“Tomb Raider,” 2013’s reboot of the franchise, began with a literal bang, shipwrecking Lara Croft on a remote, mysterious island. Its sequel, “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” upped the ante, placing the young heroine in the path of a raging avalanche. The forthcoming trilogy-capper, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” starts with a parade.
Specifically, Lara and returning buddy Jonah are in Cozumel, Mexico, where Day of the Dead celebrations spill into the streets surrounding them. The adrenaline-pumping, natural disaster-driven cinematic openings of the previous two entries have been traded for a party, complete with dancing, drinking, and fireworks.
The drastic tonal shift is intentional, part of Eidos-Montreal’s effort to side-step potential franchise fatigue. “Tomb Raider” was a successful reboot, a fantastic reimagining of both the series and its titular spelunker. Its follow-up took the bigger-and-better approach, retaining and polishing the formula that worked so well the first time around. But successful formulas can betray you as quickly as a trap-filled tomb; rely too heavily on ideas that were once fresh and they risk becoming formulaic.
Eidos-Montreal game director Dan Chayer-Bisson tells Variety “Shadow” will significantly separate itself from its predecessors with its storytelling and characters. “The stakes are way bigger,” he says. “It’s not just about Lara anymore…it’s about the world.” Of course, Chayer-Bisson also promises plenty of tweaks to the tried-and-true template, from “Predator”-inspired jungle combat and deeper traversal mechanics to deadlier, soggier tombs.
Diving into the demo, “Shadow’s” more subdued opening continues to subvert expectations. Lara — hidden beneath a poncho and skeleton mask — doesn’t navigate a deadly crypt, but rather a crowded street. While tracking Trinity, the antagonist group responsible for her father’s death, she pushes past men, women, and children, all celebrating/mourning their deceased loved ones. Seeing Lara among so many strangers definitely gives off an unfamiliar vibe, one that immediately recalls “Assassin’s Creed’s” cloaked killers stealthily navigating a crowd. Typically, when Lara’s surrounded by this many people, they’re all about to end up with an arrow planted between the eyes.
She soon shelves the disguise for her bow and dual-climbing axes, however, and some of those changes Chayer-Bisson spoke of begin to reveal themselves. Before stealthily taking out a few marks, she’s able to completely blend into a foliage-covered cliff. The ability to essentially become invisible feeds into a new approach to combat the creative director calls “becoming the jungle.” This trick is apparently just one of many that’ll make Lara one with her leafy surroundings.
Lara still climbs plenty of craggy rock surfaces, as she did in the previous two games, but now players have the option to rappel downward and even rope-walk along vertical walls. The demo only included a taste of this new ability, but it definitely hints at greater opportunities for free-form navigation and exploration, perhaps granting her a skill-set that could put Nathan Drake’s mountain-scaling moves to shame.
These tweaks to combat and traversal seem like subtle changes though, compared to “Shadow’s” new tombs, where, according to Chayer-Bisson, “Everything wants to kill you.” Lara will be swimming a lot more in “Shadow,” but her treks across the water won’t be of the calming, serene variety. As experienced during the demo, many of the tombs — both optional and on the critical path — will have elaborate underwater sections and puzzles.
It was possible to avoid deadly spikes and other Lara-skewering contraptions in the tomb she plundered, but the scariest encounters came when Lara was submerged in its murky depths. Massive eel-like creatures swam about, occasionally snaking around Lara in a full-body chokehold, while narrow, claustrophobic crevices needed to be navigated. Upping the immersion is the look on Lara’s face, as her panicked, puffy façade strongly suggests she’s about to use up all the air she’d sucked deep into her lungs. Reaching one of the few “air traps,” where she can temporarily catch her breath, provided some of the demo’s most heart -pounding moments.
After multiple narrow escapes, both above and below water, Lara reached the tomb’s prize: an ancient Mayan dagger apparently capable of great power. In Lara’s haste to retrieve the artifact before Trinity can claim it though, she fails to heed the warning that its cataclysmic power must be tempered and balanced by a mysterious box. Taking one without the other is said to trigger a series of catastrophes, beginning with a flood that quickly turns the tomb into a deadly bathtub.
Lara escapes, of course, but what she discovers outside the tomb is far more terrifying than anything she’d just encountered in the crypt. The small town that had been celebrating just moments ago is now consumed by crushing waves. Lara attempts to save a young boy, clinging to a wall for dear life, but can’t reach him before he’s swallowed up by the rushing water.
The demo closes with Lara arguing with Jonah. Feeling responsible for the deadly disaster, her instinct is to, perhaps selfishly, go after Trinity before more damage can be done; Jonah wants her to stay behind though, and help the recent victims. It’s in this moment—when she’s visibly struggling with what her next move should be—that we see a different, conflicted side of Lara, and also get our first promising glimpse of those “bigger stakes” Chayer-Bisson hinted at.
“It’s the final chapter of her survival,” he said. “She needs to survive herself, understanding that actions have consequences and how to deal with them.”