In Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, you see the titular leading lady from a whole new perspective. While the isometric camera angle shows off less of the iconic character than you may be used to, the game boasts the same engaging mix of exploration and combat that has long been the hallmark of the best games in the series. Punctuated by clever puzzles and lush visuals, each level begs to be replayed thanks to the varied and enticing challenges that promise substantial rewards. Guardian of Light is addictively fun, and it gets even better when you enlist a friend for some cooperative play, as the puzzles change to suit your complementary abilities. Unfortunately, the game does not support online cooperative play at launch, and though the developer has promised a patch, it's a disappointment to be even temporarily denied the opportunity to play this great co-op game online. Yet in spite of this shortfall, Guardian of Light is a rousing success that ranks as one of Lara Croft's greatest adventures.
Guardian of Light finds Lara deep in the Yucatan peninsula having just located yet another powerful MacGuffin. This particular item releases a nasty old demon, and soon Lara is off on his trail through the Mayan jungle. One of the best things about Guardian of Light is that it makes exploration enjoyable and rewarding. The levels are lush and moody, beckoning you onward with thoughtful details. Though your primary objectives are always straightforward, the levels vary widely in terms of length and layout, mixing long, multistage puzzles with dramatic moments of desperate action. Fully exploring every level is an unqualified pleasure, and aside from the natural thrill of discovering the unknown, there are many tangible rewards for thorough players.
Some of these rewards are immediate, like new guns, skill-enhancing artifacts, and health and ammo power-ups. Others, like red skulls and score-boosting gems, help you complete the many challenges each level has to offer. Rewards for high scores and speed runs are offered on every level, usually in addition to an array of level-specific challenges. These include finding hidden symbols throughout the level, passing a dangerous section on your first try, or perching a giant stone ball on top of a pedestal using explosives. Challenges are enjoyably varied, and completing every challenge in a level the first time through is extremely tough, if not impossible. Fortunately, Guardian of Light makes it fun to replay levels, and the challenges that fuel this replayability always seem tantalizingly within reach. Striving for a high score and speeding through for a quick completion time are two very different yet very entertaining ways to play, and even though you can get through many levels quickly, there are hours and hours of adventuring to be had here.
Of course, Lara Croft's brand of archaeology involves more bullets than brushes, so expect to be gunning down plenty of enemies in your quest. The simple combat controls make maneuvering nimbly and shooting accurately a breeze, provided you are using a gamepad. The keyboard and mouse controls aren't precise enough to handle some of the acrobatics, notably jumping at odd angles between small platforms. Though you can tough it out and progress through the game, the action is much more enjoyable with a controller. To help maximize your fiend-vanquishing potential, you can equip a few weapons at a time for slick, instantaneous access. You find or earn a large variety of pistols, shotguns, rifles, and heavy weapons, as well as artifacts that you can equip to bestow boosts to your basic battle attributes. When Lara does sufficiently well in combat without taking damage, her power meter fills up and eventually grants her a special ability. These abilities, which are governed by your equipped relic, include a powerful attack boost, enhanced speed, or, if you're lucky, a combination of a few powers. Keeping your power meter full requires that you avoid taking any damage, but it's key to completing high score challenges (you earn more points per vanquished enemy). This helps make combat more than just pointing and shooting, and the variety of enemies you encounter encourages you to make good use of your arsenal.
While all of your weapons, artifacts, and relics are effective, they are not all created equal. Some deplete your ammunition supply faster than others, and it's fun to search for new weapons while sticking with your favorites. One of those favorites is probably going to be your spear. Aside from sticking into enemies with a satisfying thwack, this weapon can stick into walls, where the light-footed Lara can use it as a platform to reach higher areas or traverse dangerous pits. Another favorite is likely to be your remote-detonated bombs, which, in addition to the obvious applications, are used in a variety of different environmental puzzles.
Whether you encounter them in the normal course of the level, through diligent exploration, or in one of the many challenge tombs, these puzzles are another big highlight of the game. They use Lara's skills in conjunction with environmental elements in a variety of clever and surprising ways. Using Lara's grappling rope to rappel down a cliff seems straightforward enough, but add in some moving pillars, and you've got something a bit trickier. Maneuvering large stone balls onto pressure pads is simple; using bombs to accurately propel large stone balls through the air requires a lot more precision. Whether the challenge lies in executing a particular action or just figuring out what to do, you won't want to leave any of these engaging puzzles unsolved.
Between exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving, there's a lot to enjoy as a solo player in Guardian of Light. But team up with a friend to play cooperatively, and you've got a whole new set of challenges. While one of you plays as Lara, the other plays as Totec, a muscular ancient Mayan. Though Totec's voice actor is hammy and unpleasant, you are subjected to his voice only during the rare cutscenes that string along the equally cheesy and forgettable plot. The action is the star here, and when you play cooperatively, the game changes in significant ways. Totec is the only one who wields the aforementioned spear, but unlike Lara, he can't stand on it. To get him to higher ground, Lara must lend a hand with her grappling rope. Totec also carries a shield that can be used to reflect enemy projectiles or provide a makeshift platform for Lara to leap from. Totec can also wield firearms, though he lacks Lara's magical pistols of unlimited ammunition.
The two must combine their abilities to solve puzzles that are different from the single-player puzzles in crucial ways. Solving these cleverly altered conundrums and fighting the emboldened hordes of enemies makes for a very fun time, providing you can get someone over to your house to play with you. The entertaining mix of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is perfectly matched with enticing rewards and engaging challenges that will have you tripping over yourself to replay levels again and again, especially if online leaderboard competition is your cup of tea. Cooperative play makes this adventure even more enjoyable, and though the disappointing lack of online support may sting for weeks to come, it shouldn't stop you from enjoying this impressive arcade adventure.