2018’s ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ is the concluding part of a trilogy that began five years earlier. The story takes place a few months after the events of ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ in which Lara Croft battled members of the paramilitary religious organization Trinity, as she sought out the Lost City of Kitezh in snowy Siberia. In ‘Shadow’ Lara and her long-standing companion Jonah take the fight to Trinity’s leaders, who they have been relentlessly tracking down since the end of the previous game. This time icy mountains and freezing tundra have been left behind for the tropical jungle of South America, where innumerable new dangers lie in wait.
Although almost all of ‘Shadow’s’ gameplay takes place in the Peruvian Amazon, the first level is set in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is during Lara’s brief sojourn there that she removes a sacred dagger from its temple sanctum, unwittingly ushering in a Mayan apocalypse consisting of a series of natural disasters. She subsequently learns that the only way to rectify her actions is to reunite the artifact with its sibling (a silver box), which was transported to Peru—a country more commonly associated with the Inca—after having been taken there during a mass Mayan migration.
In accordance with this backstory the game’s creators have included significant elements of both cultures and have even gone a step further by adding references to the equally mighty Aztec civilization. This creates a mouth-watering mix fit for any armchair adventurer to dive into. The evolution of the main story over the course of the game could have perhaps benefited from a little more fine-tuning, but with a loose narrative suitably established, we venture into the heart of darkness with our English heroine as she resumes her conflict with Trinity in the big green hell.
Jungle has simply never looked better in a video game. There is a density to the foliage that creates an illusion of infinity. Even though ‘Shadow’ is not a true open-world game, it sometimes feels like one when taking a few moments to check out the amazing draw distances filled with mile after mile of impenetrable closely-packed trees. At other times the environment can feel claustrophobic with its huge rock faces, turbulent rivers, and dark caverns. The Amazon is not an inviting or friendly place and the game designers have done a stellar job in driving that fact home, despite the beauty of the locales they have created.
If the terrain is not enough to initiate a bout of jungle fever, many of its inhabitants certainly are. Lara is hunted by jaguars, attacked by piranha, and even pursued by a subterranean-dwelling group of humanoid creatures called ‘Yaaxil’. These monsters are terrifying and issue forth blood-curdling cries as they stalk her in the darkness. Their inclusion in the game lends it a survival horror aspect, which works well considering the comparative darker tone of ‘Shadow’s’ environment, narrative, and protagonist. If equated with the Indiana Jones movie series, ‘Shadow’ would be most similar to The Temple of Doom.
After making a comeback in ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ temples and tombs return in even greater number in this entry. They are bigger, better, and more atmospheric. The platforming and puzzles they contain are more extensive and complex than anything seen since the earliest ‘Tomb Raider’ games. In addition, after taking on board player feedback, the developers have included the option to make exploration more difficult by removing the highlights that act as way markers. Players can also disable puzzle hints so they can raid tombs with a level of challenge more akin to games of yesteryear, albeit in glorious HD graphical fidelity.
The increase in massive challenge tombs and eerie crypts results in ‘Shadow’ feeling like a definitive return to what initially made the very first games of the series so good. Although combat encounters still exist, they are not as prevalent as in the two preceding games. Moreover, increased emphasis has been placed on the use of stealth and the game features several new mechanics that help Lara sneak up on her enemies quietly. Perhaps the most novel of these is the ability to use mud as camouflage so that she blends into the background. Although not groundbreaking, it does provide the player with greater choice in terms of strategy.
‘Shadow’ is certainly more cerebrally engaging than other recent ‘Tomb Raider’ games and some of its puzzles can take a while to figure out. As the tombs are not obligatory to the completion of the narrative, the developers have ensured that the core story line gameplay also features some excellent challenges. The best example is the ‘Trial of the Eagle’, which involves Lara having to scale a huge and formidable rotating contraption. At first this seems impossible, but with enough environmental scanning, planning, and patience the player can give themselves a fighting chance. As with ‘Tomb Raider’ games of old, precise timing and nimble reflexes are also required to make it to the top and be rewarded with the satisfaction and relief commensurate with the difficulty of such an ordeal.
Although ‘Shadow’s’ impressive atmosphere is noticeable throughout, it is while intrepidly creeping through the optional tombs that the player will find it at its most palpable. To skip them would be to miss the very best of the game. They are intelligently designed, each one having its own unique character. Some are situated in beautiful outdoor areas, which are perfectly illuminated by sunlight filtering down through the jungle canopy, while others are concealed underground and are filled with darkness and gore.
They feel truly hidden and reaching their inner sanctums necessitates the traversal of believable environmental obstacles that separate them from the main areas of the game world’s map. This may involve Lara having to crawl under a thick ceiling of roots and branches or descend into a deep mysterious cave system. When the nine tombs included in the base game are combined with the additional seven that can be purchased as additional downloadable content, the opportunities for exploration feel almost unlimited.
It is the intensity of the exploration that really makes ‘Shadow’ feel like a genuine adventure. This time Lara comes equipped not only with climbing axes, but also a grappling hook, which she can use to ascend, swing, and rappel. Given the verticality of some of the environments the additional gear is much needed. What perfects the experience is the inclusion of extended swimming sections. Underwater exploration was one of the most exciting and anxiety-inducing elements of older ‘Tomb Raider’ games and in ‘Shadow’ it’s back. Navigating submerged areas, which are just as detailed as their dry land counterparts, adds an extra dimension to Lara’s journey. The swimming controls are intuitive and responsive ensuring that progress remains enjoyable.
