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Corran450’s Review Series Vol. 21: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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    Shadow of the Tomb Raider

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Corran450’s Review Series Vol. 21: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

    In 2013, Square Enix released a reboot of the venerable Tomb Raider series. Produced by Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal, "Tomb Raider" was an astonishing success, launching a new (so far) trilogy of adventures aimed at depicting how the naive and innocent (ish) Lara Croft became the hardened adventurer we all know and love. "Rise of the Tomb Raider" continued the story and introduced series adversary Trinity, the shadowy secret society of occult-seekers aimed at rebuilding the world according to their twisted desires.

    Finally, this trilogy comes to a head in "Shadow of the Tomb Raider", a denouement of sorts for this exciting new saga in the Tomb Raider series (though, of course, they may always make more of them if they so choose). But does it live up to the incredible standard set by the first two games in the rebooted series?

    "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" is a third-person action/adventure game, in the mold of the "Uncharted" series, which, ironically, took much inspiration from the original Tomb Raider series, which began on PS1 all the way back in 1996! You control Lara Croft, by now an experienced and driven adventure-seeking "archaeologist". Using her skills as an explorer, you will jump, climb, rappel, and swim through various environments using context sensitive controls. As Lara, you will also encounter baddies along the way, both in the form of mercenary soldiers of Trinity as well as aggressive natives who oppose your encroachment on their sacred territories. You may also encounter dangerous wildlife, not to mention the environment itself, which needs no help defending itself from your exploration.

    Naturally, if you’ve played either of the first two games in the recent trilogy (or any of the games in the "Uncharted" series for that matter), you can jump right in. The controls are basically the same, with incremental improvements over previous installments. There are still the occasional quick-time events, where a timely button press is required to save Lara from some horrific fate, but they are much fewer and further between than in the first game, and good riddance. QTEs have their place, but they’re usually disruptive rather than enjoyable.

    Lara may grow by learning new skills, managed by a Skill Map, and acquired through the spending of experience points in the vein of an RPG. Many many games use RPG elements now for progression. Lara earns EXP by solving puzzles, dispatching enemies, finding collectibles like hidden relics or documents, and progressing the story. It never feels like Skill points take a particularly long time to acquire, so your progress feels quick and satisfying. Skills include new combat abilities, buffing elements that improve your health recovery or observation skills, or environmental buffs that make you less noticable to adversaries or easier to spot clues in the wilderness.

    Hidden in the environments are both Challenge Tombs and Crypts, both of which offer new opportunities for EXP or hidden collectibles. Challenge Tombs are generally puzzles which confer upon you hidden abilities on the Skill Map. Crypts are generally just challenging environments containing a hidden Sarcophagus, inside which you can find "Remnants", which are craftable outfits that Lara can wear to give her special abilities (Healing mixtures are more effective, find more crafting supplies, reap more EXP, etc.).

    There are tons of hidden items to complete your collection. Relics, documents, and special murals can all expand upon the history of the region Lara finds herself in, allowing her to expand her knowledge of local areas, including local languages, which unlock even more collectibles. Side missions abound, as well as the aforementioned Challenge Tombs and Crypts. There’s a wealth of interesting additional information to be found.

    "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" takes place in Central and South America. This makes for a welcome change of scenery after the events of the first two games (A hidden island off the coast of Japan, and Siberia, respectively). Lara’s adventure begins in Cozumel, Mexico, where she is attempting to head off the pillaging of a secret Mayan temple by those dastardly mercenaries of Trinity. Upon solving the riddle of the temple, Lara inadvertently initiates the prophesied Mayan Apocalypse, prompting her and her friend and adventure partner, Jonah, to race to the Amazonian jungle of Peru. There, they hope to find the Silver Box of Ix Chel, a relic with which they may prevent the destruction of the world. Trinity follows, hoping to use the Silver Box to ‘remake the world’ according to their own desires. Lara must use all her will and cunning, as well as the help of a secret people hidden in the jungle, to prevent Trinity from achieving their goals of world domination.

    So the emotional arc of the trilogy began with "Tomb Raider", in which Lara was forced to do terrible things in order to survive. In "Rise of the Tomb Raider" she became a seeker, discovering the truth of her father’s untimely death, as well as becoming aware of the secret society of Trinity. It is in "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" that she becomes the guardian, standing up to Trinity in defense of the very world we live in. I believe this game constitutes a satisfying conclusion to Lara’s origin story. All the emotional heft you may have come to expect from this series is present here, with Lara questioning the role she has claimed for herself, without any regard to the cost, both physical and emotional.

