Shadow Of The Tomb Raider In Retrospect

Thursday 11 April 2024


There is a very special charm about the Tomb Raider games, that may be a bit difficult to describe to people who are not fans of the series or are unfamiliar with them. Speaking for myself, however, I can say that it is mostly thanks to Lara Croft and her adventures that I not only got into gaming, but also ended up loving this particular type of games. The Tomb Raider saga is one of the most popular among gamers, and one of those titles that are vaguely known even outside the limits of the gaming communities. And this is not only thanks to the movies, because those appeared many years after the first games were released; it is because back when Lara Croft made her initial appearance, the available games were much fewer than today and, most importantly, the way the Tomb Raider games were made was very innovative, as they combined a player-friendly game system and interface with an elaborate and impressive - for the standards of their era - gameplay design and environment setup.

Emphasis was always on the exploration and discovery factor in the Tomb Raider games, without them however lacking story and action wise. Lara would fight fierce enemies of all kinds, climb the highest rocky mountains, jump off the steepiest cliffs while searching for mythical artifacts and ancient treasures, and solving puzzles that, most of the times, were difficult to conceive but rather easy to solve. Although the development team behind the games, as well as the publishers, changed in the course of the nearly 30 (!) years that the games are alive, the spirit and atmosphere of Tomb Raider remained more or less the same, in spite of the seemingly radical change that the saga saw with the launch of the series' reboot in 2013. The graphical environment became more elaborate, richer and realistic, the gameplay grew to be more complex and challenging, Lara's backstory underwent minor changes, but overall the games maintained their original charm and style that captivated so many gamers years ago.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider was the latest of this "new generation" Tomb Raider, released in 2018, following one of the best games in the series, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016). Developed by Eidos (Montreal) and released by Square Enix, Shadow of the Tomb Raider had Lara return to the familiar environments of South America, while looking for an artifact the existence of which was apparently partly responsible for her dear father's suicide. Her quest leads her to Peru along with her buddy Jonah, where she comes across Paititi, a lost city hidden in the heart of a wild and unfriendly jungle. There she meets Unuratu, the rightful but dethroned queen and her son, Etzli, and discovers that Dr Dominguez, a fellow archaeologist and native of said city who also knew Lara's father very well, is going through not so legit activities in order to supposedly ensure that the place remains safe and untouched from modern civilization. Of course his story is much darker and complex, or at least it takes this turn after he gets hold of the artifact, leading to building his unavoidable paranoia and Messiah syndrome.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game that one may not be able to fully appreciate on first look. In my early Steam review, I had highlighted certain points which I found weak at that time, some of which may still be valid to a certain degree, but after having played the game a few more times since then, and seen with the prospect of time itself, my overall impression has very much changed. Shadow of the Tomb Raider invests a lot in the action and adventure factors, where it shines, but what you really need to focus on so as to deeply understand it is its story. A story that has much more power, meaning and subtext than what may be obvious with the first or second impression, but which determines almost everything in the game, even concerning minor details that may very well be overlooked at first.

In my original review I described how I felt that Dr Dominguez was a weak villain, especially when compared to the imposing Constantin from Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now I realized that he is intentionally a weak villain because, in reality, he is not really a villain. Surely he got fair share of the infamous Messiah syndrome, as I already mentioned and as we can see from a point and on, but initially his intentions were good, and his ultimate purpose was to protect his home and keep Paititi untouched by the outside world, a purpose to which he remained faithful until the end. The real villain of the story is in fact his second-in-command, Commander Rourke.

When Commander Rourke first enters the scene, during the beautiful and immersive opening in Cozumel, he gives the impression of yet one more henchman, following the lead of Dr Dominguez whom he always seems to accompany. At this point, he appears to be a civilian, and we only get a hint about his identity during a dialogue that Lara overhears, when Dr Dominguez calls him "Commander". On first look, he is an imposing, handsome man with an apparently no-nonsense attitude, but as soon as the actual adventure unfolds, and as Lara can hear the soldiers' dialogues over her radio, it becomes more and more obvious that Commander Rourke is a relentless and cruel military man who doesn't have the slightest sense of morality and totally lacks sentimentality. Whether his character was such by default or it was shaped this way because of his profession, is something that remains unclear, as unclear remain his actual motives for aiding Dr Dominguez. We are never sure if he wants to find the artifact out of mere sense of duty since he was hired specifically for that mission or if he secretly hopes to use it for his own personal gain, but this is yet one more element that adds to the eery mystery that surrounds him. 


Commander Rourke is not the typical arch-villain in that the game's final confrontation is not with him, but with Dr Dominguez. But what is essential both for the story and his underlying importance in the plot, is the fact that he has an extremely violent death in the hands of the Crimson Fire, the Yaaxil priestess and primordial spirit who also acted as some kind of alter ego for Unuratu. A few chapters before the finale, Lara comes across the Crimson Fire, in a peculiar confrontation where the priestess lets her go without hurting her. A bit later Unuratu explains to Lara how the Crimson Fire is her own destiny, essentially identifying her own human self with the priestess's spiritual presence. If you take note of this and understand its importance, the subsequent succession of events acquires a most chilling dimension: Commander Rourke shoots and kills Unuratu in a scene that is very brief and may not gain the attention it deserves, but if you consider Unuratu's previous explanation about her connection to the Crimson Fire, you can literally feel something unearthly is slowly waking up at that point.

