Square Enix’s "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" is the third and final entry in the "RebootCroft trilogy," coming after 2015's "Rise of the Tomb Raider" and following the adventures of a young Lara Croft before the dual pistols gambit would catch on with her. The game somehow managed to jump to the top of Steam sales charts before my knowing it had even released, and it wasn't until I had already begun playing the thing that I saw its YouTube adverts. The game takes place after the events of the previous game, scouring lost ruins in Mexico to prevent the Trinity Corporation from getting their hands on series McGuffin four, in an intro where Croft ends up causing the apocalypse and the main villain basically scolds her for it. "Rise of the Tomb Raider" slipped past my radar on release, though having played this game I can confidently say that I don’t plan on going back and doing so. The game is, to say the least, not fantastic.
It is what you would expect a Square Enix game to be; lots of style and flash with virtually no substance to back it up. After deciding that causing the apocalypse isn't doing much to help the audience like her, Croft and her partner Jonah Maiava decide they must go to Peru to prevent the villains from getting their hands on McGuffin number five, which when paired with McGuffin number four, can make a nice conversation piece for the living room or something. It’s a Square Enix game, so the story gets very stupid very quickly. Gameplay-wise it's your traditional triple-A crafting, semi-open world but also not really, crouch walk behind an enemy and press X for five full seconds of pre-rendered takedown, third-person-shooting collectathon. So you run around rather linear levels interspersed with going to town to do talk-heavy sidequests, rubbing your hands on every bush, rock, and patch of mud to gather upgrade materials so you can craft more upgrades and ammo along the way. Interestingly, the game has rather de-emphasized combat for all the rubbing our hands on bushes it has us do. Through the game’s main story there are only a handful of encounters. Played right it could have worked, but given all the game's upgrade systems, crafting, and money systems are based around the combat it feels like a rather odd choice. To supplement this the game instead focuses on puzzle solving and "Assassin's Creed"-style parkour through the levels. The parkour is a bit shallow but is still the most fun I had with the game, and at least ledges and climbable surfaces are, for the most part, clear, but the game has a nasty habit of telling you about a mechanic as you're about to fall to your death from not knowing it. The puzzles are simple and not very challenging or interesting, marked by one puzzle I literally solved by accident.
Other than that, the game is a whole lot of walking around and rubbing your hands on bushes. As one could predict from Square Enix, the games strengths lie in its capabilities, visually and auditorily. The environments, particularly the skybox, are so incredibly detailed with colors that contrast and pop off of the screen, and give a true sense of sheer volume to the Peruvian jungle. The sounds, be it bubbling lava or the creatures of the jungle, give a sense of presence to the environments, and the guns actually sound like they are loaded with bullets rather than paintballs, packing a satisfying, meaty bang. The animation as well is of particular note, the way characters' eyes move during cutscenes is realistic and gives a real edge over most games that have characters stare unblinking in one direction. The puzzles as well, though simplistic in mechanics, are all very well thought out in terms of their physical designs, making them feel grounded, like these structures actually could have feasibly been built long ago. Though like I said, it's a Square Enix game, so while the characters' animations and sound quality are amazing, the actual dialogue leaves much to be desired. Throughout the game, Croft struggles with an acute illness that makes her incapable of holding individual thoughts inside her head, and must instead think everything out loud at all times. By the end of the game, you’ll be so relieved to just look at a book without having Croft loudly announce that it is in fact a book.
But what perhaps ultimately sentences the game is two all new pinnacles of unwelcome triple-A gaming cliches: first, underwater stealth. As in, having to hide from underwater enemies by concealing yourself in seaweed. The art of patience and waiting for the perfect moment to strike doesn't exactly work when you have 15 seconds before you die of hypoxia. And with full 3D vertical movement possible you can't just walk forward while in the grass, so you end up having propel yourself into the ground at an angle to stay hidden. Second, and by far the game's greatest sin, are quick-time events (QTEs). QTEs are the most unwelcome, lazy, and irritating trend of modern gaming, popping up at random with no rhyme or reason and doing nothing more than forcing the player to rewatch the cutscene if they, say, weren’t paying attention because of the terrible dialogue. But in the world of Square Enix, there is nowhere safe from QTEs, the piranhas have grown legs and come to bite you on land. Yes, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider you get mid-gameplay QTEs. So if you were in the middle of a high intensity sequence of jumping across platforms over an abyss, going through all the motions to make sure you land correctly with the game's controls, you can now get randomly killed for not pressing the wrong button. So actually learning to do what the game teaches you to do means nothing now because the game can roll its dice and decide it might as well eat that cake while it has it. By the end, though, I got a sense the game was just as fed up with Croft as I was. The series continues its tradition of "Dead Space"-style, over-the-top death cutscenes, so every time you miss the button press because Croft's brain needs a midair reboot, you get to watch a scene straight out of a snuff film. If I had a nickel for every time Croft gets maimed, mauled, cut, shot, crushed, impaled, burned, tossed, drowned or disemboweled I’d have enough to bribe Square Enix into letting me play the game the way they told me how to.
Final Score: 3/10, riddled with cliche and filler, this trend chasing collectathon is a perfect representation of the style over substance attitude that plagues Square Enix.