Since its announcement earlier this year, I've been wary of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Having been a fan of the Tomb Raider series since the PlayStation 1 era, the idea of a downloadable title that would strip Lara Croft to her bare bones struck fear into my heart.
Developer Crystal Dynamics was quick to point out that Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light wouldn't replace Tomb Raider 9, but I hoped that the two would share some similarities. Give me ancient relics infused with godly powers, awe-inspiring Tibetan tombs filled with booby traps, and large landscapes begging for exploration and I'll be happy for the entirety of the game.
In Guardian of Light, Crystal Dynamics has almost completely stripped Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider staples. Gone are the days of huge, beautiful locations that require a deft hand and a willing mind to explore; Gone are the days of a platformer that demands hours of climbing followed by a leap of faith to reach a singular ancient artifact; Gone, in other words, is Tomb Raider.
In its place stands Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light -- one of the most bewildering, frustrating, and incredibly enjoyable downloadable titles I've ever played. In stripping Lara of the Tomb Raider core mechanics, Crystal Dynamics was able to focus on creating a title that is, quite simply, fun to play.
Guardian of Light follows the intrepid explorer into a secret location, wherein she meets Totec, the Guardian of Light, and his evil nemesis, the Keeper of Darkness, Xolotl. The ancient Mirror of Smoke has kept Xolotl locked up for over two thousand years, but thanks to a bunch of mercenaries following Lara, Xolotl is released from his prison and it's up to you to chase down and kill him before sunrise -- otherwise Xolotl will become all-powerful and take over the world. Unlike the co-op campaign, in the single-player, Totec gives you his ancient spear and then runs after Xolotl, and is only seen again in brief cutscenes later throughout the game.
On the whole, Guardian of Light is a short game. On my first playthrough, I had defeated Xolotl within four and a half hours, give or take a few minutes. However, I would be quick to insist that this isn't a detriment to the game's overall quality. Every level in Guardian of Light is designed with replayability in mind and, usually, they're interesting enough to leave you wanting to go back and play again.
It may simply be my competitive nature, but after seeing that a level I had completed in 22 minutes was supposedly possible in less than six... it was hard to resist going back and trying for better. After I went back and bettered my time, I noticed on the leaderboards that other players were even faster than I was... and so the cycle continued.
The gameplay in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light also adds to its addictive 'One-more-go' nature. A twin-stick shooter in the vein of Geometry Wars and Minigore, Guardian of Light is a classic example of the 'Easy-to-play / Hard-to-master' ethos that is instilled in this type of game. Where it eclipses both Geometry Wars and Minigore however is in the inclusion of a purpose. Although the story is dire and the script is laughable, a fault exemplified by the terrible voice work of both Totec and Xolotl, in being given a reason to complete the levels and progress through the game, I always felt like I couldn't stop playing - I just wanted to progress to the next level.
One staple of the Tomb Raider series that has managed to survive the jump to digital distribution is the inclusion of mind-warping environmental puzzles. If there's one major positive to be said about Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, it's this: If you can't get past a certain area, you are doing it wrong.
Whereas many games can become unfairly difficult, asking players to solve puzzles with an inhuman amount of precision or simply making the answer so obtuse that it would require a PhD to complete, Guardian of Light never falls into that trap. You may spend 15 minutes looking at a puzzle, only to realize the answer was staring you in the face in the entire time. These puzzles are mostly optional as well: when going through a level, you may notice a doorway off the beaten path, hiding a puzzle for you to complete. If you so choose, you can just ignore the puzzles and get onto completing the main quest.
As I mentioned previously, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is not a Tomb Raider game, and anyone expecting that will be sorely disappointed. However, if you head into the experience with an open mind, you might just be surprised by how much fun you'll have. By experimenting with Lara, Crystal Dynamics have proved how flexible a character she truly is, and how clear an understanding they have of the franchise. Sure, it's not without its faults, but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a great game and definitely worthy of a space on your system's hard drive.
Are you excited for Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light? Do you have any questions? Don't hesitate to post in the comments below, and I'll answer them all as soon as I can.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light will be available Wednesday 18 August on Xbox 360 and will be released on September 28th for the PS3 and PC.
*Note: This review only covers the single-player campaign in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. As we reported earlier this month, online co-operative will not be implemented until September 28th -- the day Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is released on the PSN and Steam download services. Although local co-op play is still included in Guardian of Light, we felt that the majority of gamers would be likely be playing online with their friends - and have decided to focus solely on the single-player campaign in this review.