Imagine if your favourite gaming hero changed every time they got a new game. Mario wouldn’t exactly be Mario without his trademark ‘stache and round nose, especially if they replaced him with some kind of muscular Nathan Drake type. But that’s exactly what’s happening with Lara Croft. We’re now reaching the third and final entry in the reboot series, and for Shadow of the Tomb Raider (opens in new tab) Lara’s undergoing yet another transformation. You’d expect the finale in a trilogy to move our long-serving heroine towards the fierce, independent tomb raider we’ve known for over 20 years. But instead, we’re presented with Lara as a more petulant, selfish child harbouring some serious Daddy issues, rather than the dual pistol-wielding icon we know and love.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes us to the climes of South America, with this particular section of the game set in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival, which helps create an opening full of colour and frivolity, not dissimilar to the opening of James Bond Spectre. The scene opens with Lara and her old pal Jonah trying to decipher a Mayan stone carving involving some kind of pink fish. She’s already interrupting him, pushing her theories and telling him exactly what they need to do. Their relationship is already not on the best of terms and by the end of this early section of the game it’s clear that this isn’t quite the Lara we’ve come to know.
The pair are in Mexico trying to take down the goons over at Trinity, who are still the bane of their lives. And as she weaves through the Dia de los Muertos celebrations, there are Trinity soldiers already looking for her. As the story usually goes, there’s an artefact to find, ancient languages to decipher and puzzles to solve. And unfortunately, it’s all a bit predictable. She finds an ornate dagger in a hidden Mayan temple, reads a mural that foretells an apocalypse brought on by the Mayan god of creation and destruction, and despite the fact she’s already had quite a few tomb-robbing experiences, she still decides to take the dagger anyway. Cue the tsunami and the start of the end of the world (well done, Lara). Of course, she gets ambushed by Trinity, who take the dagger and chastise her for triggering the apocalypse.
No matter how beautiful the entire experience looks - and it really does look fantastic - or how new the locale, there’s no getting away from the fact that this feels like retreading old territory. Retelling the same kind of story tropes even in this hour-long segment took away any of the drama or surprise. Even the point where a young boy dangles above the killer waves loses its impact because you know the leaps and grabs of the wall traversal between you and him is there to mean you won’t ever be able to save him.
Even the gameplay isn’t really pushing any boundaries. Yes, Lara can now rappel down from walls and swing to new locations, or hide in the vines growing up the walls for extra vantage points or for a well timed stealth attack. But they’re hardly innovative. In one sense, that’s a good thing. This is the third entry in a trilogy and getting back into Lara’s moveset and arsenal should feel like slipping your feet into your old slippers, comfortable and warm. But this is also a game arriving at what feels like the end of a console generation, and it’s a game trying to compete with the likes of God of War, or even Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. And, comparatively, this feels like an incredibly safe play with unintuitive controls and puzzles that still involve rope arrows and precision jumps. Same old combat. Same old drama.
It doesn’t help that Lara is far from likeable here either. She comes across badly from the start, even in the design decisions that have been made for her. In the opening area where she’s following the Trinity goons and trying to blend in, she’s wearing a hooded poncho in a sea of festival goers wearing jeans and t-shirts, which feels on the verge of cultural appropriation. There’s also the fact when she converses with said festival goers they speak in Spanish and she understands them, but can only reply in English, which seriously jars. And then there’s the closing moments of this section, where she argues with Jonah about what to do next. With the tsunami raging behind them and moments after swimming through a now underwater shop full of bodies, Lara’s ready to move on and stop Trinity from finding a silver box. Jonah, on the other hand, wants to take a moment to help the people of the town now destroyed by the tsunami she just triggered. Lara comes across as a spoilt brat, totally focused and absorbed by her own quest, rather than feeling any kind of humanity. Everyone’s fed up of the tomb raider’s bullshit nowadays… maybe even me.
If the gameplay is staying mostly the same from the last two games, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has got to have a seriously strong story to carry the trilogy through to a triumphant conclusion. But with this darker, selfish Lara at the helm, I worry the final chapter isn’t up to the challenge.