The plot of Shadow of the Tomb Raider — the culmination of one of the more perplexingly introspective trilogies in big-budget video games — makes an argument so self-critical and biting that I half wonder if its creators believe this will be the final entry in the long-running franchise, at least until the next inevitable reboot.
More than a dozen games into the series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider suggests the core of the Tomb Raider franchise has been rotten since its debut in 1996. Its heroine, now less grossly sexualized than in her early appearances, is no less a colonial villain, destroying the antiquities and histories of entire cultures in a dogged, borderline tragic pursuit to preserve her own. Croft is an heir not just to the wealth of her aristocratic, tomb-plundering parents, but also their crimes, their shame and their guilt.
This sort of reflection is jarring to find in a big-budget sequel to a beloved series, but it isn’t new. The modern Tomb Raider trilogy has an opinion of the broader franchise’s legacy that is most generously described as “love/hate” — each entry fluctuating more severely between reverence and disgust, asking the player, now and then, to take a breath and meditate on the repercussions of all the buildings and bodies they’ve destroyed along the way.
2013’s Tomb Raider rebooted Lara Croft, trading Barbie-doll proportions and a knotted backstory for a young woman with a simple albeit tragic past gradually discovering her inner strength. Strength, in this case, is measured by how well she can scale cliffs and choke out private military contractors. It’s a comparably empowering game, mired by repulsive death sequences that mutilate Croft’s body, borrowing from the aesthetic of low-grade torture porn. 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider did more of the same, just better, developing Croft into a three-dimensional character, and expanding the scope and focus of the game, emphasizing exploration of a pseudo-open world and hunting enemies with brutally powerful weapons and kill moves. It also kept the snuff-film death sequences.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the first entry to be developed by Eidos Montreal (in collaboration with trilogy steward Crystal Dynamics), builds neatly on the work of its predecessor. It has a deliciously melodramatic story, no fewer than a dozen stunningly drawn vistas and some excellent gunplay. The optional tombs and crypts — massive environmental puzzles that unlock new gear and abilities, typically free of combat — aren’t quite as memorable as those in Rise of the Tomb Raider. But in exchange, the central throughline feels more authored and propulsive than in the previous game.
You still spend most of your time dangling from walls, thieving treasure and upgrading abilities, repeating this process until you evolve from superhero to demigod. The modern Tomb Raider games emphasize fun, particularly Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Even as their story darkens and becomes more introspective, the creators aren’t afraid to make Croft a little too powerful or the story a little too cartoonish, so long as it keeps a smile on the player’s face.
It’s refinement rather than revision, but considering the quality of the past two games, simply meeting the established bar, let alone inching above it, is an accomplishment unto itself. In fact, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the series has finally approached its contemporaries: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (with which it shares combat that I can only describe as action-stealth, the hero stalking their prey before unleashing a flurry of bullets, fire and sharp objects) and the Uncharted series (with which it shares its stunning nature vistas and teeth-clenching climbing). It doesn’t meet the cinematic quality and fluidity of Naughty Dog’s best work; instead, the climbing feels looser and more player-controlled, while the combat feels more aggressive, the weapons more powerful.
But the most potent connection between the Tomb Raider trilogy and Naughty Dog’s popular action-adventure series is the ambition to say something, even if that something is a criticism of what your characters have been to this point.
The game’s most consequential and often messy improvements stem from its themes. Since the franchise’s debut, Tomb Raider’s designers have struggled to overcome its ugliest tendencies. The sexist marketing; the appropriating art design; the general Western gaze toward “exotic” locales and peoples. In the two most recent games, Crystal Dynamics tried to repair or acknowledge these flaws, giving Croft personality, friendships and depth, and largely training her weapons on a dastardly ancient order with Thanos-esque ambitions.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider lacks their subtlety, though that’s hardly a strike against it. It doesn’t just seek to update an anachronistic franchise; it lashes at it. It goes considerably further with its antagonism of the central tenets of the Tomb Raider series. The ethical ickiness of tomb raiding isn’t danced around; it’s the entire dance. And though Lara Croft is still trying to save the world, her ego is unquestionably responsible for that which could bring its end.
The prologue, set within a noir-lit Día de los Muertos celebration in Cozumel, slowly boils to a showdown in which Croft is shown, in no uncertain terms, that she’s the villain — or at least a villain. We don’t just hear this. We see it. Here and elsewhere in the game, the writers, sometimes to a fault, hammer home that the deaths of men, women and even children are the direct result of the actions of Croft and, by proxy, the player.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s creators get what ails the franchise, and they want to ensure their audience gets it, too. Less evident is the cure. This is still very much a Tomb Raider game; every thrilling set piece is also an exercise in having your cake and eating it too. Its body count feels higher than that of any other entry, with many targets being indigenous people and the ancient tombs they revere and protect. Fittingly, there’s a funky tug-of-war in which local characters both admire Croft and treat her like what she is: a human wrecking ball penduluming with lethal force between mutual enemies and the locals’ most invaluable artifacts, doing slightly more good than harm.
