Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PlayStation 4) Review

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This being my first look at a Tomb Raider game since playing the original more than ten years ago, everything feels strange from the outset. With a large cinematic scene to bring me into the world, followed by the first piece of gameplay in freeing Lara’s leg from a large rock, the game already felt detached from the series I once knew. Even seeing our protagonist swear so freely just felt wrong; I understand games move with the times, but it took me a good moment to adjust to everything before me. It’s not to say any of these factors are to the demerit of the game in any way, the introduction did a great job of bringing me into the world and really getting me excited to learn more about this adventure.

Before getting into the bulk of the gameplay, I found the game’s offering of difficulty settings particularly interesting. Instead of providing a standardised experience for each player, or dynamically changing the difficulty to the player’s skill, the game chose to approach this issue with three separate settings; one for combat, one for exploration, and one for puzzles. Offering the choice of easy, normal, or hard for each, you’re given a little explanation of how the game will play after making your decision. As difficulty goes, I think this is a brilliant implementation. Where I usually find myself disliking direct combat in games, I was able to enjoy the other aspects without them being overly simplified to be brought in line with my lack of shooting expertise. Playing on the overall difficulty Rite of Passage (combat easy, exploration normal, puzzles normal), I thoroughly enjoyed the game at my own pace, and as an added bonus have reason to return to it later to attempt it on a higher difficulty. With knowledge of the game’s level design and puzzles already behind me, as well as a New Game+ mode available, the jump between difficulties feels lessened on subsequent playthroughs, further incentivising coming back and stepping it up.

Getting back to the game itself, I have to say it took me by surprise just how pretty everything was. This may be an opinion formed by Shadow of the Tomb Raider being my first PS4 game, my eyes largely used to the less graphically impressive Switch library, but it really caught me off guard. From the rocks to the water, the game had a way of feeling alive and interesting in its environmental design. There were moments I found myself having to take a step back to simply admire what was before me.

Gaining control for the first time was an interesting experience. The game felt responsive and satisfying, but I ultimately had no idea what I was doing. The presentation of tutorial information helped in this respect. By making it move with the camera and blend into the foliage in the scene, it did a good job of maintaining a level of immersion whilst not compromising the information provided, as well as being non-intrusive as to allow those who already know what to do to go on with no holdup.

While the game finds strength in its visuals and sense of exploration within deceptively confined spaces, many of my standout moments came from its stealth segments. In these, Lara must hide herself in grass, moss, or just out of sight, avoiding or picking off enemies as she goes. What’s interesting about these sections is how much they differ depending on your difficulty setting. With easy combat, and normal difficulty set for everything else, I could use Lara’s survival instincts to highlight enemies, and see when one is isolated to be taken out without alerting others. On the higher difficulties where survival instinct is disabled, you begin to find yourself becoming far more vigilant and are forced to rely on other strategies. This more vigilant and skilful approach isn’t exactly the kind of thing I personally enjoy, but its inclusion to cater to a much broader range of player is something I really appreciate seeing.

Maps are often crafted in such a way as to feel open despite being largely confined and linear in nature. Again in relation to the difficulty setting, the areas you explore and how you interact with them change entirely, the linearity standing out in easier settings and lessening as paths are marked less clearly and you aren’t able to see directly where to go. Where you know where to go and choose to explore on an easier setting, exploring becomes an integral aspect of the game when Lara is without her survival instincts; where crafting and resource gathering are a secondary concern on an easier setting, they become a focus when you can’t save the game without materials. Though I keep talking about the game’s difficulty settings here, it’s honestly baffling just how different the game can become with such small changes.

Talking more specifically about map design, I was happy to see how little of the game felt alike, especially considering how almost all of it is set in one of a cave, a forest, or a tomb. It does a good job in creating small landmarks to recognise as you progress through the story, making the world really feel complete and unique, instead of the same things thrown into the same environments in a different order.

Outside of your traditional exploring and tomb raiding, the game is broken up by more obscure gameplay, the unexpected standout of these being the runner sections. Whether escaping disaster or a myriad of enemies throwing themselves and arrows at you, these moments put an emphasis on urgency and scene building. Despite Lara respawning each time I messed up, I felt genuine tension and thrill as I moved through each scripted turn and landed each specified jump. With this tension and urgency, you’re pushed to make jumps you find yourself thinking “can I really reach the other side?”, and while these jumps thrive in this fast-paced context, they’re also used throughout the game to great effect. Constantly satisfying to make, their inclusion outside of these make-or-break sections also serves to reinforce the idea that they are possible, the knowledge you’ve done it before being what pushes you to hit the button each time after.

This kind of reinforcement also works against the game in some respects. Where you’ve made a jump once, you know you can make it again. While it’s still satisfying to see Lara cross large chasms like this, the same can’t be said for her narrowly escaping death in water. The issue in these cases are that there was never really any satisfaction to begin with, instead the payoff being how you narrowly escaped. The knowledge that this escape isn’t as narrow as you were first lead to believe is what’s reinforced as you continue to experience the same section, ultimately growing overused to the point of losing all impact. Thankfully, it’s not so frequent as to be a real concern, but you see it enough to question whether they couldn’t come up with another interesting way to end a water section.

Puzzles in Shadow of the Tomb Raider are an odd thing to discuss, because a lot of the time they didn’t feel like puzzles; rather defined actions as means of progression. While this may largely be because of my puzzling prowess, it more likely comes down to my use of the survival instincts. With this ability highlighting objects of interest and things to be interacted with, I always knew where I needed to be and generally what I needed to be doing. Though you could call the missing part a puzzle, it’d be more apt to describe it as connecting the dots. With the feedback and payoff for completing these sections, it’s still satisfying to get through them, but as I’ve found myself saying a number of times, the game would be entirely different on a higher difficulty. Puzzle difficulty changes how Lara gives the player hints when they activate their survival instincts, with the highest difficulty disabling survival instincts altogether as previously mentioned. On normal difficulty, she’d give vague comments, but these were more often than not things that were easy to figure out by looking at the objects of interest on-screen. If you find yourself wanting to be challenged more in these sections but chose an easier difficulty at the start of the game, you do however have to option to simply forgo using the survival instincts, though you obviously won’t get any kind of achievement or benefit as you would have by choosing a harder difficulty in the first place.

Though I don’t want to say too much about it so as to spoil it, I did rather enjoy the game’s plot. With this being my first look into the modern Tomb Raider trilogy, I was surprised to see how easy it was to pick up. The only part I felt somewhat confused about was the game’s antagonist, but the events of the game felt enough to flesh out his character and group without relying too heavily on your knowledge of previous games, something I really came to appreciate.

All in all, Shadow of the Tomb Raider surprised me. I can’t say I know what I expected going into it, but I can say the journey was a fantastic one. What I played was enough to get me excited about the series once more and explore the previous two titles of the trilogy; and maybe even enough to go back for a second run through without survival instincts to truly experience the game again.

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