The evolution of Lara Croft is now complete. A journey that began with 2013’s “Tomb Raider” reboot reaches a satisfying and emotionally charged conclusion in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” the final installment of a trilogy designed to bring one of gaming’s most storied franchises — and most iconic characters — into the modern age.
“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” takes Lara to the jungles of South America as she searches for a lost artifact that may be the key in preventing an impending apocalypse. While the setting has changed, much of what I’ve come to expect from the re-imagined “Tomb Raider” series returns. This includes explosive set-piece moments, the occasional quick-time event, challenging puzzles and some chaotic gunfights.
Where “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” separates itself from its predecessors is in its exploration and traversal. Navigating through the massive, sprawling environments requires a keen eye and quick reflexes. Lara has a few new tricks in her arsenal this time around, the most notable being the ability to rappel from elevated positions. The level design takes full advantage of this new skill, with tombs featuring a heretofore unseen focus on verticality.
This adds a new dimension to exploration — literally. And with that comes a more challenging gameplay experience that occasionally bordered on frustrating. More than once I found myself staring at the ancient architecture, struggling to figure out my next move in order to continue my trek to reach an elevated exit. Thankfully, the difficulty level for exploration, combat and puzzles can be set independently and adjusted on the fly, so in those instances where I got stuck, I could get a much-needed clue to set me back on the right path.
As has been the case with every entry in the rebooted series, I found the combat to be the least-satisfying part of the “Tomb Raider” experience. While I thoroughly enjoyed utilizing Lara’s stealth abilities — such as when she covers herself in mud to get the drop on guards wearing thermal goggles or when she uses rope arrows to pick off unsuspecting enemies and suspend them from trees — once her cover is blown, it’s a different story altogether. I often found myself surrounded by enemies and without an effective way to defend myself as the game’s awkward aiming mechanic rendered guns unusable in close-quarters situations. Traditional gunfights played out much better, as I was able to scramble in between cover and the bad guys generally were content to keep their distance. In the future, I’d really like to see the developers introduce a hip-fire option as I believe that would add some much needed balance to the combat overall.
Beyond the primary campaign, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” offers plenty to do in the form of side missions and optional Challenge Tombs. Interacting with NPCs in the hub world of Paititi not only gives Lara insight into an ancient culture, but can lead to the discovery of new quests and collectibles. The world of “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is filled with memorable characters — including Lara’s sidekick and friend, Jonah — but Paititi proved to be an important character unto itself. Of all the places Lara has visited since her return, this was hands-down my favorite. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give kudos to Camilla Luddington (Lara) and Earl Baylon (Jonah) for their incredible voice work, which not only brought their characters to life, but kept them feeling relatable and human — even as the story veered into fantastical territory.
“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is the culmination of Lara Croft’s journey from a naive treasure hunter to a confident explorer finally at peace with her place in the world. It is at once a poignant character study and an over-the-top thrill ride, balancing tender moments of reflection with moments of sheer terror. While it’s sad to see this chapter of Lara’s adventure come to a close, I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
“Shadow of the Tomb Raider”
Developer: Eidos Studios-Montreal, Crystal Dynamics
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC ($59.99)
Rating: M for mature