearms, we can rely on resources that can be manufactured on the spot, such as Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs, and special upgrades and objects that can be unlocked via the skill tree.
An experience rich in experience points
Virtually every action we perform in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, whether it's killing innocent animals or opening treasure containers, it makes us gain experience points and skill points. The skill points can be spent in the three different branches of the tree (warrior, looter, explorer) to improve our skills of combat, stealth, exploration and to have a greater range of tools at our disposal. These skills will always be a plus, never necessary to complete the game or to access hidden content. They are usually an extra option in the hands of the player, such as the bait arrows that attract and eliminate the enemies, or a discomfort in less to think about, like the ability that does not make Lara lose the balance when hanging on more difficult ledges.
It is natural to wonder how much a system of experience of this type was needed, with dozens of skills that, however useful, remain optional. Personally, I would rather have preferred a system of unlocking progressive and forced skills. Despite being a more rigid system, it would have ensured that every skill was meaningful and was exploited in the resolution of specific puzzles, or to face particular enemies. The solution presented in Shadows of the Tomb Raider is certainly the easiest to implement (because it has virtually no impact on the balance of the game and on its design) and at the same time is the most "accessible". Anyone, regardless of their choice of skill, will be able to exhaust the contents offered by the title. In my opinion, it remains a controversial choice. We hope that, in a possible next chapter of the saga, Eidos Montreal (or whoever) will find a more elegant solution, which will succeed in integrating in a more convincing way the tree of skills with the other elements of the game.
Accessible, but at what cost?
In the name of the aforementioned accessibility the title had to accept this and other compromises.
First of all, the platforming system is practically automated. No precision input is required to the player in the command input; the climbing phases are extremely linear and are often reduced to simple quick-time events "masked" by fully interactive sections.
The tutorials are, then, ubiquitous from the beginning to the end of the adventure. On-screen messages, which cannot be deactivated, will tell us what to do and which keys to press at regular intervals, even during the final mission ... The worst type of these messages is, however, the one that "spoils" the presence of the challenge graves nearby. Every sense of discovery is nullified when the game draws our attention to tell us: "There's a challenge tomb nearby !!!" ... Thanks for ruining my surprise ...
The game contents are, finally, "standardized ": each tomb will have, on completion of its puzzle, a slab that unlocks a skill (of dubious utility); each crypt will have a sarcophagus containing a piece of equipment to craft; every monolith (practically a treasure map to decipher) will lead to a container of standard and rather disappointing resources.
This problem is linked to the aforementioned "optionality" of skills, but also of the different alternative customs and of the entire crafting system. A bigger problem is therefore created: exploration within Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not properly paid.
You will havetherefore, be content to explore for the simple pleasure of seeing new content and facing new challenges. It is good that "the pleasure of waiting is the pleasure itself" and that "the important thing is not the destination, but the journey", but if we arrived at our destination there was something more significant, the general experience would undoubtedly have helped. Perhaps in a Crypt a tool could have been found that would have allowed access to a Tomb also blocked. Or maybe in a Tomb the "slab" would actually prove to be a trap. A few surprises and some unexpected elements, from time to time, could have made the game more memorable.
We conclude on a positive note, speaking of the graphic and sound sector. The world of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is splendid to see and discover. Stunning landscapes are behind every corner and the level of detail is truly impressive. Both the wildest landscapes and the urban environments are a real wonder for the eyes and the ears. Even the musical accompaniment is valuable, with background songs that follow the action in its crescendo and exalt it effectively in the most opportune moments.
With Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Eidos Montreal has managed to continue the good work done by Crystal Dynamics, adding to its well-rounded formula its experience in the field of level design and its meticulous attention to detail. The title proves to be pleasant and interesting throughout its duration, and even at the end of the main story it left us with the desire to continue exploring and, perhaps, starting this last adventure of Lara in New Game + mode (which promises to add new skills and equipment based on our favorite style of play).
The margins for improvement are, however, quite wide. All the sacrifices that this new Tomb Raider makes in the name of accessibility and "hand holding" (guided platforming, oppressive tutorials, tree of skills and superfluous customization elements, standardized content) affect an adventure that, if left more in the hands of the player, it could have been much more special.