Despite being the most iconic and instantly recognisable woman in gaming, Lara Croft’s career has been the very definition of a mixed bag. It’s a matter for debate, but it could be said that up until the last two retail releases, Ms Croft hasn’t really had a game worth playing since the original (which is already 14 years old). Now, with Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light for PSN and XBLA, Square Enix are trying a different tact to refresh Lara’s fortunes.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the game doesn’t actually feature the words `Tomb Raider` in the title, as it still features the usual series antics of shooting and exploring. Here it switches to an Isometric viewpoint, which is actually a first for any of Lara’s adventures.
Neither the change in view, nor the fact that this is a download title, means The Guardian of Light (TGoL) is any less detailed than other Tomb Raider games you may have played of late. Thick jungles and deep, dark caverns are done in a way that offers up the sense of scale which series fans now take for granted. It also allows for lots of little incidental details like fireflies, dust and even rain slick surfaces that really do look treacherous underfoot. Aside from the occasional, and slightly odd, problem with a few items not being to scale (dead bodies on the floor seem to be grossly out of proportion when compared to the player) it works really well. Accompanied by a grandiose and rousing musical score, it would be difficult for anyone to argue that the presentation here isn’t top notch.
It’s the game’s ethos of trying something new, blended with the basic ingredients which made the Tomb Raider games great, that prevents TGoL’s new arcade approach from feeling like a jarring change of direction.
The controls also play their part in making this easy to pick up and play, with everything feeling fluid and the player’s actions responsive, so that neither the puzzles nor combat end up being frustrating. TGoL even has a touch of the twin-stick-shooter about it, with movement being assigned to the left stick and firing direction to the right. Admittedly it does feel a bit fingers and thumbs when you throw in the use of another button to dodge, but in the briefest of time frames the player will be blasting enemies and dodging traps like it’s second nature.
There are a range of different weapons to unlock such as pistols, machine guns and flame-throwers and the player also has a `Relic` power bar which is filled by dispatching enemies and collecting treasures. Once this is maxed out it automatically provides more powerful attacks until the player takes damage, often coming in handy for getting out of tight spots when enemies try to overwhelm you.
The story of The Guardian of Light starts with Lara uncovering another cursed treasure, the Mirror of Smoke, only for the evil spirit Xolotl who was contained within it to be unleashed to wreck havoc. Doing this also brings back the ancient warrior Totec who was charged with guarding the Mirror in the event that the evil demon ever returned. This forms the basis for another Tomb Raider first; a co-op mode in which Lara and Totec join forces, journeying through the game together and using each other’s skills to help overcome obstacles.
In a rather unique turn, the game seems to have been created first and foremost as a co-op title, before then being retro-fitted to include a single player experience. Rather than try to code in an AI routine, in single player it virtually removes Totec from the equation. This means certain puzzles are missing altogether or solved in a very different fashion. For example Totec can lodge his spears into walls, and while they spears are not strong enough to hold his weight, Lara can use them to climb over things. But in single player, Lara is given the spear to use herself. Mercifully those who aren’t able to partner up won’t actually feel like they’re playing an unfinished product because, apart from some dubious cutscenes where Totec appears, spouts a brief line of dialogue and then vanishes in another direction, it isn’t until you try a co-op game that you realise how much has been removed / changed.
The puzzles themselves feel a lot more action orientated this time around, but never frustratingly so. It’s to the designer’s credit that despite some immediate head scratching, the solutions never feel like a process of trail and error. Some of them are also enough to get the pulse racing, as there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as negotiating a rapidly disappearing floor whilst having spiked balls dropped on you from above. There’s often a real brow wiping sense of satisfaction when clearing these moments, offering a weighty feeling of accomplishment.
Whether you’re playing in single player or co-op, there’s also plenty to see and do. Along with working out the puzzles to progress through the levels, the game employs a scoring system where points are awarded for dispatching enemies, completing challenges and challenge rooms, and finding ancient artefacts. The challenges are enough to grab your interest, such as requiring the player to circumvent a trap within a certain amount of time, or jumping over a spinning trap a set number of times without dying.
In turn, meeting the challenges unlocks extra treasures which will help boost the players defensive and offensive capabilities – for example a power-up which allow Lara to drop more powerful explosives with a greater range when her Relic bar is full. There are also extra health and ammo upgrades scattered around the level, some of which are hidden behind traps or require a bit of ingenuity to reach. While the adventure itself lasts for around 6 hours depending on your play style, there’s no way the average player will be able to uncover everything on their first play-through, adding to the replay value for those who want to tackle it again.
All told, Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light is a fine mixture of old school Tomb Raider and more arcade-orientated mechanics. While this attempt could have gone horribly wrong, Square Enix have produced a finely crafted game, with the end result being a solid and entertaining action adventure for players to get their teeth into. It’s somewhat ironic that after all the big budget productions, the download services are actually host to one of Lara’s best outings in a long time and here’s hoping that this isn’t the last.