The Tomb Raider series has had a ridiculous amount of ups and downs. The first few PlayStation games and the later re-launch of the series were just incredible games while one can never forget some of the worst ones. Seriously, Angel of Darkness... just wow. But when Lara hits her highs she really does them well and that is what Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a runaway success and one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games released this year.
Some might think it's weird that this isn't a Tomb Raider game but there's a good reason for this. By the time the game begins Lara has already finished raiding this tomb and almost acquired the artifact she was searching for. A twist of fate sees an ancient evil named Xolotl unleashed and his arch-nemesis Totec comes out of his eternal sleep to stop the monster. Teaming up with Lara the two of them must pursue Xolotl in an effort to get him back into his prison before he causes too much damage. Thus begins their journey that involves everything that made the older games fun even a gigantic T-Rex... except this one breathes fire!
Upon first starting up the game it's fairly easy to be surprised by the cel-shaded design of the game if you haven't been following the previews. This worked pretty well in Borderlands and it definitely works here as well. It gives the game the appearance of a painting in motion that fits quite well with the whole raiding of tombs thing the series has going on. One area that this game does itself no favors is that of the sound design. While all of the voice acting is adequate if underused the music is just incredibly bland. It feels like it's meant to be understated in the background of your mind but it ends up utterly forgettable and it's just a really bland aspect of the game. For the most part your time is better spent chatting with your friends while playing the game or talking about the various puzzles.
Much of this review glosses over the single player but there's a good reason for this. The single player is just terrible and a bit boring. Lara doesn't get to use her trademark twin pistols, instead using Totec's spear as she must use it to solve puzzles. This does her no favors in combat since the game is balanced more for two players than just the one and the spear isn't that good of a weapon while her guns are quite strong. As such it's basically worthless to pick this game up for the single player.
This is however totally excusable seeing as how the entire premise of the game is that of Lara and the Guardian of the Light, Totec. It's not really meant to be played by yourself but for those who don't have someone else to play with, or just want a challenge, at least have the option to play it by themselves. So while it might not be a good single player game mode it's not a problem since it doesn't even need to be there.
Frankly the only thing that matters is the multiplayer and that is like a work of art. In addition to the basics of helping each other out in combat and finding all of the collectibles you have a lot of cooperative moves to use together. Each character has one special item they use for puzzle solving, Totec's shield and Lara's grapple, which will get a whole lot of mileage throughout the game. Totec can use that shield to hold Lara up so she can jump up to a higher level while Lara can toss the grapple to him, allowing him to rappel up or down walls. Heck he can even walk across the grapple like tight rope to cross to a far ledge.
It's not a hard stretch to say that this game right here is what a co-op game should be. Instead of just having canned moments where you and your partner work together to accomplish something you and your partner can always work together. Want to get to a previous area but don't feel like using your puzzle solving skills again? Have Lara grapple Totec and lower him down so he can grab the stuff there before pulling him back up. As a matter of fact there are several situations where it's more than possible to complete puzzles in ways that the developers didn't clearly intend.
Combat is a pretty basic affair that plays out somewhat like the newer 3-d Gauntlet games and the Hunter the Reckoning games. One analog stick controls your movement, the other controls what direction you aim in while pulling the trigger shoots your weapon. While the initial weapons vary between characters, Totec's weak spear and Lara's awesome twin pistols, the others are shared between the two so yes the ancient warrior can use a flamethrower. While his spears may be weak Totec is incredibly useful in combat thanks to his shield which can render him invulnerable to almost all attacks coming from the direction it's covering or even reflect some projectiles back at enemies. The two compliment each other quite nicely in combat and it works really well.
Really the only problem with this game is the sometimes cheap deaths. In a number of situations you are basically forced to die a few times to learn where all of the instant kill, cheap shots are coming from. One area has a bridge you must cross where enemies spawn in and lightning strikes that drop columns on the bridge, causing it to collapse. Figuring out the way across will take the average player far too many deaths to actually figure it out leaving it to go from being challenging to just annoying. This happens a few times during the game, which is annoying, but not so often that it just brings the game down entirely.
Some may get stuck on the higher price point of the game but this actually isn't that big of a deal here. Unlike some Summer of Arcade releases, such as LIMBO, you're actually getting your money's worth. With more than a dozen levels in the campaign, about a hundred optional challenges, numerous collectibles and rewards to unlock you definitely get your money's worth here. If you can stand actually having to be creative in some cases and aren't put off by the multiplayer focus on the title then this is a must own game. Even the fair gaffe of the game not shipping with online multiplayer has been made up for by the free DLC that's being released soon so grab that once it's available and you'll be set for a great experience.