There's an old Dril tweet that popped into my mind while I was playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The tweet itself is about forgiving pedophile Jared Fogle, but what's more iconic is what follows Dril's joke-appraisal of the disgraced Subway spokesman. "Sorry. Im sorry. Im trying to remove it [sic]," Dril writes.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is essentially that tweet, but in video game form.
It's a new developer. (Though Crystal Dynamics is still on the job at some capacity.) A new writer. A new version of Lara Croft. But it's not just Lara's face that's changed again, it's her personality too. Like an apology for the first two games making her a low-key sociopath so soon after she mourned the first man she murdered for survival back in 2013. As its tagline proudly states, this is where Lara "becomes" the Tomb Raider because in past games, she apparently wasn't raiding any tombs. Or as widespread complaints noted, never enough.
That's the first order of business that Shadow of the Tomb Raider remedies. There's more tombs in this one, and crypts too. Crypts are essentially traversal puzzles to get a new helpful piece of gear at the end, while tombs are full-on challenges that end with you getting an ability and no item (considering the story, I wonder if this was a purposeful choice of no artifact stealing). Sometimes they feature combat, sometimes they don't, but they always host a puzzle to solve. Some tombs are easier than others. For instance, in one the hardest part was fighting a pack of wolves before I even entered the puzzle area. Another had a hall of mirrors that took me two hours to solve. (In retrospect, I was very much thinking like an idiot when trying to solve it.)
The tombs in Shadow of the Tomb Raider are the best in the series, easily. My only quibble is that I wish there were more of them, even though there's arguably more than its predecessors. Across the playable areas, there's usually just one to three tombs and maybe a crypt, the smaller areas leaning on the former number. The tombs are dense and take some time to complete, leading to the most clever puzzles in the entire game; contrarily, the puzzles you come across in the main story usually take no more than a couple minutes to finish. At least the season pass promises more tombs in the future.
Similar to past games, environments are sometimes linear and sometimes wide open, with plenty of space to back travel and explore. I'd argue it has more in common with the first Tomb Raider than its successor Rise of the Tomb Raider, as the biggest hubs are new towns that don't feel as teeming with danger as Rise's central hub did. It's a nice change too; the towns of Paititi and Kuwaq Yaku are all bustling with locals who are bafflingly ready to give you, a very white outsider, errands to run for them. (Luckily, all the side quests feel relatively unique, and don't fall into the typical fetch quest formula.)
Swimming is also introduced as a new way to explore environments, both above and underwater. Usually, you'll find gold or jade to hammer your axe into at the bottom of a lake, along with plants to pluck. In some spots, you have to deal with piranhas or eels, and the former are particularly annoying to swim around (although, there is tall grass to hide in as they pass by—just hope that a spot to swim up for air is close). The upgrades system hosts an upgrade for how much time you can breath underwater, though throughout my time playing Shadow I never drowned or found myself gasping for air, except for when a story mission necessitated it. Usually I find swimming in games annoying, but in Shadow I never found myself loathing it nor loving it. It was just there.
Stealth has seen a considerable improvement, with Lara now able to tie up foes in trees and slather herself in mud to blend against walls, adding new dimensions to encounters. She's full-on Rambo in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It's a bit ironic considering the central thrust of the story is about her learning how to be empathetic towards other people and cultures for the very first time. Sure, she cares about the people of the ancient civilization of Paititi, but she'll also brutally shove a knife into a Cultist's (the primary foes) neck if she gets the chance!
While the stealth works and the bow remains among the best in video games, it's when guns enter that things fall apart. Guns in Shadow just, frankly, don't feel good. The aiming isn't as snappy as it should be, and they tend to feel overpowered a lot of the time. It almost nullifies the necessity of stealth, which was my favored way to play, knowing that if I wanted to I could blow through an entire pack of enemies with my handy shotgun equipped. Throughout the main story, guns are relied on in the chaotic situations Lara finds herself in. And at every instance, I just wished the pace was slowed down a tad so I could sneak around and think of more creative ways to take out the enemies, rather than just shooting a red barrel.
The combat feels at odds with the story too. Shadow of the Tomb Raider acts as the conclusion to Lara's origin trilogy, putting an end to her long-running battle with villainous entity Trinity and coming to terms with the deaths of her parents again. One of the prevailing problems with the series has been that the characters Lara's surrounded with feel underwritten. In Shadow, that trend persists—especially when it comes to her best buddy and confidant Jonah. Throughout it, I was left confused as to why Jonah even stuck around Lara after all these years, especially after a beginning sequence where she selfishly insists they chase after Trinity rather than help the people whose town was just swept away by a tsunami—a tsunami Lara perceives as her fault after stealing an ancient dagger, supposedly triggering the apocalypse. It's the most compelling character moment in the entire game, where Jonah calls out Lara on her bullshit, and then it's almost never mentioned again.
In Lara's internal monologues at campfires though, she's constantly reflecting. One time, she recalls how foolish she felt in thinking Paititi would be a bunch of ruins and not a thriving city. Her internal thoughts are always along those lines, being surprised at people's actions and cultural touchpoints that anyone else wouldn't be surprised about.
There are two games within Shadow of the Tomb Raider. There's the great one. The one with no guns—only bows, other contraptions, and your wits to guide you. Where smearing Lara with mud and hiding against vines is the only tool the petite-sized woman needs to survive against a dozen men armed to the nines with rifles and shotguns. Where tombs and their puzzles are challenging and a wonder to explore. The one with the moments of Lara reflecting on her actions and it not feeling hypocritical somehow.
And then there's the game where combat falls apart with the introduction of guns. Where everything feels at odds with every Empathy 101 lesson that Lara's supposedly learning along the journey. Where the act of raiding tombs (and often, as other characters note, destroying cultural artifacts in the process) is noted to not be very respectful, and yet she does it anyway. With every reflective step forward, there are two steps back. I love that first game, but the second left me cold and disappointed. Its highs are as high as the mountains surrounding the hidden city of Paititi, while its lows are as deep as the tombs Lara spelunks into with hardly a hint of regret.
Despite a new developer at its helm, Shadow of the Tomb Raider ends up feeling like more of the same. The new additions to stealth are great; the bow continues to be one of the best in all of video games. Then guns enter combat and the self-reflective story falls flat, making Shadow sometimes a chore to get through. The puzzles in those tombs are pretty spectacular though. I guess she really is the Tomb Raider now.