Let's face it, the Tomb Raider games have been suffering from a serious bout of franchise fatigue as of late. While the latest couple of instalments, Legend and Underworld, have been moderately well received and are in fact fairly decent games the formula is beginning to appear slightly stale. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light takes an interesting approach in an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise by offering an arcade style adventure, on a much smaller scale with co-operative play too.
This time around Lara is in search of 'Artifact McGuffin #2312', the Mirror of Smoke, which according to an ancient legend was used by the Guardian of Light, Totec, to imprison Xolotl, the Keeper of Darkness. Lara finds the mirror but is followed by a local warlord and his band of mercenaries who force Lara to surrender it to them. Ignoring the threat of a potential curse on the mirror the warlord handles it, accidentally freeing Xolotl from his prison. Totec returns to life and warns Lara that Xolotl must be stopped before daybreak and so the pair set out to do so.
Even though we are now controlling Lara (and Totec for the second player) from an isometric viewpoint, the traditional Tomb Raider elements are still utilised to full effect. Your time in each level is split fairly equally between platforming, puzzle solving and combat. The first two retain a close connection to the Tomb Raider games of yore: activating switches; pulling levers; crossing spike pits; dodging traps et cetera but with a co-op twist. For example, Totec has the ability to throw spears into walls to create platforms for Lara to jump onto. He can also use his shield to block incoming attacks and hold it above his head for Lara to jump off to reach higher locales. In turn, Lara can attach the grapple hook to Totec, allowing her to repel down walls.
However, the combat is very different; using a twin stick shooter setup seen in games such as Geometry Wars. Pulling the right trigger readies your equipped weapon and pushing the right stick in a specific direction fires it. These combat mechanics work incredibly well with the arcade style of the game creating intense and challenging firefights. Both characters are given unlimited ammo for their basic weapons but the more powerful ones you find throughout the game utilise a universal ammo bar at varying rates.
Reinforcing the arcade nature of the game is its scoring system, which rewards you with points for finding treasure and defeating enemies. In addition, each level has its own set of challenges, from reaching a specific score to finding a number of hidden collectables. Each of these completed challenges reward you with new weapons and relics (which provide bonuses to your character's abilities), or boosts to your health and ammo meters giving a strong incentive to return to previous levels to finish up the ones you miss.
In the single player mode the game remains much the same except Lara and Totec are separated, only conversing in cut scenes. Puzzles are also slightly reworked in order for Lara to be able to solve them on her own and Totec passes his spear to her at the beginning of the game, which is needed to progress in some areas.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a fantastic XBLA release considering its reasonable price tag for the amount of game time and depth it offers and playing with a friend in co-op is a very satisfying experience as you work together to solve puzzles and overcome challenges. The lack of online co-op at release is a minor disappointment but gives you all the more reason to invite a friend over for some good, old-fashioned local co-op. Nevertheless, the game is also a blast in single-player mode and with the news of upcoming DLC (some free for Xbox owners) this is one of the best value and most enjoyable games on the XBLA.