Shadow of the Tomb Raider works hard to force you into a certain way of doing things, and it doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience for players who would like to play at any other rhythm. Anything less than constant forward motion is met with game design that often feels like a tired sigh. Don’t you know that the game has places to be, and a certain pace it would you like to keep up?
I’m playing through the game with all the default difficulty options, so I expected some kind of freedom in how I could approach the game’s challenges. But each puzzle that stands in my way has a clue that is provided quickly, and then repeated over and over until I get the point. You don’t have to mash the R3 button to highlight all the items you can pick up or characters you can speak with in the area, but why wouldn’t you do so when that action highlights everything of note around you?
You can now spread mud on your body to hide yourself in the plant life around battles with the many bad guys you’ll be killing throughout the game. And you’ll know when to do so, because there’s mud on the ground and the foliage growing over the structures will light up in bright yellow when you hit the R3 button. You can just shoot your way through these scenes if you’d like, but it’s clear that the game has an optimal path for you, and it’s not subtle about it. Might as well put that mud on.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game that is constantly telling you what button to hit, where to walk, how to solve puzzles and the best way to approach each battle. Death only means that you’re going to watch a quick-but-brutal death animation before being sent back to try to find the one correct way to move ahead. The hint given for how to do so will be repeated so many times, with so little variance, that Croft’s pronunciation of the word “Cozumel” will slowly drive you up a wall. Not that this situation happened to me.
My problem is that I’m trying to be clever and solve a puzzle instead of following the on-screen prompts until my controller rumbles and the answer to the riddle is given to me out loud. My son, to his credit, tried to crack the code with a pen and paper before the game gave us the answer. Bless his heart. In other situations, the camera just moves toward where to go next.
The constant reminders of what exactly to do and where to go next made me wonder if I was still in the game’s tutorial and would see a title screen to indicate that the game itself was beginning and the training wheels would be removed. The save screen let me know that, in fact, I was 20 percent through the entire experience. Oh.
There are optional challenge tombs to conquer, and you can always warp from camp to camp if you want to explore the small areas to hunt or collect materials, but these additions feel like the tiniest possible concessions to the idea that the player should always be told what and how to do the next thing. It’s not the game is unenjoyable — there’s plenty to like here — but its design feels so constraining and linear, you rarely feel achievement for figuring anything out.
At best, you’re made aware that you successfully followed the instructions. And then another part of the world will begin to glow yellow.