This Lara Croft is paradoxically easy to both adore and despise, occasionally within the same sequence. She’s certainly grittier than ever before. When she’s not battling paramilitary forces, she’s fighting through her childhood memories. To prep for combat, she can now cover herself in mud, allowing her to blend into vines, leaves and various pools of unidentifiable muck. The world rises to her grimness, the stages filled with fire and bodily fluids. Gallons of blood simmer in caverns, waiting to be repurposed for solving a puzzle or two. On the Indiana Jones adventure spectrum, Shadow of the Tomb Raider leans toward Temple of Doom, time and again surrounding Croft with desiccated corpses. And like Temple of Doom, it has a tendency to mix spectacular set pieces with very questionable depictions of indigenous peoples.
At times, I wonder if the carnage will push away fans who prefer the series’ pulpiness to its gut-churning death sequences (making a disappointing return for a third time). In the game’s midsection, Croft takes such a drastic mental shift that I’m still wondering if, canonically, she died in the seconds before this emotional pivot, and that everything that follows is a revenge fantasy playing in her mind in the moment before her soul leaves her body.
This sequence and the final third of the game elevate an already violent and supernatural series to a new level. The turn is shocking and a bit out of place, and at the same time, it hits like an adrenaline syringe of fun at the exact moment the story begins to lag. The final act fully embraces Croft as a master of heavy weapons and improvised explosives. Over three games, Lara doesn’t become a tomb raider; she becomes Rambo. It’s as fun to play as it’s strange to watch.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider lives in an uncanny, often disorienting gray space. And while I am conflicted by how it bounces between self-aware criticism and shameless spectacle, the game is not. If anything, it relishes being a tonal seesaw. Its creators recognize the flaws of the series, and they hang a lantern on them, demonstrating some awareness and perhaps some remorse — and then they move on. Tomb Raider being problematic doesn’t mean they want to destroy or even revise Tomb Raider into something else. Rather, they try to repair as much as they can without fundamentally changing the game into something it isn’t.
The Tomb Raider series has outlasted the vast majority of video games and inspired many imitators because it’s thrilling to role-play as a devil-may-care adventurer, evading death traps, navigating gilded crypts, escaping enemies by the pads of your fingers. What I love about these games is their guarantee of competency, craftsmanship and care. Even the things I find repulsive are done with an atypical sincerity. (If you want ultra-realistic depictions of pits filled with corpses, have I got the scenes for you!)
Similarly, it takes a lot to get me energized with shooting mechanics. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s gunplay is some of my favorite in games, with arrows and bullets taking down foot soldiers without obliterating their heads or knocking off limbs. While the world is filled with blood and guts, the gunplay here has the impact of Doom but the bodily harm of GoldenEye. Bodies crumple like ragdolls and contort like amateur mimes.
The game is consistently playful and accommodating, sometimes to a fault. There’s a shaggy puppiness to Eidos Montreal’s most noble efforts to please everyone. Like Assassin’s Creed games, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with a note about how the project is the result of collaboration between a diverse group people of different backgrounds and beliefs. The settings screen includes an accessibility menu that features great subtitles and closed-captioning options, along with a variety of difficulty tweaks.
There’s even an option to have the voice acting match the native tongue of the various characters, a welcome addition that doesn’t quite work the way it’s intended. Since everybody speaks their native tongue, it feels as if everybody understands every language. Lara only speaks English, even when talking to an indigenous person who’s never had contact with the outside world. They understand Lara, and perhaps more miraculously, Lara understands them when they speak in their own language. This causes some unintentionally laughable moments in some of the game’s most tense scenes, when Lara’s perfect English should immediately blow her cover.
This recurs throughout the game: Good intentions produce mixed results. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an occasionally tone-deaf game, one that can’t escape the broader franchise’s urge to frame its heroine as the ultimate white savior, both pillager and protector of the vulnerable. It’s also arrestingly beautiful, accommodating and eager to please. It can’t change what Tomb Raider is, but it aspires to be better than what it was.
I’ve come to love the game’s name, which describes its situation concisely. Lara Croft’s latest adventure lives in the shadow of Tomb Raider — the tacky marketing of the 1996 debut, the prestige of the modern trilogy. Eventually, Shadow of the Tomb Raider succumbs to the darkness, repeating many of the series’ usual mistakes, but along the way it shines a thrilling and refreshing light.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by Square Enix. It was completed on an Xbox One X. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.