DEMO REVIEW: ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’

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I haven’t been a fan of the Tomb Raider rebooted franchise even though Lara Croft has been my hero since I played Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II in 1997. When the first reboot game debuted in 2013 I played it and I was left extremely dissatisfied. It didn’t have the tombs I grew to love, nor did it have the elements of platforming and puzzles that made the franchise iconic and even revolutionary. It was the same in 2015 with Rise of the Tomb Raider. I thought it would also be the same with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but I was wrong.

This PAX West, I got to play a 45-minute demo that took me through every mechanic available in the game, and I was blown away. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, published by Square Enix and developed by Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal, it feels like a combination of the original series and the reboot games, seemlessly blending two eras of Lara in one demo.  This game is a moment of meeting Lara’s journey from the classic games through a reworked survivor’s eye.

The puzzles are more difficult, there is a high amount of platforming as you scale the remnants of a Mayan temple, and finally, the underwater pieces of Lara’s adventure are all reminiscent of the original games. Even with these callbacks to older mechanics, the fight sequences played out like the rebooted games that came before, falling in line with the now tradition combo system and adventure game run and gun, or sneak through.

The opening of the demo starts in Mexico, Lara is instructed to wear a Dia de Muertos mask to blend in as she slinks through the crowd. Personally, I was worried about this and moments like it when they showed her face painted in the E3 release trailer. I was worried that the iconography of Calaveras (sugar skulls) would be abused. In what I saw, they weren’t. Instead, the Mexican environment she walked through was filled with ofrendas (altars) and marigolds, she wore the mask to pass through it, not to mock it nor as a stylistic choice.

As you enter a ruined complex, a cinematic I didn’t get to enjoy thoroughly because of initial sound issues at my station at the Square Enix booth, you move into a familiar place, a claustrophobic cave. Lara moves as she did before, the game focuses more on cinematic beauty than ease of movement for those new to the controls. It’s here that the only flaw I have with the game sticks out: it’s too dark. Yes, she’s in a cave and using a flashlight, but the beauty of the game itself is lost in moments when the world around Lara isn’t lit. Adjusting your gamma settings might help this issue but ultimately you lose details as you move through the demo that should be pronounced and strain your eyes to see even when a small patch of land is illuminated by her flashlight.

But from a dull entrance, I’m met with the one instance that brought back all the joy I had from the original underwater games: the water. Moving to the Mayan temple, which you will scale to complete the mission, you must enter the water. The most beautiful part of the game is underwater and the difficulty is something that I needed back in my tomb raiding life. The moments of rushing to find an air hole and the dread you feel when the camera starts to haze bring all of my frustrations from Tomb Raider II to the surface and has me excited for the more expansive underwater environments and exploration that will be available in the rest of the game.

The task of scaling the temple is one that involves extensive use of platforming and puzzle solving. With platforms responsive to weight and an interactive environment to manipulate them, this taste of the play sets the tone for what I believe to be the most platforming Lara has seen since the early 2000s. We’ll have to wait and see but the number of times I jumped only to fall to my death was high and the survival sense, although helpful, seems to have had it’s time reduced, making it even more difficult to spot the answers to the puzzles. The Eidos Montreal team promised more tombs than ever before, and with this taste of the game, I hope they deliver.

The combat system is perhaps the piece of the demo that is most like the games before it, it’s a simple adventure game run and gun that has grown to include combo features and offer some incentive for the greater use of stealth. The ability to move unseen is necessary for larger mobs and I can ultimately see it adding a level of difficulty to the game in future levels, especially with the climbing and complete interaction with jungle around her, bringing the game slightly off the rails for a more fluid action sequence.

It isn’t that I didn’t like the fighting mechanics, it that they felt the same as other games out at the moment as well as the games before. Not everything about a game needs to be revolutionary or different to make a game good, but the elaborated sneak mechanics are just different enough that the combat system will pull me in.

The star of this demo was the tomb, and ultimately a Lara that is more capable and in her element than the others before. From her conversation in the Mexican bar to the way she’s dressed, every piece of her invokes a woman ready and determined to take on her environment. Not only has the level design been gorgeous, albeit too muddy at times, but the character model of Lara is the best I’ve seen and the breakdown of her gear that the companies have provided (above) had me excited.  Not to mention, Lara’s biceps are going to be gym inspiration for a generation.

As a fan of the franchise since I could play a video game unassisted and to completion, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is giving me life. I’ve been waiting for this version of my first hero. The game releases on Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4 on September 14th and I can’t wait to solve puzzles and platform my way to the life of a Tomb Raider.