Lara Croft GO, the second game in Square Enix’s GO line of mobile puzzlers with the characters and tropes of Tomb Raider, Hitman and Deus Ex, is an incredibly well-made game that showcases what makes the GO games so brilliant.
Originally released on mobile platforms and Windows at the end of August 2015, Lara Croft GO recently made its debut on PlayStation systems (as well as Mac and Linux) during this year’s PSX, the year delay probably having something to do with Microsoft’s timed exclusivity deal with the franchise for Rise of the Tomb Raider. This review was made on the PS4 and Vita versions, but can generally apply to the other platforms as well.
The mechanics of the game are simple: you control Lara to move her about a grid in ancient temple environments as you figure out how to solve puzzles and make your way past enemies, using a turn-based system based on when you move to a new space on the grid. The game is structured around five journals that chronicle Lara’s quest for the Atlas of Beyond, as well as a sixth journal for the included Shard of Life DLC. A seventh book covers the brand new Mirror of Spirits DLC, created by KO_OP for the PlayStation release (to which it is exclusive for now).
The core of Lara Croft GO is the puzzle design, and it is very well made. In a vein similar to that of classic games like Super Mario Bros., tutorials are limited to popups explaining the controls, but the level design teaches you the use of them. Each mechanic, such as spears that can be thrown across the grid in Book 2 and spiders that patrol back and forth in Book 3, are introduced gradually, meaning that you always feel like you’re learning something new. Unlike most games there are new mechanics introduced even in the last few levels, such as rolling boulders and timed wall levers, to keep you on your toes and prevent the game from becoming stagnant.
Excitingly even the two DLC Books introduce new gameplay elements. Shard of Life features enemies that only stay dead for four turns, while KO_OP’s Mirror of Spirits introduces light-beam switches and Spirit Lara. Spirit Lara is incredibly creative as she’s a mirror of the normal Lara who exists on a flipped version of the normal puzzle grid, often with a slightly different layout and obstacle set. It puts a huge spin on the game after having mastered the main campaign, and also provides a nice difficulty bridge to Shard of Life, easily the hardest Book in the game.
No two puzzles ever share the exact same solution despite the levels they’re in being focused around a particular puzzle theme, like running away from boulders or luring Salamanders onto switches to open the way for you. Often they may seem impossible simply because you’re not thinking of a mechanic that was introduced previously (like pushing a column down a cracked floor to fill the hole so you can step across).
The elements themselves suit the theme of Tomb Raider very well. Snakes, Salamanders and Spiders fill the enemy roster (as well as a giant Queen Serpent who stalks you throughout the journey), and puzzle elements include spears, floor switches, cracked tiles and boulders that roll in a turn-based fashion just like everything else. On top of Lara’s twin pistols and her ability to climb and shimmy up walls, it nails the feel of Tomb Raider and adventuring in ancient ruins.
Hidden throughout the various levels are golden pots that you can touch (or hover a cursor over with the right stick) to give you a gem/mineral or piece of an artifact.These pots are cleverly hidden, some only visible if you’re standing on one specific space on the grid, but fortunately there are only ever four at most per level. Creatively, the three collected in the main adventure appear in the Croft Trophy Room at the start of the Mirror of Spirits.
Collecting them unlocks cool outfits that cover the various Tomb Raider eras, including PSone Lara with shades and a more filled-out shirt (*ahem*), a winter coat from Rise of the Tomb Raider, and even an Angel of Darkness skin that evokes the Angelina Jolie films of the early 2000s. There are also skins in the style of Just Cause, Deus Ex and Hitman.
The appearance of Lara Croft GO is easily the most distinctive part of the experience. Rather than going for the realistic look of the reboot, the game has an intentionally polygonal design that has vibes of Ubisoft’s Grow Home, drawing comparisons to the cruder 90s PlayStation graphics, arguably Tomb Raider’s most famous era. The result is a striking and appealing look that never gets old, although some environments are better-looking than others.
Each Book is centered around a particular environment, including jungles, caves and lava caverns. The jungles are easily the best-looking levels, and Mirror of Spirits’ are fantastic as well, being set in a disjointed version of Croft Manor after Lara has an incident with the titular mirror. Helping with the feel that no two puzzles are the same, each puzzle’s board is surrounded by unique environmental surroundings, such as green lakes, enormous towers and deep chasms.
Each GO game features a particular shape motif, with Hitman using the circle and Deus Ex the triangle. Lara Croft GO uses a diamond, which fits with the isometric viewpoint of the grid layout. Diamonds appear on any space, be it on the floor, up walls or even on top of columns. The Mirror of Spirits is also itself diamond shaped, and its angular appearance ties in with the polygonal look of the model designs. It’s a small touch but I really like the use of a single shape over and over again.
If you get stuck, there is a Hint system that lets you follow the path for the intended solution, and you can flick it off at any time once you’ve got past the bit you were stuck on. Unfortunately, activating it requires a puzzle reload, and the wait time is just long enough to be a bother. As well, the game offers no indication of how many hidden Pots there are in a level if you’re entering it having completed the previous level, which can make management annoying as you have to quit the level and view the Book page to see the Pot count.
Unlocking the various outfits is also a tad more of a challenge here than in the previous versions of the game. Specifically, acquiring the Midas Lara outfit requires you to collect all the valuable minerals and gems. In the mobile and Windows versions this was only the 81 found in the original adventure, but on PlayStation, Mac and Linux this also includes the 27 found in the DLC, making unlocking it more of a nuisance this time around.
Thanks to the additions of the Shard of Life and Mirror of Spirits DLC, Lara Croft GO no longer suffers from any length issues like it did in the original mobile and Windows release. However, load times are an issue. As mentioned previously the load time for resetting a puzzle is just in the zone of irritability. More pressingly however are the load times on Vita. Where a level might take 5 seconds to load on PS4, it will take an agonizing 45 seconds on the Vita.
The PS4 game also has an oddly specific quirk that the Vita edition doesn’t. When collecting a gem/mineral or a treasure, the game will often hang before it “counts” the item you just picked up, with wait times varying from a few seconds or none at all to an extremely irritable twenty seconds, sucking away all momentum and sense of accomplishment from picking it up.
Despite the shortcomings of Vita loadings and PS4 hangs, Lara Croft GO is a fantastic game. The puzzles dance that fine line of being hard to nut out but easy to execute, giving a huge sense of reward and progression when clearing the puzzle. The art style is wonderful and evokes the classic Tomb Raiders of old, and the music is unobtrusive whilst also evoking a sense of mystery and thoughtfulness that works well when you’re troubleshooting the latest challenge in front of you. In short, it’s brilliant.