‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ (PS4) review: Lara Croft the relic

September 27, 2018
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Lara Croft heads to South America in "Shadow of the Tomb Raider."

(Warning: Minor spoilers below.)

A few hours into “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” Lara Croft comes across a towering Mayan contraption deep in the Peruvian jungle. As she looks over its gears and spokes, she remarks to herself how improbable it is that the five-story structure still stands after centuries of storms and earthquakes. Then, as Lara Croft does, she climbs it. And the thing halfway crumbles into ruin.

That’s because no natural disaster is as much of a force of nature as Lara Croft. In “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” everything breaks under her weight, everyone bends to her will. Apocalyptic floods assemble tidy paths for her to traverse. Indigenous people unquestioningly embrace her despite the plunderous implications of her presence. And her best friend, Jonah, always has her back.

Jonah is so supportive that after Lara triggers that apocalypse by swiping a Mayan dagger from its resting place, he stays by her side. After she gets one of their new indigenous friends killed on an ill-advised mission, he helps her get revenge. And after she emerges from a swamp against a fiery backdrop and sadistically merks about 50 people like she’s Rambo, he tells her to keep going.

Jonah dithers, but he doesn’t resist Lara. Almost no one in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” does. By the final battle, even the feral tribe that guarded an artifact Lara stole is inexplicably bowing to her.

That lack of resistance means that Lara is the only one who writes the moral of her story. It’s something about everyone creating their destiny together, she says. But coming from someone so domineering, it rings hollow. And the moral’s significance to her is muddled by a few aimless flashbacks to her childhood that somewhat overlap with DLC from 2015′s “Rise of the Tomb Raider.”

No, the only thing that unifies Lara’s actions isn’t a moral, nor a theme, but a narrative trope that needs to be put in the ground: the strong female character.

Once, women who disturb as many cultures and kill as many bad guys as men may have been a welcome response to their history of marginalized roles. Those strong women balanced a scale. But, too often, they’re strong for the sake of being strong, and so that strength is all that defines them. The weaknesses that would define their humanity are missing, mistaken for weak characterization.

And strength is all Lara has going for her in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider.” By making her every character — killing machine and savior, pillager and protector — the game strips her of any character. Any nuances that would comprise her humanity fall through the cracks between those irreconcilable extremes. And the latter feels particularly threatening to the very premise of the series. In 2018, I’d wager, less people than ever want to play as a rich white lady swooping into ancient ruins to pilfer artifacts whose value could feed the neighboring villages of impoverished people for a lifetime.

“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” tries to depict Lara as a protector through the little resistance she does face in the game, paramilitary archaeologists Trinity. It’s Trinity who wanted to steal the Mayan dagger, Trinity she races to find the item that will stop the apocalypse, Trinity who shoots first. As feebly as they justify Lara’s imperialist adventures, though, it is Trinity who makes them a game.

Lara’s third outing since 2013′s reboot is the first to be developed by Eidos Montreal ( “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” and “Mankind Divided”). As that resume might suggest, the stealth in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is the best it’s ever been in the series. Hardened by her previous encounters with Trinity’s soldiers, Lara can now string them from treetops and, also like Rambo, camouflage herself in mud. All her tricks make it fun to prey and, if she’s found, exhilarating to improvise. In concert with solid AI and dense map design, they lead to some of the game’s most rewarding moments.

Stealth is certainly preferable to small arms combat, which returns more or less the same as it was in previous “Tomb Raider” games. The best thing about it may be Lara’s low health — because the prospect of dying after taking a bullet or two just incentivizes stealth. It’s also laughable that Lara can kill wolves, jaguars and other fanged wildlife with her guns and extract as many crafting resources from their corpses as she would have with arrows. (And how dare you even give players the option to slaughter capybaras, those oversize rodent angels, Eidos Montreal.)

When she’s not offing Trinity soldiers by the dozen, Lara can explore the game’s three sprawling hubs for tombs and crypts to rob. They’re as involved as they are atmospheric, scoring Eidos Montreal another area of improvement. Unlike the in-and-out puzzles of the first two recent “Tomb Raider” games, these take time, and more often prompt you to stop and scratch your head. And from those grimy underground caverns to its sunlit jungle canopies, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is a visual gem, presenting one breathtaking space after another with next to no technical problems.

Another visual achievement of the game is the way Lara’s path forward seamlessly blends into the surroundings. That and the more involved platforming spelled many a fall into the abyss for me. The white paint that signals which walls to scale and which ledges to grab are there, but it’s smaller, fainter. Better yet, through the game’s many difficulty options, you can remove the paint altogether.

There are many options in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” difficulty and otherwise, to tailor your experience. One of those options allows you to hear the native languages of its indigenous people.

When those people interact with Lara, though, she still speaks English. Of course she does.

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