Crystal Dynamics is going digital for Tomb Raider star Lara Croft's next adventure, an isometric, puzzle-focused and arcadey spin on the 15-year-old franchise. is Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light rebooting in the right direction?
Now, it may not be fair to label Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light a "reboot" as Crystal Dynamics is clearly making the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade release as a Tomb Raider game with clear boundaries between it and the "pillar" releases. Guardian of Light is set outside of the series chronology, an independent side story. It also plays differently from every other Tomb Raider game, a top-down, sometimes cooperative adventure that adds a second player, the Mayan warrior and spear expert Totec.
The side story is a straightforward one, involving an ancient and powerful artefact, the Mirror of Smoke. Given that this artefact is both ancient and powerful, Lara isn't the only character on the hunt for this thing, which happens to have an evil spirit contained within - but not for long.
We also probably wouldn't call Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light a twin-stick shooter, even though it uses the familiar dual-analogue movement and aiming seen in many XBLA and PSN games. But the combat, simple in its Diablo-like point and shoot action, looks fluid and fun. Move with the left, aim with the right, pull the right trigger to fire, both for Lara, equipped with dual pistols, and for Totec, normally armed with spears, but capable of picking up a machine gun when necessary.
Guardian of Light's most appealing feature is its puzzle-solving and platform traversal, much of which requires cooperative planning and execution. For instance, Totec can throw spears at walls, which Lara can use as improvised platforms to get to higher elevation. Lara can also aid Totec in his bottomless pit avoidance, using her grappling hook. She can fire the grappling hook at an object, letting Totec use the hookline as a tightrope. She can also fire the grappling hook at Totec himself, giving her Mayan buddy a repelling line to climb up walls too high to scale otherwise.
Perhaps the most interesting use of Totec and Lara's cooperative platforming mechanic was during a puzzle filled with instant-kill spikes. In the centre of one of the game's tombs near the base of a set of stairs was a tall pillar with spikes jutting out, a much-needed puzzle piece atop it. This particular puzzle required that Totec stand on a pressure plate, deactivating the spikes. After throwing a spear into the pillar, it was clear that Lara wasn't high enough to reach the rim of the pillar's top. The solution? Totec had to walk back up the stairs, elevating himself, then throw additional spears at the pillar, creating a makeshift ladder for Lara to climb.
Some of the other coop action involved one player pulling a lever or rolling a ball while the other fended off a swarm of massive spiders. Players will also need to keep an eye on their partner's health helping to revive their fallen teammate when fatigued.
Crystal Dynamics teased some competitive aspects in the form of loot collection and a straightforward contest for high scores. Developers at GDC also briefly touched on a player progression system, but wouldn't provide specifics about how that system worked.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light also features a single-player only mode. There's no option for an AI-controlled coop buddy, so solo players will play a version of Lara with beefier platforming abilities.
While Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light may not be a full-fledged "pillar" entry in the Tomb Raider series, it's perhaps the most refreshing, most enticing take on the character in a long time. That it evoked fond memories of pick and play games like Diablo and the console-only Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games may have had something to do with that, but the smart puzzle mechanics and arcadey gameplay have already ensured that Crystal Dynamics' side-story spin-off is one of summer's most interesting downloadable games.