Shadow of the Tomb Raider is supposed to be a dark game. Sadly, it fails in execution. Official concept art by Eidos Montréal / Square Enix.

How poor game design ruined Tomb Raider sequels

A top layer of monotonous quest design and disruptive game design is enough to break the immersion of even the mechanically-best of games

As I run through the Hidden City, towards a bright green marker indicating a boy who will soon ask me to find his knife, I find myself in a state of monotony. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) had all the possibilities of being a great game. It has solid gameplay mechanics, an interesting setting, a competent development team — and yet it threw it all away with a horrendous top layer of poor game design and horrendous quest design which ultimately ruined any immersion and atmosphere that it could have had.

Playing the game, I feel as though I’ve entered an alternate reality where The Witcher 3 (2015) was never released. How else would you justify a world map filled to the brim with pointless collectibles, a plethora of fetch quests, and the blandest characters you could possibly imagine?

I’m a year or two late to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a game which I will hereafter simply refer to as Shadow for the sake of abbreviation. As a big fan of 2013’s Tomb Raider, a game that sparked a somewhat controversial rebooted trilogy of the Tomb Raider franchise, I felt as though I finally had to give Shadow a try. The reason why I had put off on playing was due to how disappointed I had been in the trilogy’s middle game, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), which we’ll just call Rise.

In order of release, the rebooted franchise contains Tomb Raider, Rise, and Shadow. The three games largely play the same — the game’s protagonist Lara Croft climbs, jumps, shoots, and puzzle-solves her way through harsh environments, tough tombs, and hostile encounters. The gameplay mechanics are phenomenally well put together. Climbing feels great. The controls are responsive and mostly intuitive. The combat is spot-on, with responsive weapons and options that allow the player to choose between stealth and action. The puzzles are clever and rewarding. This is true for all three games. Yet the top layer of the games, their quest design, their level design, their game design, changes significantly as the trilogy goes on. For the worse.

Crawling through death

Flashback to 2013. The Tomb Raider franchise is rebooted with an origin story for Lara Croft. The 2013 game starts with archeologist and soon-to-be tomb raider Lara Croft aboard an expedition ship in search of a lost kingdom. Within minutes of starting the game, the ship is hit by a storm and sinks. Separated from the crew, Lara washes up unconscious on shore of an isolated island. As the player gains control of Lara, it is revealed that she’s been captured by some lunatic. What follows is an intense set of minutes, where Lara has to crawl through dead bodies in an underground cave, badly injured, struggling to find freedom.

This sets the tone for just about the entirety of 2013’s Tomb Raider. The whole game is a struggle for survival. Lara spends most of the game alone, isolated from any helping hands, constantly outrunning death. She meets up with other crew members every once in a while, all quite well-written, but the party is inevitably broken up each time, making Lara alone to fend for herself.

The whole game is a struggle for survival. Lara spends most of the game alone, isolated from any helping hands, constantly outrunning death.

The island is shrouded in mystery. As the player progresses through the game, pieces of the puzzle of the island are unveiled, resulting in a satisfying climax. The game is brutal, scary, beautiful. It’s a perfectly crafted setting.

The trilogy’s finale throws all of that out the window.

Isolated, cold, and injured, a young Lara Croft struggles for survival in Tomb Raider (2013). Official concept art by Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix.

Saving the world

At the center of the storylines’ of Rise and Shadow is a militant organization called Trinity which — you guessed it — seek control over the world. Bet you’ve never heard of that one before. Naturally, it’s up to Lara to save humanity.

How many times have gamers saved humanity at this point?

This organization was in fact introduced in the 2013 game, but its role was minor. In fact, Tomb Raider 2013’s story wasn’t central to its actual story. No, I didn’t have a stroke in the middle of that last sentence. Tomb Raider was a game about the survival of Lara and her crew mates. Everything else that happens, the various plot threads on the island, serve primarily as a complication for this survival. You could also argue that the story is in fact about Lara herself. The game has a heavy emphasis on character development, what with this being an origin story that turns Lara into the legendary tomb raider that we know her for. Though whether you are on team “it’s about the survival” or on team “it’s about Lara’s journey”, the point stays the same: the story itself isn’t the central story. This it what makes Tomb Raider 2013 interesting.