The careful attention paid to the Maya, Inca, and Aztec cultures goes a long way to helping the player feel immersed in the experience of exploration. Some similar games, such as ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’, focus on civilizations that are not as well known to the general gaming public, and it can be argued that this makes them seem more mysterious and provides a greater sense of discovery. However, those that the narrative of ‘Shadow’ revolves around have been presented in such a high level of detail that their exploration often feels more realistic and believable.
During development the game’s creators consulted historians to get a firmer grasp of the intricacies of the cultures depicted, which is evident in the accuracy of environmental design and wealth of detailed information available on each group. There are so many opportunities to learn about them that players may come away feeling they have completed a short course in the archaeology of the region. Particularly interesting are the stelae with their descriptions of gods and goddesses, and their roles in the relevant society’s belief system.
The emphasis on exploration and discovery is given even further significance by the clever use of collectibles that divulge the tribulations of previous generations of adventurers. Throughout her quest Lara can stumble upon letters, journals, and other artifacts that allow her to learn about the fate of Spanish conquistadors, religious missionaries, and more recent treasure hunters. This provides context to our journey through the jungle and forces us to consider that Lara is only the latest in a long list of outsiders who have been here before—and, who more often than not, paid the ultimate price for their ambition.
Some of the items are related to the Amazonian expeditions of early twentieth century explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett during his search for the lost city he coined ‘Z’. Although the developers have taken the creative liberty of relocating his fateful final expedition to Peru (it actually took place in Brazil), the inclusion of such a famous historical figure and references to the mystery of his party’s disappearance—which still endures today—contribute to the immersion of exploration.
‘Shadow’ does indeed contain a lost city, or to be more precise, a hidden city—in line with the assertion that a place in which people are living is not lost to them. Paititi is a large hub area that serves as the starting point for many of Lara’s story missions and sidequests. It’s size and indigenous community make it feel like a living, breathing place. Pointing out the lexical distinction between ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ may seem like splitting hairs, but it raises an important issue that the game designers have—to their credit—tried to address to some extent.
Traditional historical accounts of exploration gave little consideration to conveying events that were devastating to indigenous communities from their points of view. The enforcement of foreign belief systems in combination with the violence, torture, exploitation, and epidemics they often came bundled with was long overshadowed by the glamorization of geographical discovery. The fact that many significant archaeological finds accredited to Westerners were already well known to locals does not diminish the immensity of the challenges explorers undertook, but it should force us to reconsider events from another angle. Those who were the victims of European religious zeal, colonial machinations, commercial ambition, and economic self-interest must have a very different story to tell.
Compared to titles of old, modern games like ‘Shadow’ are starting to show a little more awareness of such issues. Although she still pilfers and pillages with abandon during gameplay, the unethical nature of the plundering Ms Croft has been engaged in since 1996 is paradoxically referenced during one or two conversations with Paititi’s residents. In addition to this, evidence of predatory and callous exploitation by other outside entities is easy to find. An example is the highlighting of the negative social and environmental impact caused by the Porvenir Oil Company on the small riverfront settlement of Kuwaq Yaku.
Although praiseworthy and refreshing, these attempts to address the darker side of exploration feel half-hearted and ultimately result in cognitive dissonance as Lara continues to raid tombs, temples, and private residences to take whatever she can get her hands on—regardless of the moral message the developers try to transmit. Given its raison d’être of providing enjoyable escapist entertainment, video game media may be limited in the extent to which it can offer serious exposition on such topics, but despite its contradictory nature, ‘Shadow’ makes a modicum of progress by at least trying to broach them.
Whichever direction its moral compass may be pointing to, the game delivers an audio-visual treat of an adventure, featuring a combination of amazing handcrafted locales and stupendous sound design. In addition to the atmospheric jungle environment and tombs, ‘Shadow’ contains other locations that capture the ambience of parts of Latin America perfectly. During her quest Lara passes through a Mexican town during the revelry of a local festival, a ramshackle Peruvian fishing village suffering the aftermath of a catastrophic storm, and a crumbling Spanish mission lying in the shadow of an imposing volcano.
They all feel unique and possess such a strong geographical sense of place that it is immediately apparent in which part of the world they are supposed to exist. From a technical standpoint they are fantastic. At the ‘Mission of San Juan’ forgotten interiors of centuries-old buildings are permeated with a timeworn quality through the expert implementation of dynamic lighting and floating dust particles. The audio of ‘Shadow’ is also nothing short of exceptional. The cacophony of animal calls makes the jungle come alive, and the realistic sound effects of everyday activities and relevant background conversations of the people engaged in them give authenticity to towns and villages.
When compared to ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’, ‘Shadow’ has a slightly different graphical style. This is most easily noticed when observing how Lara’s face and hair have been rendered. Another contrast is that a few of the outfits in the newer entry may seem a bit elaborate and ill-suited to her high-intensity physical rigours. Neither of these points takes anything away from the game’s overall excellence and are actually more a matter of personal preference.
In summation, if interesting history, amazing archaeology, immersive environments, and atmospheric ancient ruins is what you are after, ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ offers more than any other game apart from ‘Assassin’s Creed: Origins’.
Disclaimer – A Note on Ownership and Copyright:
No ownership of copyright for the game cover or gameplay images included on this page is claimed by the creator of Escape & Adventure. A credit beneath each gameplay image references the game’s publisher and developer. The images are only shown on this site to help the reader’s appreciation of the superior works they represent. All the images have been used in accordance with what is believed to be fair use. The in-game screenshots were taken manually by Escape & Adventure during actual playthroughs and are not from any other sources. All the literary work contained on this page is the intellectual property of the creator of Escape & Adventure. Consent is required before any of the literary work can be reproduced in any form.