Every so often, fate, like a sneering Dickensian cook, serves up a bowl of lumpy humble pie. Short of ignoring it altogether until someone inevitably points out the contradiction, all you can do is nod politely, compose yourself at the proffered table, unwrap your trusty spoon and begin swallowing it all down without so much as a wince.
In an opinion piece published in late May, I chronicled the decline of the Tomb Raider franchise and concluded that it was time to put Lara Croft out to pasture. To compound the impending humiliation, I will now quote myself:
“In March this year, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was announced. As if to highlight the game’s diminished status from perky PlayStation peddler to sagging digital spinster, the title will be download-only on the PlayStation Network, Xbox LIVE and Games for Windows.”
This week, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix released that very title. As it turns out, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is an exceptional experience unlike anything in the franchise’s history, one that could well revitalise the wider Tomb Raider series.
The downloadable game, currently available on Xbox LIVE and coming soon to the PlayStation Network and Games for Windows, is a radical departure from Tomb Raider as you’ve known it. Eschewing the series’ traditional third-person perspective, Guardian offers an isometric viewpoint more commonly associated with role-playing games and hack ‘n’ slashers. And yet, with its pop archaeological setting, its easy balance of puzzling and action, it remains immediately recognisable, as if the series had always been this way.
More revolutionary than that, the game doesn’t simply introduce cooperative play to the series, it owns the term – and in doing so, asks other games to redefine themselves as having a mere “two player” mode.
The plot is spread on a little thinly: The ancient Aztec evil, Xolotl, is unleashed as a greedy South American warlord tampers with a long-lost magical artefact. Now, Lara and Totec, the Guardian of Light, must imprison the malevolent spirit again before dawn breaks. The issue is stressed by the fact that the game goes through this brief premise with a series of narrated still frames rather than cut-scenes.
The trade-off is keeping the download size at a manageable 2GB. Besides, the plot does what it needs to before getting out of the way to let the game’s real features shine.
In cooperative mode, two players controlling Lara and Totec must work together to overcome the game’s pleasingly clever puzzles. Neither character is an “also ran,” both are necessary and both must rely on one another to stay alive, making for an experience steeped in camaraderie. Lara, for example, has a grappling hook that Totec can use as a tightrope bridge to span an unfathomable drop. Once he’s across, he can take the weight allowing Lara to swing to the other side.
For his part, Totec carries javelins and a shield. Beyond impaling Xolotl’s minions, he can throw javelins into walls to create a makeshift ladder for Lara, and hold his shield either above his head as a temporary platform, or as a barrier to his front.
In singleplayer a number of the puzzles replace the function of the second player with a boulder or other inanimate object. However, a greater number are redesigned entirely in order to be completed by one person. It’s worth playing through in both modes simply to appreciate the creative solutions dreamed up by the design team.
Combat is straightforward. Pull the right analog stick in the direction of an enemy to draw, strafe slowly with the left, and shoot with the right trigger. If at first it feels a little clumsy, you’ll soon have mastered it.
Every level hides an array of cosseted relics and upgrades that both Lara and Totec can equip to boost their abilities.
All good and well, but here’s the kicker: It’ll take you perhaps six highly entertaining hours to knock out the game’s 14 expansive levels if you’re making a blinkered sprint towards the chequered flag. Add a couple more if you’re a completionist who wants to scour the game for its plentiful secrets.
That’ll be your first play-through.
Next, and this is important, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light will set you back 1,200 Microsoft Points – about $20. Casting an eye over Gameplanet’s library I can quickly spot a cluster of 2010 releases that have retailed at $120 and offer substantially less. I’d like to believe that the publishers of those titles are shifting their weight awkwardly and avoiding eye contact this week – perhaps considering, if just for a fleeting moment, joining me at my humble table. There’s ample room, gentlemen.
Whatever they decide, if this writer needs to subsist on a steady diet of public humiliation in order for games of this calibre to continue to grace the downloadable gaming landscape, then so be it.
Please sir, may I have some more?