The Tomb Raider franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. Not only did it fall out of favor with its fan base during the PS2 era, but Lara Croft’s mantle was then stolen by a thieving, Indiana Jones-type character created by none other than Sony and Naughty Dog. After a solid but financially disappointing return to form in Tomb Raider: Legend, developer Crystal Dynamics has taken a creative turn and changed Lara’s signature ass-camera perspective to an isometric angle, added a second playable character, and shortened the game’s length. Viola! Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
The first breath of fresh air you’ll notice when you boot up GoL is the ability to actually see the puzzles you need to solve within the game (something even Uncharted struggles with). The isometric view is a wonderful and welcome change that wasn’t implemented without thought; you rarely lose sight of Lara, though when she’s obscured by an object an overlay pops up on screen. Mercifully, puzzles never require you to operate in unseen territory, something I feared from the get-go. My only issue with the change in perspective is that the direction Lara faces sometimes changes from section-to-section. Going up a stairway in a northwesterly direction sometimes plops you in a southwesterly heading, causing a moment of confusion.
Combat resembles a twin-stick shooter mechanically, utilizing both analogs and a trigger and sometimes requiring some skillful attack dodging. It’s a jarring concept to grasp in an isometric view, especially due to the blend of auto-aiming and precision based attacks, but the learning curve is rather merciful. There were several times when the game gets too shooter heavy, especially since some puzzles only exist as a stop-gap to make you clear the room of enemies before proceeding. I’d prefer to spend more time doing actual puzzles than shooting endless demons, but it comes down to personal taste.
GoL doesn’t shy away from breaking up the puzzle/combat aspects with a few heavily scripted chase sequences, all providing either deadly traps, monsters, or collapsing floors. Unfortunately, they’re the most likely of all the levels to break or be broken. Twice I was faced with a similar puzzle that sandwiched Lara between two would-be deathtraps, only to be caught in limbo. Able to move laterally along the paper-thin gap in the walls, I could barely make out a bobbing brown-haired character popping up from her predicament but unable to un-wedge herself. Both times resulted in a level restart, losing several minutes of progress. Another sequence involving fire-breathing floors was mastered by simply using the dodge button through the length of the course without coming near the traps. A bit more polish would have improved the feeling of intensity, but it’s merely a scuff mark on an otherwise solid level design.
The co-op mode is only available offline (for now) and doesn’t change too much from the single player game. Instead of giving Lara the Aztec spear, her companion Totec totes the weapon/tool. The levels and puzzles get some tweaks to accommodate each characters’ abilities, making good use of Lara’s grappling hook and Totec’s spear/shield combination. It’s a fun romp to play with a buddy, but it’s a shame I can’t banish him from my couch and have my own screen (yet).
I’d like to see more Lara Croft-branded games in this style. A $15 price tag and downloadable in format seems like a smart, defining choice and moves the franchise away from the Uncharted juggernaut. A few more passes in the QA department would alleviate some bugs and maybe balance that damned final boss (Seth from Street Fighter IV‘s got nothing on this guy’s cheapness). Other than that, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a gamer’s game through and through. Battle of good vs. evil? Check. Challenging enemies, puzzles, and traps? Check. Multi-staged boss battles? Check. It’s a hardcore game for the hardcore and has all the trappings of gaming’s best aspects.
Things We Liked: Solid level design. Fun combat system. Isometric view is a blessing for solving puzzles. Contains everything you’d expect from a traditional game.
Things We Disliked: Random (but rare) game ending bugs. No online co-op at launch. Occasional moments of misdirection in level transitions. Extremely cheap final boss.
Target Audience: Fans of twin-stick shooters. Platforming aficionados. Puzzle lovers.
(Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light – Developer: Crystal Dynamics. Publisher: Square Enix. Available on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade. PC and PlayStation 3 versions coming soon. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)
(Ed. Note: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light does not have online co-op at the time of this review. However, it will be coming via patch when the PC and PSN versions of the game release on September 28th. – R.T.)