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iPhone Game Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

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With some games I find myself either really enjoying the title or greatly disliking it without being able to put my finger on exactly why I feel as I do.  More often than not, this difficulty arises with a game I don’t enjoy, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying review to simply refer to a title as “blah.”  Whether or not a game is blah is certainly a worthwhile question to answer, but the why is equally important.

The iPhone iteration of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of those games that gives me a blah feeling without my really being able to pinpoint a reason for it.  I’m going to certainly try as the game is not without some obvious faults, but I don’t know that there’s really anything definable as to why the overall experience isn’t a good one.

The game finds our hero, Lara Croft, on the hunt for a way to re-imprison Xolotol (a demon) within the Mirror of Smoke before Xolotol takes over the world (he was released by accident from the Mirror).  Aiding Lara on her quest is Totec, the titular Guardian of the Light and a 2,000 year-old Aztec god.  If that sounds confusing, ridiculous, and kind of weird, don’t worry about it – it’s wholly irrelevant in terms of gameplay.  The only time the story really appears is in comic book-style cutscenes between levels. The levels themselves are full of monsters and traps and puzzles.  Usually in a Tomb Raider game (even if this doesn’t carry the Tomb Raider moniker it is a Tomb Raider game) that’s a good thing – the traps are ingenious, the puzzles clever, and the enemies fun to dispatch.  Virtually none of that is true here.

And there it is dear readers, that is why the game is blah – none of the three things gameplay is built around (traps, puzzles, and enemies) are very enjoyable to experience, the story is even more foolish than a typical Tomb Raider adventure, and it’s really only told between levels.  Great, so then what’s the next question we need to answer?  Right – why are the traps, puzzles, and enemies not terribly interesting.

First and foremost, the camera is horrible and the controls terribly imprecise.  On a regular basis, Lara will be blocked from view as you’re trying to do something because the camera is in a fixed position which doesn’t afford you the ability to see what’s happening. 

Then, when you’re required to actually shoot something – including the spear you use to allow yourself to reach higher platforms – it proves nearly impossible to hit the exact spot you mean to hit.  The controls are dual analog sticks with a couple of other buttons thrown in as well so that you can do things like drop mines and change weapons.   It’s a lot to try and cram on an iPhone screen and managing all the controls takes some time to get the hang of (usually that’s not a problem, but when the game isn’t compelling before or after you get the controls sorted it doesn’t feel like learning the system is time well spent).

Perchance as an attempt to appease folks who like goals on each level besides simply “reach the end and don’t die,” Guardian of Light gives Lara a set of bonus objectives for each level, things along the line of getting a certain score (yes, unlike a traditional Tomb Raider game you get a score for picking things up and killing enemies), grabbing jewels, jumping from place to place, and finishing tasks within a time limit.  It is, almost certainly, impossible to actually accomplish all these goals on one play through of each level which makes it seem like the developers included them to add to the replay factor.  But, when you’re not that enthused by the game the first time around, the odds you’re going to go back to et 100% completion are kind of slim.

Even combat here is disappointing.  While there are several different types of weapons that can be found/unlocked, there is nothing terribly remarkable about any of them.  In fact, at least in the early levels, you’ll find yourself relying on your mines more than your guns which feels like an unintended (but good) use of them.

One of the highlights of the title is the multiplayer factor – the game can be played either locally or through the iPhone’s Game Center, with one person getting to be Lara and the other, Totec.  The puzzles are rearranged a little for two folks and while the experience can be more enjoyable playing with a friend in the same room, we were never able to have Game Center successfully connect us with another person which grossly limits the multiplayer ability.

I would suggest that it makes sense for Lara Croft as a character and Tomb Raider as a franchise to grow and change, but that seems like a pretty obvious statement and the fact that the developers have announced that they’ll be rebooting the franchise in 2011 make it even more so (even a rebirth is a kind of growing).  I don’t think the problem lies with this game being outside of Lara’s normal territory and that is particularly evidenced by the game having gotten good reviews on consoles.  The iPhone port however isn’t engrossing, the graphics merely average, and the troublesome cameras and controls only make a mediocre situation worse.  Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for her as a character or the franchise, but it certainly isn’t the pinnacle of her career.  It is instead merely another entry in the franchise and one that will leave you feeling distinctly… blah.

See you in the next life, Lara Croft.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Blood and Violence. This game can also be found on iPad and (in a slightly different iteration) on: PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.