Go into the Light: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light Review

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Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Systems it’s available on: Xbox 360
ESRB rating: T for Teen
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

Lara Croft’s an icon. She’s arguably gaming’s most recognizable heroine, having graced countless magazine covers and been adapted to the silver screen twice. But the problem with being an icon is that expectations about the character in question get formulaic. Any attempts to diverge from “what makes a character iconic” run the risk of being roundly mocked. Look no further than the “meh” reaction to Wonder Woman’s uniform change for a perfect example.

Make no mistake: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a big change for the lead character of the lead character of the Tomb Raider franchise. But it’s a good change.

The story has Lara trying to recover the Mirror of Smoke, an ancient artifact that once imprisoned an evil god named Xolotl. Disturbing the mirror frees Xolotl to make the usual threats about plunging the world into darkness but it also awakens Totec, the Guardian of Light who imprisoned the dark deity centuries ago.

Guardian of Light plays as an isometric shooter, with a top-down camera that automatically zooms in and out. The angled view gives a great sense of a beautifully rendered jungle environment, which really for the first time gave me an idea of how remote and dangerous the locales Lara does her derring-do in. My reaction was something like, “Man, this place is really in the devil’s asscrack!” Or something like that.

Honestly, the plot and presentation are a bit slight. The storyline is standard Lara, who’s left to fight off a local warlord’s thugs and supernatural nasties conjured up by Xolotl. Ever since Tomb Raider Legend reinvigorated the character for the current console generation, the games that followed have offered some glimpses of Lara’s past. (Mind you, they’ve offered middling returns as far as gameplay.) You’re not getting any of that character development here. Lara gets saddled with drab quips and not much else. The voice-acting feels perfunctory and downright bad in places, but the graphics are great and the soundtrack is excellent.

But, really, it’s the gameplay that saves everything here. The action’s a mix of exploration platforming and twin-stick shooting. There’s some Diablo, some Geometry Wars and some Metroid in Guardian of Light’s structure but none of it feels tacked on. Actually, it’s quite a feat how much the whole experience feels like Tomb Raider despite being so different from any other game in the series.  Tomb Raider players are used to ornate 3D levels littered with treasures and clues and things, and Guardian of Light does all of that really well. It’s also got massive maps where challenge rooms are hidden. If you’re just powering through the game, you don’t have to enter them. Hell, if you’re playing too fast, you may even miss them. But part of why they’re great is how they re-invent the franchise’s sense of exploration even though you’re not in a 3D environment.

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