Close to the culmination of the story, Dr Dominguez, having the artifact in his possession already, is setting everything up for a ceremony that will supposedly restore order and save Paititi, while Commander Rourke and his men are guarding the temple where he is by all means. In a race against time to prevent all this from happening, Lara comes across the Crimson Fire once more and they form a silent pact to work together, this time with the Yaaxil on Lara's side, to rid off the common enemy. Of course Rourke's men are unable to battle against the super-powerful spirits of the Yaaxil and his team is soon eliminated. On her way to confront Dr Dominguez, Lara encounters Commander Rourke and they are intertwined in what seems to be a rather unfair fight since he is manning a lethal mounted gun which is almost impossible to win over. At that crucial point, the Crimson Fire arrives in person, and in a scene that is just as brief as the one with Unuratu's murder, but equally important and far more compelling, she violently attacks the Commander and kills him with her own hands - literally. Given that the Crimson Fire was Unuratu's destiny, it is clear that the deceased queen's spirit had now become one with the Crimson Fire, and the one killing Rourke is in fact Unuratu, avenging her own murder by slaughtering her killer with the hands of her primordial alter ego.

With Rourke gone, Lara rushes to confront Dr Dominguez in a battle where everything seems to be against her, but in the end, moments before his demise and as the effects of the artifact's power are starting to die down, Dr Dominguez confesses that he only wished to keep Paititi safe and has Lara swear to him that she will work to that end, essentially reconciling with her. Dr Dominguez had been Lara's counterpart throughout the whole story, while Rourke had been Unuratu's counterpart. This aspect of duality is not random, as the core of the game's story is built around such connections: the heron and the eclipse, the Chak Chel and the Ix Chel, Dr Dominguez as Amaru (his real native name) and Sayri, his deceased beloved brother with whom he shared a very special bond.

Another interesting aspect of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the presence of archaeologists that Lara meets in her quest. It is not the first time that this happens, as we had met several of Lara's colleagues in older games, but they were very few and most of the times her rivals: Werner Von Croy, her mentor, was the most notable character, and then there were others who were not exactly archaeologists but their passion was treasure hunting and this made them cross paths with Lara in more than one occasions: Pierre in Tomb Raider 1 and Chronicles, Tony in Tomb Raider 3, Kurtis Trent in The Angel of Darkness, are a few such examples, and we should not forget Margot Carvier from the same game, a professor who worked at the Louvre and was a friend and colleague of Von Croy's. But it is in Shadow of the Tomb Raider where the profession is in full swing, as Lara comes across some quite interesting archaeologists and treasure hunters on the way.

Apart from Dr Dominguez, who is the main antagonist and is present throughout the whole story, there are also several others who cross paths with Lara, either randomly or during explorations and quests. Near the start of the story, Lara finds a local archaeologist in Mexico whom she saves by killing Rourke's thug who is about to execute him. As it turns out, Dominguez's team had hired him to guide them to the dig site, but as soon as he did they attempted to silence him by killing him in cold blood. Lara arrived just in time to save his life, and subsequently learn from him important details about the dig and the team that was after the artifact.

Later in Mission of San Juan, Lara meets three archaeologists and friends, Guillermo, Sara and Isabella, who are exploring the local mysteries and are searching to find a legendary crypt that is famed to be hidden in the depths of a hostile cave outside the town. There is a kind of "rivalry of love" going on among them, as Guillermo and Isabella seem to be an item, and Sara is their closest friend. Although Sara and Isabella are very good friends, they are constantly bickering, mainly because Isabella's view of the profession and its methods are rather radical. 

After such a quarrel, in which all three were involved, Isabella left in a fury to find the crypt the existence of which was seriously doubted by her friends. Soon after she went missing, and Lara, whom Guillermo and Isabella recognized as the illustrious archaeologist that she was, set out to find her. As it turned out, Isabella was right all along, as Lara managed to locate her, wounded but well, in the depths of that infamous crypt.

And then there is Manu, an old man and amateur raider who has lost his sight, apparently an avid treasure hunter in his youth, who sends Lara to reveal the location of a tomb, then return and describe it to him in full detail. Manu is accompanied by a group of local children to whom he narrates stories of his past adventures and who, like little raiders in the making, are in their turn looking for treasures in the grounds of the nearby cemetery.

This more human approach of Lara, her profession and the dangerous lifestyle that goes with it, is unique in the Tomb Raider world, and it offers a much more realistic insight of the heroine and her environment. Of course we had seen her more genuine side in Tomb Raider: Legend, but it was not as much highlighted there, and it was used mostly as a means to support certain events and (re)actions. Her more human depiction essentially started with the Reboot in 2013, but her character was not that much elaborated there and in spite of the game's many good elements, it did not manage to give that much needed boost to Lara's story. This happened with the excellent Rise of the Tomb Raider, but although overall I still believe that the latter is the most complete and most powerful of the three games of Tomb Raider's new era (Reboot, Rise and Shadow) what with its fantastic supporting cast (Jacob and Sofia), its fascinating arch-villain (Constantin) and its great Byzantium-themed story, I believe that Shadow of the Tomb Raider has reached a point that no other Tomb Raider had achieved before, that of the complexity in its character development and the multi-levelled interpretations of the story it narrates.

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