As the game starts, Lara is on the trail of Trinity. She has been trying to shut those paramilitary lunatics down, while also keeping them from grabbing any new relics. After she inadvertently starts a Mayan apocalypse that threatens to destroy the world, she and her best friend, Jonah, go on a whirlwind adventure leading to lost cities, exotic jungles, ancient tombs, and underwater grottos.
The story is solid, action movie fare, and it’s what I am looking for in a Tomb Raider game. There are highs and lows that build to an intense crescendo and furious final battle for the fate of the world punctuated by a few more poignant moments that show you Lara is still maturing as a person.
There are a few of those moments here that really get to the core of who Lara is. It’s an interesting choice that I wish was explored a little more. She can be a flawed person with bad judgement and tunnel vision sometimes. As smart and well-traveled as she may be, there is still a lot to learn about life, the world, and herself. (You have to leave some character growth for the sequels.)
The great gameplay from previous titles is improved with all the old mechanics and some new tricks. Rappelling from cliff faces down to lower platforms allows for more interesting, more flexible, and larger level design. Cliff overhangs are now also climbable to reach even higher peaks. This results in a world with more verticality than ever. All those plants you collect can be crafted into items that heal, show you plant and animal locations, and give you more endurance.
Although the open world is broken into smaller hubs, they are immense and begging to be explored. There are monuments to decipher, relics and lore to be found, gold and jade treasures to be collected, camp fires to light, and animals to hunt while avoiding the jaguars that will hunt you. With all of this to do and discover, I had no shortage of icons across the map.
You won’t be able to access everything when you initially see it. You will need specific tools or weapons to open some areas. With fast travel available at every camp site, you are invited to explore at your own pace, and it never felt like a job or a to-do list. Lara’s Survival Instincts will temporarily highlight animals, plants, and people as you explore, which helps to find even more.
I appreciated the solitary exploration more, but, since Trinity cannot be convinced to stop through conversation, cake, and a cup of tea, there is some combat. You have a variety of hand guns and rifles, but the bow is still one of the best tools for any encounter. All weapons are upgradeable using some of the many resources you can find in your travels.
The game clearly pushes you to a more stealthy approach over guns a’blazing. Lara is not Rambo. Stealth allows her to carefully take out an entire group of soldiers without breaking a sweat, or even use a fear arrow to make them start shooting other soldiers for you. There are trees you can climb and string up your kills. You can apply mud and hide along the walls to grab your prey when they are isolated. The stealth has been improved and combat is not your best choice. Blast a few rounds when needed, but it’s a quick way to die in most situations.
Not every character in the world is looking for headshot. The towns are filled with villagers going about their daily lives. Some of them are merchants with new tools, weapons, and supplies to sell. Some of them can offer side quests that reveal a hidden location, new gear, and more experience. They were always worthwhile and more experience will earn you more skills.
Skills help to keep you from death and improve Lara’s abilities. As you gain experience, you will accrue skill points that can be used to help you in three areas. They improve your fighting ability, resource collection and use, and survival instincts. All of them cost a different number of skill points and vary in usefulness. Being able to breathe longer underwater is great. Being able to see traps when I use survival instincts may keep me from being skewered.
The most enjoyable part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the tombs. They are really spectacular. You can skip these challenges, but you would be missing the best part of the game. Every time a new one popped up on the map, I couldn’t wait to explore it. At the end, you always gain a new skill that is very useful, but that wasn’t really my main motivation.
You have to go off the beaten path to reach a tomb. Each tomb will lead to a cavernous room with old ruins and machinery. These are truly colossal areas with a puzzle to solve, before you can reach the final mural. The puzzles are not complicated, but some trial and error may be required.
That trial and error can be made easier or harder. You can adjust three different difficulty categories at any time to reach your perfect balance. The exploration, combat, and puzzle difficulties can range from easy to normal to hard, and they make a difference. Combat makes enemies more or less challenging. A hard exploration removes the white paint showing the path in the world. An easy puzzle difficulty allows Lara to give you more direct hints for the solution. It’s a great system that I hope more developers will add to future games. It gave me more control to tailor a game to my liking.
From the beginning, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is packed full of eye candy. It is one of the most gorgeous games on the PS4 I have ever seen. From the beginning sequence in Mexico to the carved and heavily detailed ruins, everything is infused with amazing design and detailed textures that kept my eyes popping out of my head. There are parts of the game I stopped to admire, such as a beautiful view across a valley or a deep drop into a pool of water. There is a photo mode if you want to keep one of these shots.
The water sections are another place that made this game special. As a water snob, the water in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is carefully hued from dark blue to turquoise. Often you will have to dive below the surface to move to another objective, which treats you to the movement of refracted light from the surface decreasing as you go deeper. Being underwater is breathtaking in every sense of the word.
The lighting in the game is among the best I have ever seen as well. There are little rays of light from holes in the ceiling that differ from the flickering fire light in other areas. Every source seems to move naturally. With the strong focus on lighting, there are three options for you to change and correct the lighting for your TV. It’s really amazing to see it in action.
If you have a PS4 Pro, you can choose between a higher frame rate or a higher resolution. I chose a higher frame rate, since I only have a 1080p TV. As someone who values a smoother experience, it was the right choice for me either way.
Sound is another place where Shadow of the Tomb Raider is spectacular. The jungles feel alive with noises from animals, insects, birds, and the brush of vegetation as you pass through it. If you have directional audio in speakers or headphones, you are in for treat from the beginning to the end.
Brian D’Oliveira’s score feels like the perfect complement to the visuals. It is more ambient than melodic, but it does use authentic instruments to add an extra dimension to the overall experience. It all blends seamlessly together, until it jumps out to grab you like a jaguar in the jungle. It is a technical and artistic triumph.
There is the occasional audio and visual quirk, but nothing that ever came close to ruining the game. The only minor problem I will mention is one I see in many games. Please pronounce character names the same way. People said Lara differently. Lara and another character would pronounce the same name differently in the same conversation. It’s a nitpick that doesn’t impact the game, but it’s very distracting and easily fixed.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider perfectly nails the ideas that made the reboot great and is the perfect end to the trilogy. The world is beautiful and sounds stupendous. The areas are massive. The underwater sections are delightful and tense. The tombs are the pinnacle for the series and showcase the impressive design that is present in so many parts of this game. If you are looking for a great adventure, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is one of the most impressive games this year.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider PS4 Review
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has some of the best visuals and sound of any game this year. This last entry in the trilogy has improved every aspect of the previous two games while adding some new ideas. Exploration is both thrilling and satisfying, and the excellent tombs are enormous puzzles waiting to be discovered and conquered.
Other than a few minor audio and video flaws, the story and characters fall just a little short of greatness, but that won’t keep you from enjoying an amazing game. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara finally realizes her full potential, and it is quite the ride.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using a PS4 Pro.