With Lara Croft only days from finally winging out of the pre-launch marketing jungle and back onto game consoles, reviewers are beginning to weigh in on whether Square Enix’s chapter-closing Shadow of the Tomb Raider is worth its weight in buried gold, or simply treading in familiar waters.
Early reviews are a mixed bag. Some outlets are scoring Shadow at near-masterpiece levels, lavishing the game’s integration of a dark, gritty story with moment-by-moment gaming goodness: all the satisfying climbing, swimming, and shooting that defines Lara Croft’s ever-expanding abilities. But others find the narrative problematic, especially in light of the Tomb Raider franchise’s long and sometimes controversial evolution into a tentpole platform for what a female-led video game should be.
With reviews for Shadow ranging from great to merely decent, it’s at least reassuring that no one’s calling it a bad game. Here, in roughly descending order from most to least favorable, is a peek at what the critics are saying.
IGN (9 out of 10)
IGN gave Shadow perhaps the highest praise of any major outlet, describing it as a fitting final act to the franchise’s current multi-game story arc — and one that just happens to be a total blast to play:
"With a story that manages to satisfactorily tread the line between high-concept fun and grounded character exploration, Shadow of the Tomb Raider meaningfully wraps up the journey Lara began in 2013 and convincingly leaves her in a place resembling where she was when we were first introduced to her more than 20 years ago. I would have liked a little more incentive to explore the beautiful world Eidos Montreal has created, but I’d much prefer too much content than too little. There’s so much to enjoy elsewhere in a game that’s stuffed to the brim with ideas and devilishly challenging puzzles. I can’t wait to see where Lara goes next."
Polygon (unscored; recommended)
In its unscored review, Polygon recommended Shadow for surpassing the already high gameplay bar set by its immediate predecessors, while noting the series’ self-awareness as it continues to grapple with striking the right tone for Lara Croft’s female protagonist role:
"Shadow of the Tomb Raider… has a deliciously melodramatic story, no fewer than a dozen stunningly drawn vistas and some excellent gunplay. The optional tombs and crypts — massive environmental puzzles that unlock new gear and abilities, typically free of combat — aren’t quite as memorable as those in Rise of the Tomb Raider. But in exchange, the central throughline feels more authored and propulsive than in the previous game.
It’s refinement rather than revision, but considering the quality of the past two games, simply meeting the established bar, let alone inching above it, is an accomplishment unto itself. In fact, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the series has finally approached its contemporaries: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us… and the Uncharted series…"
Variety (unscored; recommended)
Praising the gameplay but questioning the consistency of the plot and what it frames as sometimes problematic treatment of social themes, Variety nevertheless recommends Shadow purely for the fun in its unscored review:
"It’s unfortunate that the developers didn’t spend as much time tuning the game’s story and how Croft fits into it as they did in building out her world and making sure the game found its balance between rewarding challenge and off-putting difficulty.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider delivers stunning cinematics, evolved gameplay and a deep explorable world, but its narrative and portrayal of Lara Croft is ultimately at odds with the Croft that Eidos Montréal hinted at throughout the game, one that’s supposed to have found nuance in her place in the world."
The Hollywood Reporter (unscored; recommended)
Calling Shadow “absolutely gorgeous,” THR nevertheless breaks from other reviewers’ adoration of its gameplay mechanics and says that schlepping around in the Incan jungles of Paititi can be a tedious chore.
Let me get this out of the way: The game is absolutely gorgeous. It feels like running through the "Jungles" episode of Planet Earth. There were several times when Lara would emerge from a narrow cavern onto a cliff, and the way the camera runs up and over her shoulder, revealing a panorama of sky and jungle canopy in glorious HDR, literal gave me chills.
…And it's a good thing the game is so pretty, because lots of times I'm too busy oohing and aahing to think about how frustrating some of the gameplay can be. A lot of the climbing sequences are fairly boring with maybe one hard move. And the sequences feel repetitive because Lara's animations and sounds for, say, moving along a ledge — which you do a ton of — don't vary.
US|Gamer (3.5 stars out of five)
US|Gamer’s review praises just about every aspect of Shadow except for its new foray into the world of firearms — but the guns alone, the review chides, almost frustrate the whole experience:
"There are two games within Shadow of the Tomb Raider. There's the great one. The one with no guns—only bows, other contraptions, and your wits to guide you. Where smearing Lara with mud and hiding against vines is the only tool the petite-sized woman needs to survive against a dozen men armed to the nines with rifles and shotguns. Where tombs and their puzzles are challenging and a wonder to explore. The one with the moments of Lara reflecting on her actions and it not feeling hypocritical somehow.
And then there's the game where combat falls apart with the introduction of guns. Where everything feels at odds with every Empathy 101 lesson that Lara's supposedly learning along the journey. Where the act of raiding tombs (and often, as other characters note, destroying cultural artifacts in the process) is noted to not be very respectful, and yet she does it anyway. With every reflective step forward, there are two steps back."
Gamespot (60 out of 100)
Gamespot’s review faults Shadow on a number of fronts, saying Lara Croft has been written as an almost intentionally unsympathetic character, and that the game’s combat mechanics are often at odds with it story context:
"And perhaps most sad of all is the fact that Lara herself, with her single-minded selfishness, is a harder character to empathize with in Shadow. Her attitudes and obsessions are intertwined with the game's plot, and you might find yourself in disagreement with her a lot, which is a big deal when trying to overlook the flaws in her abilities.
…Thankfully, the parts of Tomb Raider that make it really fantastic--uncovering the mystery of ancient ruins, solving impressive challenge tombs, and exploring exotic environments--are still here in Shadow, and they are just as outstanding as they have always been. But the core mechanics that have been with the series for half a decade are starting to show their limitations."
The Guardian (three stars out of five)
The Guardian’s tepidly favorable review has no problem with all the mindless fun it says Shadow delivers with relative ease. But it characterizes this game’s evolution of Croft’s character as uninteresting, and finds the overall plot less than engaging:
"Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a strange and vaguely disappointing game, but not a bad one. Sneaking around in the jungle, fighting jaguars, exploring ancient crypts that bristle with danger, jumping and climbing around extraordinary Peruvian scenery, the satisfying “thunk” of an arrow finding its target; all of this is fun, if not new. The places Lara visits and the things that she does, especially when she doesn’t have a gun in her hands, are beautiful and entertaining. But it lacks a coherent plot or creative vision to hold it all together, and the opportunity to make an interesting character out of Lara Croft is squandered."
Fans are less than a week from having the chance to get their hands on the game to decide for themselves if there’s more to Lara Croft’s new adventure than mere mindless fun. But at least it’s nice to know that, whatever complaints reviewers may have, they generally agree that the game’s not short on fun. Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes spelunking onto PS4, Xbox One, and PC beginning Sept. 14.