This is certainly not the case in the sequels. Lara is more confident and has finished growing already by the end of the 2013 reboot, and her friends don’t really need too much saving any more. The writers are instead required to write a solid storyline. And that is just too much to ask for.

It’s cold in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Official concept art by Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix.

Through heaven and hell

The first and the third games feature great settings. The middle game, Rise, features a whole lot of snow and ice, which are probably the least favorite environment of any gamer. Well, fine, finding a cozy lovely little winter village in a role-playing game is always joyous, but traversing a dull snowy landscape for hours while dealing with ice physics isn’t the most riveting experience one can have with a controller in hand.

So let’s talk about Tomb Raider and Shadow. The first is set on an isolated island off the coast of Japan, shrouded in mystery, filled with shipwrecks, Japanese gods, and potentially a curse or two. The latter, then, is set in the Peruvian jungles, where Mayan and Aztec have migrated, bringing along a culture of sacrifice.

Both settings are intriguing, but only one is executed well. The first not only focuses on the element of survival, as previously discussed, but also on mystery, on easing the player into the lore, and on darkness. Indeed, the 2013 reboot is a dark game, where death is everywhere. Yet the 2018 title, Shadow, miraculously ruins it. Despite the fact that death is central to the setting of the game — what with the culture of sacrifice and the plethora of dead bodies Lara stumbles upon every once in a while — it’s in fact filled with life. Packed with cities full of bland characters minding their own business, it’s hard to feel taken away by the setting. Lara is a seasoned killer by now, and every other character in the story is pretty darn chill about everything, which in turn makes the player feel safe. It’s a bizarre contradiction.

“Talk to five people and I’ll give you the thing”

The worst crime in game design is intentional padding. Unfortunate, then, is the fact that much of the time spent in the latter games is just that. Shadow does have some interesting bits. But, I kid you not, the amount of people you need to talk to and the amount of running around you have to do to get there is absolutely insane. No one has anything interesting to say, and running through the bland cities, grabbing some cloth and fat and wood and feathers and survival caches and murals and herbs and — oh, never mind, my inventory is full — on the way to talk to the next person just isn’t fun. Before long, you’re thinking about what to eat for dinner and when you can stop playing this thing.

In the 2013 game, mostly everything felt as though it had meaning. Activities were interesting to do and it gave you substantial rewards. Most importantly, there weren’t hundreds of people who wanted to chat with you about the glimmering water. The interactions with the characters don’t even make sense. The way they react to Lara and the conversation topics they choose are so dull they can’t even cut through paper. This includes both the mandatory story quests and the optional side-content, mind.

The setting for Shadow of the Tomb Raider is outstanding. Too bad the writing, quest design, and game design ruins it. Official art by Eidos Montréal / Square Enix.

What could have been

Shadow’s dark introduction to the Peruvian jungles ends up being twenty minutes of false advertisement for what will turn out to be a lackluster finale to the rebooted trilogy. Alone in the jungle, Lara spends a handful of minutes struggling to find a way through the trees, fighting off ferocious felines in front of a crowd of spectating monkeys. Sadly, immersion shatters shortly afterwards, as Lara quickly makes her way to comfort. Throughout the game, Lara discovers majestic temples and is placed in what could be horrifying combat encounters, yet any time the game seems to pick up the atmosphere, it is shattered once more by monotonous game design or a series of bland characters who wish to share plot details. Immersion never gets a chance to settle in, as the game’s designers instead put their efforts on crafting a dull plot with bland characters that appear far more often than they need to.

Shadow’s dark introduction to the Peruvian jungles ends up being twenty minutes of false advertisement for what will turn out to be a lackluster finale to the rebooted trilogy.

What fascinates me is how a game’s top layer of game and quest design can fundamentally ruin the entire experience. Again, all three of these games play largely the same in terms of climbing, shooting, and puzzle-solving, yet the first entry is the far better game. The designers of 2013’s Tomb Raider knew how to create a thick atmosphere, knew how to craft character development, knew how to create a feeling of survival, and knew how to ensure steady pacing.

The designers of the latter entries only knew how to create monotony.

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