Here in 2020, the Tomb Raider IP is at a crossroads. The series sits at the end of a trilogy, with the critically acclaimed reboot in 2013 and its worthy follow-up Rise of the Tomb Raider preceding a, to put it mildly, less than stellar third game with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Whilst the third entry wasn’t bad by any means, after all, it still had luscious greenery and brutal combat galore, it felt less of a step up than ROTTR, instead settling for the tried-and-tested techniques the series had but with a couple of small changes. Regardless, where one of gaming’s most storied heroines goes from here is a bit of a mystery, much like the tombs themselves.
Weirdly though, the franchise found itself in a similar position 10 years ago, specifically after the release of 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld to generally strong critical reception but some slightly disappointing sales figures. Whilst those sales would improve over 2009, the question was what was next for Croft and her global adventures destroying priceless relics, shooting velociraptors and turning into gold on the Hand of Midas?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the immediate answer was 2013’s Tomb Raider, but instead we had Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, the top-down adventure to bridge the gap. The game was released on Xbox Live Arcade, which at the time was on a hot streak of innovative and fresh indie titles. Think Comic Jumper, Splosion Man or that masochistic biking game Trials HD. So seeing Lara Croft somersault her way onto the platform was a shift in scope for the series, a necessary and surprisingly welcome one critically.
Players took control of Lara and Totec in co-op, or Lara herself in a single player adventure, to stop an ancient god Xolotl from doing evil things. I say “evil things” because that’s really the sum total of story on offer here, but the devs at Crystal Dynamics clearly were looking to head back to basics both in story and in gameplay. There are no massive set pieces with QTEs or ridiculously bombastic 3D spectacles on offer here.
Instead, Guardian of Light offered gameplay and gunplay that felt like the essence of what Tomb Raider is. Players had four weapons to easily switch between on the D-pad; enemies ranged from Xolotl’s demons to spiders and other creatures. Multi-step puzzles moving crates and spheres onto pressure plates needed to be done in order to advance at points. In every sense, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a Tomb Raider game, its foundation built on the classic formula that got people playing in the ‘90s.
Yet in the top-down style, it allowed for some neat twists on that formula. Each level had individual challenges to unlock artifacts and relics that could be equipped to give Lara a boost in certain stats, and downgrades in others. As you progressed, optional self-contained tombs became available, each with individual puzzles in order to obtain a reward of additional max ammo or health, or even the aforementioned relics and artifacts.
If these gameplay and design elements sound familiar, it’s because both of these would be carried over into the more recent entries, as the unique challenges would be given to the individual areas in the open-worlds that followed. Of course, the rebooted series has developed the side tombs into sprawling, gorgeously designed tombs that harkened back to the original series’ multi-stage puzzles, whilst upping the scale within the Foundation engine. These side tombs are truly the best aspect of the recent reboots, providing an excellent mental challenge whilst enhancing the game world. To see these elements within The Guardian of Light but on its more restrained scale is fantastic and illustrative of how the game was able to bridge the gap between Tomb Raider: Underworld and Tomb Raider (2013).
This twin-stick shooter also provided some surprising platforming, which isn’t unheard of for the genre, but the challenge here was translating the series’ wall climbing and rope swinging from a full 3D environment, with the player seizing control of the camera to the isometric viewpoint. This is achieved from reducing the complexity of said platforming. Instead of large platforming where Lara has to scale multiple-story statues to obtain relics (think the Bolivia level in Tomb Raider: Legend), verticality is instead reduced to give the game a faster flow. Whilst that reduced complexity may irk some, it actually worked wonders here, giving the game an increased speed of movement, matching the urgent plot. To match that sense of pace and momentum, the game design here is excellent and makes the tenets of Lara’s games way quicker and as easy to access here.
Looking back on it as it gets to 10 years old, it is striking how much was achieved in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light to keep the franchise going with a fresh spin. It did well enough in the eyes of fans to warrant the 2014 sequel Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, which was also well-received. Yet since, Lara’s twin-stick travels have been put on hold. But who knows? With the series in limbo for the time being as Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix figure out what’s next (hopefully something with less Trinity please), maybe another Lara Croft experiment into a differing genre could hold the key to the next great entry. After all, if anything, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light should be remembered for being one of the few times a series switched genres, and did so successfully.