Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light – XBOX 360 (game review)

Lara Croft is arguably the first true celebrity of video games. Sure, there have been mascots that have crossed over to the mainstream and become household words, but Lara did what neither Mario nor Sonic could ever do. She made gaming seem cool and adventurous to those who often looked upon the hobby as child’s play. With her initial title leading gamers into a brave new world of 3D adventure – launching fairly close to Mario’s first foray into that extra dimension – Lara put forth more than just a pretty face – even if those good looks helped her vault the velvet rope, repping appearances on everything from Entertainment Tonight to the U2 concert tour. And yes, she eventually fell from grace but that was largely to do with the poor handling of her core product and less about the character herself. Square-Enix, the new owners of Eidos’ darling, hopes to trade on her fame with their download-only release, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light changes up the traditional Tomb Raider format by placing an emphasis on co-op play. In the game, players can choose between Lara or the reincarnated Mayan warrior, Totec, as they seek to bottle a dark presence unleashed by rival explorers. This sends Lara on a quest through a variety of Central American jungles, caverns and tombs where she must solve a series of environmental puzzles while also battling the various critters and henchmen that swarm her way.

In addition to focusing on co-op mechanics, the developers switch things up by shifting the perspective from the traditional behind-the-back view to an isometric angle. This presents players with a sky-eye view of the surroundings – which proves integral when playing with a buddy as the game presents a variety of puzzling situations that require deft coordination between the two protagonists. On the solo front, the game changes up some of the puzzles to focus on a single player, which provides an incentive to journey through the game multiple times. In addition, there is a host of optional challenges introduced before each level that result in ability and weapon upgrades, providing players with more reasons to scour the finely detailed landscapes for hidden skulls as well as take on some more creative objectives.

When I first heard that the developers were shrinking Lara down to dowloadable size, I bristled a bit , because I felt that we were going to lose that sense of adventure that the Tomb Raider series has peddled in over the years. Sure, there were some middling titles in the canon, but the last few Next Gen releases have marked a nice return to form even if titles like Uncharted have stolen some of Lara’s thunder. Well, my concerns were unwarranted as Guardian of Light rates as one of Lara’s best games to date.

By stripping the it down from world-hopping adventures to a tightly contained action-arcade experience, the developers have focused on what really drew gamers to this title in the first place – that sense of exploration mixed with intelligent environmental puzzles. It’s the same potent mix that elevates the Zelda series, as these tombs are peppered with a variety of brain teasers that challenge but never fully vex the player leading to that satisfying “Ah-hah! moment that adventure gamers live for.

And while the co-op mode is truly the main event here, single play satisfies too. In playing alongside a buddy, you’ll find the puzzles grow a bit more complex but with the addition of two minds working to crack these catacombs, there’s a real charge in journeying through to see what’s next. The isometric angle works perfect to give you a good view of the action, working similarly to the perspective offered in recent multiplayer titles like the Marvel Alliance games.

There’s a nice ebb and flow between action set pieces and puzzles that stretch through the entire map and often the two players will find themselves journeying to far-flung corners of the area, working in conjunction to dive deeper into the tomb. From a visual perspective, this is one of the better looking titles on XBLA – complimenting a full-fledged package that earns its premium price of $14.99 and its position as Summer of Arcade showpiece. The one knock I have is that the co-op is strictly local (for now) but a patch in late September, timed with the PS3 release, will remedy that.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light succeeds so well by embracing the core concepts introduced in the original Tomb Raider; that infectious drive to explore and solve puzzles, while adding co-op play that illustrates how much fun games like these can be when playing alongside a pal. With 5 DLC packs promised in the future, and a lengthy adventure augmented by the addition of some optional challenges, this is one of the best titles on XBLA. While Square-Enix has said that the traditional Tomb Raider brand will return to retail shelves, I think they’ve made a smart choice by expanding their brand to the online front, making Lara more attractive than ever. The old girl’s still got it!

[game 5.0]