Tomb Raider first made its appearance on the PlayStation 1 to awed gasps. It was a rare occurrence to have a female lead in a videogame, and Lara was definitely all woman - it was serious 3D. Ms Croft is wearing her age well, and what better way to re-invigorate a franchise than to turn the gameplay style into something a little different to what we’ve been use to. With the Guardian of Light, things have gone from over-the-shoulder third person perspective to 3D isometric. You may at this point be having heart palpitations. Don’t. It turns out that this is one of the greatest Tomb Raider adventures to grace the consoles of any format in a long time.
The story plays out across fourteen levels with Lara on a quest for the Mirror of Smoke. Unfortunately, as unbelievable as it is, just as our heroine is about to lift the trophy, some less talented treasure hunters arrive who inadvertently release the evil spirit of Xolotl, who legs it with the mirror in order to use it for his own nefarious needs. The narrative moves forward with a mishmash of formats; initially the tale is told in an animated comic-like format, later with a more familiar Tomb Raider engine, and finally mixing this with the in-game isometric look at some points. It sounds more haphazard than it is as things never feel disjointed or out of place; the meat of the game is the adventuring, rather than the story.
Throughout the game the player is expected to solve puzzles in order to progress. Some of these are as simple as standing on the right switch to open a door. Others need a little bit more thought, requiring half a dozen stone balls to be manipulated in order to place them in fiery pits, flipping trigger and timed switches as you go. The problem solving is largely straight-forward with only the odd one that will have you scratching your head, but mostly they are fun, giving a sense of self-gratification when worked out. Although there’s no mini-map on screen, the levels are designed in such a way that you never feel lost. However, should you need some navigation aid, a large map is available from the select menu.
Within each level of the game there are also a number of challenges, such as obtaining a certain score, finishing a boss off within a time limit, navigating part of a level without touching water or managing not to get poisoned across an entire map. It’s definitely worthwhile trying to complete these as they will aid you through the game, providing more powerful weapons and equipment or even artifacts and relics. These are important as they can be equipped from the inventory to boost defence, speed, weapon and bomb power, and with the right relic, health and ammo regeneration.
To aid Lara further on her quest, she has a cluster of bombs, used to blow up and move items within a level and also flip switches. Sometimes our heroine will come across gaps which seem too big to jump - here the grapple hook comes in to play, allowing large walls to be scaled with ease and necessary to use in order to get to some of the ten red skullls hidden on each map. The variety of moves and equipment Lara has available might seem a little bit daunting at first, but none of it is pointless or wasted, it all feels very fluid in use and although at times you will fall pray to insta-deaths, the only penalty is lost points and it’ll be down to lack of skill rather than bad design.
As things progress, the levels encountered get that little more difficult, both in terms of puzzles, platforming and strength of enemy. You’re expected to start perfecting the moves that Lara has the ability to perform across the different environments, many of which have very nice details, such a creepy spiders - not one for the arachnophobics, molten lava rivers - not for the pyrophobics and some great brick work (well this is set mostly in dungeons). It’s very atmospheric, which all adds to sense of being involved. It’s well paced too, getting the heart thumping with adrenaline in places, whilst giving things a rest bite for a puzzle solve in between the panic stations.
The other staple of Tomb Raider is combat and the different perspective hasn’t spoiled things here - it has a very twin-stick shooter flavour to it. Lara has access to a number of different weapons that can quickly be switched between via the d-pad. Eventually she’ll acquire quite an arsenal, from shotguns to rocket launchers. These do have a limited amount of ammo, although more can be found by destroying pots and killing enemies, which will also occasionally drop health packs too. Should things run out completely, the magical spear gained early in the game comes in handy for dispatching the unworthy - it also has other uses that will aid Lara to get to otherwise unreachable places. Things can get frantic, but you never feel over encumbered with the task, as Lara can dodge-roll and jump out of trouble giving her the space and pace to get the kill shot in.
Some might point out that, for 1200 MSP, the game is quite short and on a good run could be completed within four to five hours. Whilst this is true, there’s some great scope for replayability in order to top the leaderboards, complete all the challenges, find all artifacts and relics - and it feels like a full complete adventure, being both engrossing and addictive. The only genuine criticism that could really be levelled at the title is the lack of co-op online play - but this is allegedly being patched at some future point. For the time being gamers will have to stick to the local multi-player, which allows one person to control Lara and the other the 2,000 year old Mayan warrior called Totec, adding a whole new dynamic to the way the game plays - hopefully people will still be playing this when the online patch is released.
The Tomb Raider series has been largely stuck in the same design and play style since the first game was released on the PlayStation One way back in 1996. It was therefore a very brave move to change the appearance to this degree and it’s succeeded remarkably well. The Guardian of Light has shown that a re-visioning of a long established franchise can make things feel very fresh and new, all without losing the overall feel that this is truly a Lara Croft game. It comes highly recommended.