Impressions: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Though I grew up in Miss Croft’s heyday, I have to say I was never her biggest fan. Through my affair with the PlayStation, I obtained several of her adventures, tried my best to brave them and see them through to the end, but I ultimately decided they just weren’t for me. As Lara evolved over the years and had her share of disappointments, it was a surprise when Crystal Dynamics announced that her latest adventure would be a completely different departure. Having dropped the Tomb Raider moniker entirely, it was revealed as an isometric action game that would put the spotlight entirely on Lara and a completely different adventure. I knew I’d have to give this differently-designed Croftian adventure to the test, and thus dove into Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
Players follow Lara through ornate, ominous dungeons on after she stumbles upon the Mirror of Smoke, found deep in the heart of a temple. Of course, things can never be that easy. Just as she stumbles upon the mysterious artifact, it’s snatched away by bandits who just can’t leave well enough alone. This leads to the summoning of the evil demon Xolotl, who is (as per usual) ready to wreak havoc on mankind. Luckily, Totec, protector of the Mirror of Smoke, is awakened as well in order to find Xolotl. Rather than letting Xolotl loose to do as much harm as he feels is necessary, Lara and Totek take it upon themselves to chase this malevolent being down (through fourteen convenient levels, no less) and take back the Mirror of Smoke.

It’s a fairly standard narrative, to be sure, but that isn’t what will keep players coming back for more. Lara (and Totec if you choose to partake in the excellent co-op mode), explores murky caves, ruins, and similarly dismal locations, fighting off ravenous enemies and solving short puzzles along the way. An isometric view akin to Diablo or other classic dungeon-crawlers provides an excellent backdrop for this novel new Lara adventure, and intuitive controls make it a breeze to navigate through, guns blazing.

One stick controls Lara, while the other aims. You can make use of Lara’s signature pistols, Gatling guns, shotguns, and even missile launchers to make short work of enemies such as spiders, giant dinosaurs, and spell-casting demons you cross paths with. In addition, Lara and Totec are equipped with Samus Aran-like bombs (set to trigger at a distance) to make new pathways, obliterate bosses, and make life a little easier for our newly dungeon-crawling heroine. Along the way, you can find augments to upgrade weapons such as gold plating, which is an interesting award for straying from the beaten path and exploring each stage thoroughly.

Lara is equipped with a rope to zip toward rings in order to travel longer distances, as well as Totec’s spear to overcome tricky jumps or other similarly sticky situations. Totec has his own shield and spear, but in the single-player game you needn’t worry about his special abilities. In an admirable twist, you only have to worry about controlling Lara in order to complete the game rather than dealing with the possibility of an AI blockhead weighing you down. Totec only makes brief appearances in cut-scenes or as a cooperative partner, which is part of the reason the game works as well as it does.

And co-op play works extremely well. Lara and Totec’s respective tools work in tandem when both characters are in play to solve various puzzles. You’ll need to make use of all of them in combination to solve certain puzzles, and figuring this out with a friend is really what makes it all so fun. Including, of course, the simple arcade action. This is your typical 1990s-styled top-down adventure, revealing level after level of isometric stone pathways, caves, and plenty of traps. Action awaits at every turn, whether in the form of a quick puzzle, a cooperative dilemma, or oversized arachnids crawling your way, waiting to become fodder for your machine gun.

Besides shining and admirable single player and co-op modes (a rare feat in this day and age), Guardian of Light has an rewarding unlock system that asks players to complete different challenges throughout each level. You might need to finish an entire level in a set amount of time, find hidden enemies, all the skulls, or passing a predetermined score threshold. Simply playing through as a normal gamer without going achievement-hunting you likely won’t be rewarded with many of these accolades, but it opens up a brand new world of replayability. In addition, challenge rooms allow you to find new runes for Lara and Totec, which can augment their abilities and tickle that collector funny bone.

Despite any reservations you may have about this unique departure from the typical Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a solid, traditional action game that’s leagues more than a mediocre effort tied to Lara’s notoriety and sex appeal. Personally, it’s one of the greatest things to have happened for Ms. Croft’s career, and it’s a downloadable title, at that. If Crystal Dynamics can continue moving the Tomb Raider franchise forward in this kind of positive direction, then I’d be delighted to become a new fan in the future. For now, I highly recommend picking this game up for solid single and multiplayer action that will dredge up memories of why we all fell in love with dungeon-crawling in the first place.

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