Hands-on preview: Lara Croft takes a dark turn in Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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Apr 30, 2018

It doesn't take more than a passing glance at Shadow of the Tomb Raider's key art to realize the series, and its artifact-hunting heroine, are about to take a dark turn. The image features Lara Croft in the foreground, looking like she's about to go feral, with a striking solar eclipse illuminating the sky behind her. The evocative art recalls that moment we've all witnessed in so many horror movies, when man is about to morph into monster.

While we don't expect Lara to go full werewolf in her next adventure, this image — and our recent hands-on session with the game — suggests it won't be just another relic-chasing romp for young Lady Croft. The first clue comes in the opening moments of our demo, where we find Lara not evading danger, but actively chasing it. Rather than breathlessly surviving a shipwreck or avalanche, as she did during the openings of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, respectively, she's scheming and plotting at the start of Shadow.

More specifically, she's tracking rival treasure hunters Trinity, the group she believes to be responsible for her father's death. Upon donning a skeleton mask, she stealthily navigates the crowd at a Day of the Dead festival in Cozumel, Mexico. Feeling more like Hitman's titular assassin than a swashbuckling adventurer, we use a knife and her signature bow to take out a pair of targets with surgical precision. We're also introduced to a new skill that wouldn't seem out of place in a hired killer's playbook; blending in among vines and other foliage, Laura can now hide in plain sight, emerging like a viper to silence her enemies.

Credit: Square Enix

As we reach the demo's tomb, we quickly discover it's not just Lara's personality that's taken a dark turn. Filled with spiky contraptions, and partially submerged in water, the crypt feels more like a death trap than a majestic spot to reflect on puzzle solutions. The soggy sections are particularly murky — literally and figuratively — as they include claustrophobia-inducing crevices to squeeze through and eel-like creatures to evade. Lara can also only survive for as long as the oxygen in her lungs lasts, adding another tension-ramping element to the underwater tomb-raiding; reaching one of the few life-saving air pockets to catch a quick breath feels as rewarding as acquiring a priceless artifact.

Despite the crypt's many perils, we manage to reach its treasure before Trinity. In her haste to score the loot before her adversaries, however, Lara makes a mistake with far-reaching consequences. Removing the relic — a dagger with apparently apocalyptic powers — triggers a city-swallowing tsunami. As the tomb begins crumbling around her, Trinity finally catches up with Lara and accuses her of unlocking the "cleansing." While explaining that she's essentially set a series of events in motion that will end the world, her antagonist actually comes off as the more rational one, while Lara almost looks like the fortune-and-glory-hunting foe.

This point is further hit home when, upon her escape, Lara witnesses the deadly consequences of her actions. The people who'd previously been celebrating the Day of the Dead festival have become the causalities of her selfish act. The protagonist, so confident and determined in her actions just minutes earlier, isn't even able to save a young boy before he's sucked into the storm. Like so many of the set pieces from the series' previous two games, Lara's escape from the natural (or not so natural) disaster is a pulse-pounding sequence of death-defying events. The higher stakes, however, lend the scene even more dramatic weight than her previous feats of derring-do.

Credit: Square Enix

The demo concludes on a quieter note, but one that continues to peel back the layers of Croft’s darker side. Surveying the damage done by the cataclysmic flooding, her returning pal Jonah assumes the pair will stay behind to help the victims. Lara has other plans, however. With barely a consideration for the devastation she's caused, her instinctive, predatory reaction is to go after Trinity. The preview ends with Lara contemplating her next move, but her actions—or lack thereof—have already sown the seeds of a fractured relationship with Jonah.

Our time with Shadow of the Tomb Raider revealed a few new gameplay elements, such as the aforementioned ability to enjoy temporary invisibility among the jungle's foliage. Lara's traversal skills also get an upgrade, as she can now complement her climbing axes with the ability to rappel down surfaces. While we enjoyed these enhancements to the series’ existing gameplay formula though, it's the potential-packed story that could spawn from Lara’s morally-murky transformation that has excited to raid more tombs when the game lands September 14.