This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Here at RogerEbert.com, we’ve been attempting to discuss video game culture that has close ties with cinema. There are many, many games that owe a great deal to their movie influences, and vice versa. If you don’t think hit games have impacted the blockbuster market, you’re not paying attention. And so we’ve looked closely at incredibly cinematic franchises like “Resident Evil,” “Uncharted,” and “Assassin’s Creed” in an effort to examine these ties between the two mediums. One of the most film-influenced franchises, and one that has been adapted with two different leading ladies already, is “Tomb Raider,” which returned last week with a third new game in its modern iteration, the (mostly) thrilling “Shadow of the Tomb Raider.” A few difficulty spikes and repetitive mechanics hold the game back from the very high achievements of the 2013 reboot of this franchise and the 2015 sequel “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” but this is still a wildly entertaining game that owes a great deal to Indiana Jones, superhero movies, and even the cinematic incarnations of Lara Croft to date, played by Angelina Jolie and Alicia Vikander.
Lest you’re completely unfamiliar, “Tomb Raider” is old enough to drink. Premiering 22 years ago with the first Eidos Interactive game for the Sega Saturn and PlayStation, “Tomb Raider” was an instant hit. In 1996, games were still largely linear affairs, moving from point A to point B, and a world that felt at least a little like it allowed exploration was revolutionary. "Tomb Raider" sold seven million copies and was heralded as one of the best games of all time. It would become a template not only for action-adventure games but influence action-adventure films as well, and spawn a nearly-annual franchise. “Tomb Raider II” followed in 1997, “Tomb Raider III” in 1998, and so on and so on. The franchise lost some of its steam in the ‘00s, first rebooted really in the unique-to-the-franchise “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” in 2010.
The true reboot came in 2013 with the phenomenal “Tomb Raider.” Developer Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing board, reimagining the origin of Lara Croft in a game that deftly blends action and puzzle-solving into a perfect blend. I don’t have enough time to play games I often want to play but “Tomb Raider” is good enough that I played it twice. And 2015’s “Rise of the Tomb Raider” nearly matches it.
Which brings us to “Shadow of the Tomb Raider.” If Lara and this world is starting to feel a little stale, it’s still a game filled with remarkable set pieces and gorgeous visuals that recalls classic action cinema like “Indiana Jones” and the serials that inspired it. It picks up two months after the end of the last game as Lara and her colleague/friend Jonah continue to alternate treasure-hunting with stopping the nefarious activities of the paramilitary group named Trinity. There’s an interesting through-line in these modern games in that the writers get around the potentially problematic idea that Croft is pillaging other cultures by suggesting, well, she’s doing it for the right reasons. Lara is the classic treasure hunter in the Indy model, the one who comes from a lineage of historians who seek to preserve instead of destroy.
“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” gets a little more biblical than some of the other games in the series. In a tomb near Cozumel, Lara discovers evidence of a hidden city and finds a dagger in a place that suggests the apocalypse will befall the world if anyone disturbs its placement. Lara does anyway, and, well, things start to fall apart. There’s a tsunami sequence in Cozumel that recalls the horror of the main set piece of “The Impossible,” as you have to dodge waves of water, jumping from debris to debris as you try to get away. There are several of these escape sequences in “Shadow,” and they’re among the most well-designed and heart-racing gaming moments of the year.
Lara loses the dagger—of course—and tracks the villain who stole it to the Amazon, where she and Jonah crash-land in Peru, finding their way to the small village of Paititi, the location shown in the murals back in Cozumel. Here’s where “Shadow” truly echoes the last games as its blend of open-world and direct storytelling comes to life. Much of the structure is the same, including base camps at which you can upgrade skills and items, and optional tombs to explore, earning more XP and finding more treasures. The best narrative element is how well the developers of “Shadow” blend the two styles of open world and direct storytelling. This one leans more heavily on the latter than many open world games. Yes, you can explore or fast travel between bonfires in your pursuit for 100% completion, but the game’s story does push forward from plot point to plot point in a relatively direct fashion.
And that’s one of the few problems with “Shadow.” The story plunges Lara into Peruvian culture in a way that doesn’t always work, especially after she’s forced to dress up in local outfits to help villagers survive. The game opens with a crawl that points out how respectful the writers have tried to be regarding the cultures they’re using, but that doesn’t mean it always works. They try to offset the white savior argument by presenting us with a strong female local named Unuratu, and “Shadow” never feels as offensive as it arguably could have, but the blend between gun-toting action and ancient ceremonies doesn’t always mix smoothly. Without spoiling anything, the game does address the concept of a white woman pillaging non-white lands rather directly, and effectively, as it approaches its final act. And one could argue that the entire narrative—which features a potential apocalypse brought on by Lara’s tomb raiding—is a commentary on the lack of consequences she’s faced in the past.
Political commentary aside, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” finds the right blend of action, suspense, and puzzle-solving. That it falls just short of the last two is more a commentary on their quality than its own. This is still a very fun game that is coming out in a ridiculously crowded market (“Marvel's Spider-Man” landed the week before and new entries in the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” and “Red Dead Redemption” franchises will dominate October.) Fans of action games and the treasure-hunting storytelling that has inspired this entire franchise shouldn’t let this one slip by. And I can’t wait to see where Lara Croft goes next.
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