Poor Lara. Everyone’s favourite tomb raider has had it tough the last few years. Once an emblematic duchess of the video game industry, Ms Croft has had to suffer the indignity of starring in two rubbish films being fussed over by Chris Barrie, before naff PS2 game Angel of Darkness spoiled her cred altogether. Even her latest games, despite being more than decent, have been spoiled by snotty upstart Nathan Drake (recently seen in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves), with his perfect stubble, frat-boy repartee and wet T-shirts. Even Lara’s tight vests and impractical short shorts can’t compete with that. So just what’s a girl to do?
A makeover is in order, and perhaps teaming up with a bloke in a skirt. While appearing in a ten quid downloadable game might sound like a bit of a step back for our erstwhile queen of adventure, the Guardian of Light allows for some experimentation to put the spring back in Lara’s step. The result is, well, spectacular.
With a hearty devotion to co-op, arcade style play and an isometric viewpoint, the Guardian of Light initially appears to be a radical departure for Lara. But it’s unquestionably Tomb Raider, with all the high-adventure action and exploration that entails. The zoomed out camera angle doesn’t negate the effects of a strikingly pretty lost civilisation; of lush jungles rustling with the undead, of great tombs carved in stone and volcanic mazes doused in fire. These areas are all laced with vicious traps, stuffed with collectables and provide plenty of giant balls to roll around, pressure plates to stand on and giant spiders to shoot in the face.
Each of the game’s 14 stages is accessible, definable chunks of exploration. Each significantly different in feel, tone and style to the last. They’re all designed to a fault too, meticulously planned out to be easy to navigate but tricky to conquer whether playing on your own or with a friend. In co-op, the second player takes control of the skirt guy, Totec, a Mayan guardian who has lain dormant for thousands of years. Totec has been watching over The Smoke Mirror, an ancient artefact that has trapped the malevolent god Xolotl. Lara, the great ninny, breaks into The Smoke Mirror’s resting place only to have been followed by some mercenaries, who pinch it, release Xolotl’s evil army and all get themselves killed. It’s up to Lara and Totec – rudely awakened by the appearance of his arch-nemesis – to defeat Xolotl and return him to the mirror.
Lara and Totec are equipped to complement each other. Totec has a shield to guard the pair from a hail of arrows, or he can hold it above his head for Lara to hop onto for a boost. Lara’s grappling hook allows Totec to use it as a tightrope or to save him from a fatal fall. Totec can lob one of his spears into a wall for Lara to perch on. It’s beautifully balanced for give and take; proper co-op, in other words, rather than just an extra gun and a second chump to weigh down a pressure pad. The puzzles are designed around these skills and the to-and-fro between each player is terrifically satisfying.
Significantly though, Lara is on her own in single-player. Oh, Totec pops up during the comic-book cutscenes, telling Lara he’s totally helping her out, honest, but then bogs off, presumably to tend to his ponytail (it does look like it takes a lot of work). Totec’s absence immediately avoids the perennial problem of a co-op focused game in that you don’t have a moron AI partner to look after. But most importantly, each level is repurposed depending on if you’re playing solo or in a pair. Puzzles are neatly tweaked, often in incredibly subtle ways, to be solvable by one player, but they never feel compromised. The single-player is in no way diminished by the co-op focus, rather the game is enhanced when playing with a friend.
It’s a fine example of the elegant design and meticulous attention to detail that permeates The Guardian of Light. There is the odd blemish, such as sporadic trial-and-error sections that can irritate (though checkpoints are very forgiving) and one overlong engagement with wafting poison gas, but for the most part everything is expertly crafted. The controls are exceptionally tight, and even the simple act of button-mapping is spot on. Every action on the pad is just right, making Lara and Totec tangibly fluid in your hands.
Combat is handled twin-stick shooter style, with the left stick controlling your movement, right stick used for aiming and the right-trigger firing your weapon. It is, and has been for decades, a marvellous system for gunplay. And it fits perfectly in the Guardian of Light, again suited to either solo blasting or more tactical two player action. Enemies come in various shapes and sizes, huge trolls that thunder towards you with a hefty shoulder barge, smaller, zippier creatures that try to overcome you with sheer numbers and some that explode on death requiring you to quickly nip out of the way. It’s a deeper system than you may expect too, different beasts are handled best with a certain weapon (of which there are many, from dual pistols and shotguns to flame-throwers and rocket launchers) and being able to plant a bomb before detonating it remotely adds a layer of quick defensive thinking. Defeat multiple monsters without taking damage and you build up a combo, activating a relic that gives you a special power-up, such as regenerating health, more power or, my personal favourite, scattershot.
This arcade sensibility is woven throughout the Guardian of Light. You are bombarded with challenges to perform (such as bombing a spiked ball into a fire pit in one go), artefacts to find (that power you up when equipped) and high scores to beat (at which I am rubbish). Crystal Dynamics’ design positively glitters here. Hunting out the collectables is effortlessly compelling, rewarding and most importantly, fun. Whether they’re hidden in the brilliant challenge rooms or dropped in a hard to find nook in the environment, they make full use of the skills you’re provided and encourage you to explore off the beaten track. There are high scores targets to meet by racking up combos in battle or speed-runs to aim for. There’s no way you could do everything at the same time, unless you’re some kind of weird superhuman, so you choose your path as you set out. And whether it’s combat, reaching the exit as fast as you can or just good old exploration, it feels like the game was designed specifically for that one sole purpose. With just so much going on, that is quite an achievement.
Here’s the thing: you’d get change from a tenner for Guardian of Light. My initial playthrough clocked in at around five hours, which is comparable to some retail games I could mention, but with so many challenges to complete and artefacts to find, I wasn’t even nearly finished with it. And the tale of two friends going tooth and nail at the top of the leader boards proves that there’s life in Lara beyond even the challenges the game throws at you. You will rarely find a game that offers such phenomenal value for money, even at full price I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s an exciting reinvention for a heroine whose light has unfortunately faded in recent years; an exciting parade of action, puzzling and exploration elegantly crafted with fresh direction, all while retaining that familiar Tomb Raider ethos. So there you go Lara, all you needed to get back on top was a fresh perspective, and just a little help from your friends.