When Lara Croft triumphantly steps out into the sunlight, precious trinket held aloft, everyone cheers (and momentarily overlooks the dead Royal Bengal tiger at her feet). But that immortal moment of success always overshadows a lonely line of work, fraught with deadly pits, unstoppable boulders and hideous creatures. Nobody ever talks about that unglamorous time Lara broke a hip inside the tomb of Qeutzalopec and had to chew on a giant spider leg for three weeks.
In temporarily putting the Tomb Raider brand aside, Crystal Dynamics has finally given gaming's iconic action archaeologist a helping hand. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light introduces an unexplored social element into a franchise that I've come to adore for its sense of isolation and discovery. A second player, acting as Aztec guardian Totec, necessarily disrupts that atmosphere, but also facilitates unplanned moments of creativity. Enter: Spider Bowling.
This is how you play Spider Bowling: One of you lures a group of disgusting arachnids toward a staircase, while the other holds a giant metal ball -- used as a key in less creative situations -- at the top. Once the spiders are lined up, you simply let go of the ball and watch as gravity becomes an accomplice to murder. Spider Bowling offers no in-game rewards, but it is a testament to how rewarding cooperation can be.
Despite being radically different in pace and in tone, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light plunders some of Tomb Raider's best bits. The self-contained puzzles almost never require banal two-people-on-two-switches solutions, and instead opt for creative, physics-based answers that neatly fall into place. The larger levels offer networked puzzles that come together in a cathartic way, and a set of optional challenge tombs will force you to discover surprisingly clever uses for Lara's grapple line and Totec's spears.
There's more to it than just synchronized lever pulling. In discussing possible solutions ("Can I walk up there on your grappling line?") and inadvertently killing each other ("NO NO NO stay on the switch!"), you replace the frustrations of a single-player Tomb Raider with playful experimentation and completely unique collaboration. Failure seems a lot more fun when there are two crumpled bodies at the bottom of a pit.
Crystal Dynamics hasn't just made an exceptional puzzle game, but an excellent platformer. Implementing an isometric perspective was a smart decision, keeping Lara and Totec distinct and visible even in dark environments (though the intrusive HUD does obscure the bottom left and right corners). It's also a wonderful boon for casual players, as there's no need to fiddle with cameras or struggle with hard-to-gauge gaps. Momentum and jumping feel just right, even when you're rushed through one of the game's evil, evil collapsing gauntlets.
I was most surprised by how well Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light holds up as an action game (that's one thing the Tomb Raider franchise has always struggled with). While the right-stick aiming warrants a comparison to Geometry Wars, the onslaught of enemies from all directions seems more in line with Left 4 Dead. Subtlety is blown away by remotely detonated bombs, flamethrowers, gatling guns and rocket launchers, if not by the enemies that explode when you defeat them. It skillfully skirts the line between exciting and overwhelming, but the odds are swayed in your favor by a large collection of artifacts and relics. They'll modify your combat abilities when equipped and can be unlocked via addictive pop-up challenges spread throughout the game. (Good luck finding the ten red skulls in each level, by the way.)
In terms of level design, pacing and gorgeous visuals, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light topples last year's XBLA king, Shadow Complex. But while a lot of this content is perfectly suitable for a six-hour single-player session, I'd urge you to discover the game for the first time with a co-op partner. If that means you have to sit on it until online functionality is added on September 28th, then do it. In the meantime, buy the game, pick up the phone and try to get a friend on the couch for some Spider Bowling.
This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game provided by Square Enix. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light concludes the Summer of Arcade lineup on August 18 for 1200 MS Points. The PS3 version will be available in September.