    I guess my only disappointment is in the characterization of Trinity. The main adversary, Dr. Pedro Dominguez, is well fleshed out and complex, even sympathetic, with noble intentions belying his brutal methods. But Trinity itself is still somewhat of an enigma, with strangely inconsistent ideology. In "Rise of the Tomb Raider" they were very much attuned to Christian ideology, but they seem to have abandoned that entirely here. Any port in a storm, I suppose, and since they failed to obtain "the Divine Source" in "Rise", perhaps they settled for Plan B with the Silver Box of Ix Chel. The game ends without any particular clarity on the matter, but to avoid spoilers, I will say no more on the topic.

    Suffice to say, though, I found this conclusion very satisfying, and if the next incarnation of Lara Croft left this world and its storyline behind, well, I would still consider it a great story arc.

    The graphics of "Shadow" are amazingly detailed and uniformly beautiful. As I’ve come to expect from the series, the environments are lush and colorful (sometimes disturbingly so. Good lord, why are there always so many neck deep pools/rivers of blood everywhere?). Puzzle elements are easy to identify and manipulate, even if actually solving the puzzles present the usual challenge. This world that they’ve created, like in the games that came before, is very believable and realistic. Until you get to the character models, that is.

    Don’t get me wrong, generally the characters are fairly realistic looking and unique. Basically anyone that has a name. It’s when you get to the many incidental characters and NPCs that you start to notice that there seems to be a lot of inbreeding going on in the jungles of Peru, as well as within the ranks of Trinity. There’s a very limited number of character models is what I’m getting at. It’s a bit distracting.

    It bears mentioning that occasionally you will experience some graphical slowdown, which was startling. Honestly, I thought this sort of thing would be extinct in this age of 4K and 8K and 60 FPS, but I suppose the more they push the envelope as far as hardware, the more they want to achieve with software. Ah well, a minor annoyance, as long as it doesn’t happen too often.

    I think it would be fair to classify parts of this game as horror. The stunning beauty of the jungle and mountains is often offset by the terrifying madness squirming beneath it. The reason I mention it here is because the sound production is very obviously geared toward enhancing that atmosphere, and it is astonishingly good at it. The music is atmospheric and eerie, adding to the generally creepy feel to the tombs and crypts (and why wouldn’t it? Tombs and crypts are creepy). The local soundtrack of the villages and towns of the Peruvian jungle are realistic and appropriate. The action scenes are accompanied by pulse-pounding cadences, and cinematic moments are peppered with orchestral goodness. The soundtrack is phenomenal, and I never want to hear it again, though I imagine I occasionally will, in my nightmares.

    Voice acting is, by and large, superb. Lines are delivered realistically, even the melodramatic ones, without any heartbreaking overacting. Lara is wry and relatable, Jonah is forthright and reliable. Dr. Dominguez is earnest and sympathetic, even when he’s being mustache-twirlingly evil. Even the NPCs of towns and villages seem like they could be real people (even though I’m sure most indigenous Peruvians don’t speak English as their first language).

    The sound effects are natural and realistic. We’re approaching, in our video games, a sort of critical mass when it comes to realism, and sound design is at the forefront of that movement. All of these environments feel like they could be real places, even the fantastical ones and ESPECIALLY the terrifying ones.

    Play Time/ Replayability
    This adventure, like the others, clocks in at around 12-15 hours for the main campaign, with probably another 12-15 hours in side missions/Challenge tombs/collectibles/etc. I never felt like the game was dragging. I always felt like there was something to do or find, and on Normal difficulty, it didn’t seem unfair or punishingly difficult.

    There are four difficulty settings, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Critical (They all have fancy names, but I can’t recall them right now). Even further, there are independent difficulty settings for combat, exploration, and puzzles which can be adjusted to suit you. All of these difficulty settings can be changed on the fly, so if you’re having trouble with a particular enemy encounter, switch combat to an easier difficulty. If you’re finding exploration too obvious and want a great challenge, swap it out for a harder difficulty and the path forward becomes less obvious.

    These things, coupled with a massive, beautiful world to explore, make this a highly replayable game to me. It’s not super-long, it can be challenging or easy according to your taste, and there’s so much fun stuff to find and do.

    Final Recommendation
    Rent or buy? You’ll have to tell me. I bought it because I wanted to see how the story arc came to a close. I found this game, and really the whole trilogy, highly entertaining and extremely satisfying, so it’s a buy for me. Will they continue the series? Well, I dunno. I hope so. But if they don’t I won’t be terribly disappointed, because I found the whole arc to be a well-crafted adventure. I hope, based my recommendation, if you haven’t already, you will give it a try!

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