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Comic Riffs | Review

‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ is good at what it does, but seems awfully familiar

September 10, 2018 at 3:47 PM

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Developed by: Eidos Montréal and Crystal Dynamics
Published by: Square Enix
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Lara Croft is one of a handful of characters the video game industry has produced who scarcely needs an introduction. Three Hollywood films and a slew of cultural criticism have served to fix her in the public imagination as a successful Indiana Jones-clone and a metric of how the industry has (and hasn’t) shifted in its portrayal of women. As Josephine Livingstone wrote in The New Republic, Lara Croft’s recent incarnation in games and on the silver screen is, “more human, less funny, more abs than boobs.” Basically, still incredibly attractive but in a less juvenile way.

When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise five years ago it was widely noted that the studio took a page from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series which itself began life as a Tomb Raider knock-off. Both series are based around exploration, shooting, and puzzle solving. “Tomb Raider’s” (2013) use of cutscenes and action-set pieces made it impossible not to trace the cinematic imprint that Nathan Drake’s globetrotting had on Laura’s. But as I scrambled through Laura’s new adventure, I couldn’t resist thinking about Nathan’s latest for different reasons. Just as “Uncharted 4” highlighted his narcissism, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” shines a light on the suffering others endure due to Lara’s single-minded impulses. Evidently, Naughty Dog and Crystal Dynamics approached the task of concocting another entry in a series with well-defined parameters by playing up the negative aspects of its heroes.

Like any number of blockbusters these days, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” opens with a crisis. On a storm-tossed plane above Peru, Lara struggles to gain control of the vessel that’s ripping apart. After the back half of the plane is torn off, taking her best friend Jonah along with it, the game cuts to two days earlier. In Mexico, Lara and Jonah are on the hunt for Trinity, a secret society that murdered Lara’s father, a renowned archaeologist. At a Day of the Dead festival, they learn that Trinity has discovered the location of an underground temple in the area. Obviously, it’s but a matter of time before Lara is standing in its inner sanctum. There, she finds a star chart positioned in the room like a stone table. Flexing her esoteric knowledge, she adjusts it. The astonished expression that flashes across her face, as the star chart descends into the floor and a pedestal supporting a dagger appears in its place, is another fine detail in the game’s opening charm offensive. By this point, you’ve already engaged in perilous rock climbing, desperate swimming, a bit of stealth combat, and some move-this-over-there-then-rotate-some-gears puzzle solving. The blending of tutorial, story exposition, and plot setup within the first thirty minutes of the game is bluntly effective.

So much is stuffed into those early moments that it’s hard to make much of the fact that Lara sets in motion an environmental apocalypse by seizing the dagger, which is connected to the Mayan Goddess Chak Chel. The episode feels like just another link in the chain of difficulties for which Lara seems preordained. Lara succumbs to a quick bout of guilt over what she has unleashed, but she is desperate to undo her folly. Acting on an earlier clue that she deciphered at a Mayan temple, Lara and Jonah set out for Peru to find a hidden city. This place, which Trinity is also looking for, is the fabled Incan city of Putiti.

A game like this is fairly spoiler proof. It’s a foregone conclusion that Lara will meet every challenge head on. What’s essential is that, for most of the adventure, Lara finds herself in a jungle where she can work to prevent the apocalypse, or explore tombs, or interact with the natives (most of whom speak English). Since Tomb Raider games have featured skill trees for some time now, it should come as no shock that Lara has some flashy offensive tactics at her disposal. Among other things, she can shoot an arrow into an unsuspecting nearby enemy and string his corpse in a tree, or emerge from the shadows covered in mud to knife an enemy a la Rambo. (There is a greater emphasis on stealth combat in the new game than what I remember from 2013’s “Tomb Raider.”)

Though I generally stuck to the main questline and sidequests, the optional tombs that I sampled were diverting puzzle boxes that sometimes stumped me but didn’t flabbergast me. Moreover, to the developers’ credit, they have implemented a number of quality of life tweaks. “Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s” difficulty can be adjusted so that puzzles, combat, or exploration can each be made easier or more difficult. Lower the puzzle difficulty to easy, for example, and Lara will give step-by-step instructions; set it to hard and she won’t give any hints. Another feature I appreciated is that Camilla Luddington, the actress who plays Lara, reads the textual descriptions for the items that can be found in the game. Pausing a game that’s all about moving from one feat to the next to read something small on the screen is not one of my favorite things. Yet, I enjoyed pausing the game — to check my phone or snack on something — and listening to Luddington’s mellifluous voice recount some piece of Mayan or Inca mythology.

“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is a familiar thrill ride with new scenery. It’s good at what it does, it’s simply not big on surprises.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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