by Matthew Thompson (All images courtesy of the Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light page found here)
(I am counting down my 25 favorite games of the last console generation. I explain a little about how I put the list together in this introduction. And you can see a collection of all my articles on the Best of 7th Gen compiled here.)
I still remember seeing the first media for Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and finding myself a little disappointed. When rumors suggested a new downloadable spinoff of one of my favorite series, I was excited just like many would be in a similar situation. My mind imagined something like Ratchet & Clank’s Quest for Booty. A game that retained all the production values I had come to expect from Tomb Raider, but whose adventure wasn’t as grand as Lara’s typical outings. Maybe something along the lines of Underworld’s excellent DLC Beneath the Ashes, but meatier.
Of course, my first look at Guardian of Light showed something very different. I questioned how the franchise would work with GoL’s isometric perspective. And I have been known to make a stink about Lara Croft having friends around or even just someone yapping in her earpiece, so why would I want to actually play alongside another player? Nothing about this reaction was really fair, but it was how I felt nonetheless. Fortunately when I finally played the game, I was completely won over. My concerns seem silly in hindsight as Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light delivered a unique experience that managed to feel like a part of the franchise with its own twist and probably the perfect blueprint for how to deliver a downloadable spinoff of a larger franchise.
Despite being a big departure from the mainline Tomb Raider games, I love that it retains the core elements of the series. Combat takes on a much larger role here, but traversal, exploration and puzzle-solving haven’t been abandoned. And more importantly they haven’t been dumbed down. This game isn’t afraid to challenge the player in these areas, they just do it in different ways than TR players are accustomed to. From this standpoint, I think Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light feels more true to series it spawned from than the recent Tomb Raider reboot.
Some games are more fun with a friend and merely dropping an identical character into the mix so your buddy can play alongside you can be a blast, but I love when a developer approaches co-op in a more interesting way which is definitely the case here. Lara is joined by Totec, the titular Guardian of Light, as they try to put a stop to Xolotl and his army of darkness. While both characters have similar abilities particularly in combat, a couple of things set them apart. Totec can throw spears which can be used as a standard weapon, but can also create places for Lara to hop on when thrown into walls. His shield can also protect her from projectiles and be used as a way to boost Miss Croft up to higher platforms. Lara on the other hand has a grapple which can be used to run along walls and create tight rope bridges. It can also connect to Totec himself. That really only scratches the surface of what they can do, but it illustrates an important aspect of the game: these characters need each other to progress. It makes for some very clever cooperative puzzles and platforming as you figure out how to manipulate these tools to get through various spike-filled mazes, cross hazardous pits or get to that out of the way treasure.
For a small downloadable game, there is a ton of content here too. On top of a 6-8 hour campaign that is actually quite fun even played solo, the game has a myriad of unlockables. These can be obtained through a number of different means from time trials to score challenges to exploration of the environments. There are even some other odd objectives that task you with an outside the norm way of handling certain situations (like playing “jump rope” with a certain trap for instance). And it doesn’t just unlock a useless trinket either. You’ll get new weapons, health upgrades and even artifacts that grant you new abilities like a spread shot for your weapons or a larger radius for your bombs (another key item used in the game’s puzzles and combat scenarios). This makes tracking everything down a little more rewarding than it would feel otherwise.
The game isn’t afraid to mix things up either. Some levels are open hubs with multiple objectives while others feel like linear obstacle courses. The platforming will have you scratching your head trying to find your way around a room at one moment and hopping along a collapsing bridge the next. You’ll explore ruins scattered across jungle areas as well as dark, dusty tombs. There are even some boss fights, some bested through pure firepower, others by setting off traps. All this will help keep you on your toes and prevent things from getting too stale.
In the end, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light didn’t give me what I initially hoped for, but what I ended up getting was something much better: a unique spinoff that leveraged the core elements of the Tomb Raider series in a new exciting way without losing the essence of Lara’s classic adventures in the process and one of my favorite downloadable games of the last generation.
A few more things:
- I mentioned in my intro blog that I was using a general rule of one game per series for this list with a few exceptions. This is one of those. I figured allowing a spinoff and a more traditional Tomb Raider game on this list was fair. So this isn’t the last we will see of Lara in my top 25 games of last gen.
- I’d love to see a sequel to this game or something similar from Crystal Dynamics, but it seems like this was a one time thing.
- Clue for #20: It is one of the few games I’ve ever actually bought downloadable costumes for.