Lara Croft GO Review
Square-Enix was recently experimenting with always-online DRM, so it’s not unfair to say that my opinion of them is at an all-time low. They removed said DRM in a couple cases (though it should also be mentioned that the Android versions of games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 still have it intact) after a backlash, though, so I suppose it’s time to start to slowly forgive them. Very slowly. The very first thing I did after buying Lara Croft GO was make sure that it could be opened and played without an internet connection, which it can, and that’s a good thing because it’s actually a pretty enjoyable little puzzle game in the vein of Hitman GO.
It improves on Hitman Go in some ways, but regresses in others
Hitman GO has a lot going for it, but it suffers when it comes to the presentation, being a game completely devoid of a story or character animation. Additionally, the music is repetitive, either forcing you to play in silence (with sound effects, but still) or while listening to one of a couple repeating tracks. Lara Croft GO, on the other hand, fixes all of these things. Both Lara and hazards—be they random buzzsaws, spiders, geckos, or whatever else—are animated, and a story is told through this animation.
Which is to say that there’s no actual dialogue in the game. This makes sense since Lara is the only actual person in the entire game, with all of the game’s dangers being of the animal and trap variety (which is true to early games from what I’ve heard of them), so there’s really not a lot the game needs to communicate; Lara searches for treasure stuff in dangerous places, giant spiders and various other critters don’t appreciate her intrusion, and she finds a way to obtain the treasure anyway despite their objections. The whole setup is as simple as simple can be, and yet I appreciated the game including actual motivation for its character to continue on, however simple. This is something sorely lacking in Hitman GO, where playable character 47 just goes around airports and weddings killing people for no particular reason in stark contrast to the Hitman series at large (which, despite its name, has always included more interesting and elaborate stories than just “go kill X person because you’re a hitman,” often touching on themes like redemption and betrayal).
But Hitman GO also included many levels and “mission objectives” that were mutually exclusive, driving you to play through most of its levels in different ways. Lara Croft GO, on the other hand, only has one solution to each of its puzzles. There is no “lethal way” and “non-lethal way” to complete a level, so once you finish a level, that’s it. You’re done with it for good because you’ve solved it in the only way it can possibly be solved. This causes the game to feel quite a bit shorter and more disposable than Hitman GO did, and there are fewer levels on top of that, even when you take into consideration the game’s bonus “cave of fire” pack of levels that you can play after the main story concludes. On the other hand, levels are bigger than they ever were in Hitman GO, often being broken up into 2-3 rooms, each with their own puzzles. Whatever the case, I ended up 100% completing the game in a matter of hours over the course of two nights, which is definitely faster than I played through Hitman GO. On the other hand, finishing both the “normal” game and the cave of fire bonus levels causes credits to roll, something that was conspicuously absent when I finished Hitman GO. This makes Lara Croft GO feel more like an actual game and provides some closure (something more important than it probably sounds), so I’m tempted to call it a wash.
We’re still talking about a turn-based puzzle game
Probably the most impressive part about Lara Croft GO is that it doesn’t explicitly tell you the rules of how to play, but eases you in by giving you situations that teach you about how the game responds to certain actions. For example, early in the game you come across a snake facing the other way, and the only direction Lara can travel in is toward the snake. This teaches you that coming at a snake from behind causes Lara to shoot it, removing it from the puzzle. The game soon teaches you that the same is true of coming at enemies from the side, and you’re able to pick up on these kinds of lessons because of how well designed the early levels are.
The same can be said of all the puzzle elements you discover, whether it be torches (which cause enemies to back off, even if you come at them head-on, but are lost if you climb to higher ground), spears (which can be thrown at faraway enemies, but only if you have a direct shot to them by being in the same lane or parallel to them), and color-coordinated switches (which can activate push blocks, arrow traps, or move platforms). There are also buzzsaws that travel along a set path, enemies with various different behavior types, cracked parts of the ground and walls that crumble the second time they’re traveled over (but that can be filled with columns or boulders), pushable columns that can be stacked or used to shuttle enemies to new areas, and once you reach the bonus cave of fire levels, immortal enemies who regenerate after a certain number of turns so long as there isn’t something in the same space (in which case they’ll come back to life after the space is empty).
And it’s not overwhelming. It seems like it could be, but each pack of levels has its own puzzle focus. Early levels send you against snakes. A later level pack teaches you about the patrolling spiders and how to get them to step on switches for you. Another level pack introduces geckos and shows you that they chase you following the exact same path you use to run away from them until they’re blocked. Later on, you learn about switches that open an exit door, but only for a certain number of turns. These elements occasionally intersect, but you get enough time with each that you’ll have a good sense of the rules governing them all and how to use them to your own ends. That is, until the cave of fire levels, which have a bizarrely unbalanced difficulty curve. One level may give you a bizarrely difficult puzzle, but the next may be embarrassingly easy. There’s almost no consistency there, and I can honestly say that I only enjoyed “Deadly Steps,” level 9 of the cave of fire and probably the only one that felt right difficulty-wise. The others often relied on tedious sequences, and while this made some of them harder to complete, it rarely made them enjoyably difficult.
The microtransactions are worse than ever
Hitman GO’s microtransactions were embarrassing, giving you a pitiful 3 solutions (while the game had over 250 mission objectives) with your purchase of the game, and forcing you to buy more if you got hopelessly stuck. Lara Croft GO makes that look reasonable, with the game giving you zero free solutions and instead making you pay 5 dollars for the solutions to all puzzles if you need help. To give you some perspective, that’s as much as the game itself costs, and I can’t help but be immediately suspicious of the cave of fire’s addition given its often-frustrating difficulty spikes that come out of nowhere. I imagine they realized at some point that the base game was too fair and well-designed, and came up with the cave of fire as someone from accounting burst in and went, “quick, make something to drive more people to in-app purchases!”
That’s not the end of it, either, because there are several different outfits that can change the way Lara looks, and three of those are only available through in-app purchases. In a 5-dollar paid app. This kind of thing is unacceptable, and though there are many other outfits that are unlocked by finding all of the collectibles hidden throughout the stages, this kind of extra profiteering is just disgusting. Get your act together already, Square-Enix.
Aliasing aside, the graphics and music are high points
As with so many other polygon-dependent mobile games, the graphics end up having quite a bit of aliasing. Some devices can have antialiasing enabled through developer options, but most of us will play through the game with jaggies. That aside, each map has its own distinctive look that gives areas a lot of personality, and this is something that’s also true of the music. While there’s not always something melodic (some levels just have atmospheric sounds), the music that plays in some stages is different depending on which pack of levels you’re in, and there are even multiple songs per pack to keep the music from repeating too much. There’s more upbeat music for the scenes with lots of action, more relaxed and pretty music for the early parts of the game, and it all works surprisingly well. The soundtrack isn’t the kind of thing I’d listen to outside of the game, but it definitely suits the game and does a lot to create a fitting atmosphere.