In an industry so focused on creating ever larger and more expansive experiences, there's something to be said about the power of focus. Lara Croft Go is a title that's not focused on wowing the player with a billion different features that create the illusion of depth, instead opting for a simplified, handcrafted feel that positively oozes care and quality. As far as action puzzle games go, you can't do much better than this.
The thing that immediately draws you in to this game is its striking, angular visual style. The original Tomb Raider games were notoriously pointy due to their low polygon count, and this game was crafted as a sort of tribute to that for the 20th anniversary of the series. Everything has a flat, angular look to it, but this time around it's an asset as opposed to a hardware restriction. The cel-shaded colours give the environments hard lines that have a way of making details jump out at you in a way they might not have had things been blended together in a smooth manner. That's not to say that there aren't some more advanced techniques being employed here, however. For instance, when walking through a jungle, little particles fall around you from the treetops, and when walking through caves, a spotlight follows Lara, illuminating the immediate areas of the cave while the rest is more muted. There's something bizarrely pleasing about this angular aesthetic, and it consistently impresses as the campaign continues on.
Gameplay could be most closely explained as a mixture of the turn-based strategy and puzzle genres. A set path of nodes meanders throughout the environment and Lara is restricted to moving along it. After she takes a step, the rest of the environment takes its "turn" and everything moves one more node. This means that enemies, boulders, and other hazards will shift, so you have to take everything into account before you move. Enemies can be defeated by simply walking onto their node from any side that's not their front, and as the game progresses, you're occasionally given access to tools such as a torch that frightens off enemies or a spear that can dispatch them from afar.
What's immediately striking about this setup is how well it manages to distil the basic tenets of the Tomb Raider games into a simplified, streamlined experience. You may be on rails at all times and the game's pace may only progress at whatever speed you dictate, but it's remarkable how the developer has managed to create a sense of urgency even in the stop and go setup. For example, when climbing a wall covered in buzzsaw traps, it still feels as though you must properly time when to jump between the moving saws, even if all of them are completely static until you actually make a move.
The puzzles themselves are extremely well thought out, and manage to stay interesting throughout the whole campaign. As you progress, more elements are introduced – such as new enemy or trap types – and the difficulty gradually increases as the puzzles become more complex and require deeper thought to solve. While you may be able to more or less run through the first bunch of levels, the latter half of the game will have you approaching it more as a chess game, weighing options and planning three moves in advance as you discern how to best guide Lara through the obstacles. If at any point it becomes too difficult or you find yourself stumped by a puzzle, you can turn on the hint system which will guide you step by step through the level. This is a nice inclusion as it negates any bottlenecks in the game's structure, while still giving you full control over how you wish to experience the game.
In terms of replayability and content, there's a lot to play here. On top of the lengthy base campaign, there's two additional expansions (one of which we'll get to later) that add several hours to the game's total length. Also, the game features a menagerie of collectable jewels and relics cleverly hidden in jars in the backgrounds of each stage, which unlock extra costumes and skins for Lara. Particularly later on, these jars can be quite easy to miss, but the game tells you which ones you missed in which levels, and the hint system allows you to retread through these levels again to find them with little hassle.
As for which platform we'd recommend you play it on, we'd lean more towards the PS4. The nature of the gameplay is perfect for on the go gaming and so the Vita has the PS4 trumped on that front, but the Vita port is poorly optimised. It takes about 45 seconds to load a new level and about 30 to retry a stage if you make a mistake, as opposed to about five seconds for either on the PS4. Additionally, the Vita version runs at a lower framerate and frequently drops frames in some of the larger puzzles which include more enemies and hazards. Considering that the PS4 version seems to run at 60 frames-per-second, has prettier visuals due to the better resolution, and has significantly lower load times, it is the definitive version, but it does lose out on the portability aspect.
Of course, this is the game's debut on PlayStation platforms and to celebrate the occasion, Square Enix Montreal teamed up with the indie studio, KO-OP, to create a brand new expansion called The Mirror of Spirits. This new chapter includes 11 levels and several dozen new puzzles, all of which feel simultaneously alike and different from those in the initial game. The story here shows Lara hanging up the Mirror of Spirits artifact in Croft Manor when it shatters, splitting her into a physical and spirit form (the latter of which runs off), and sending her manor into a bizarre, fragmented dimension.
The notable new feature of many puzzles in this expansion is that of Spirit Lara, who you will also have to guide to safety along with the real Lara. Spirit Lara has her own, slightly altered path of nodes, and you can't move either Lara unless the other one can also take that step. These puzzles are the highlight of the whole game, as they require a different way of thinking, and they become suitably expanded upon as new elements are brought into play. On the whole, KO-OP has done a remarkable job of crafting an expansion that manages to gel perfectly with the pre-existing content, but also has its own independent identity through new gameplay concepts that it introduces.
Additionally, the visuals of Mirror of Spirits are much more dreamlike than the rest of the game, lending the expansion an enhanced sense of awe and mystery. As you move through the levels, you're slowly working your way through an alternate variant of Croft Manor. Armchairs sit on small rocky platforms hovering above a dark, blue abyss and books float about aimlessly in libraries. It's the blending of the real and the surreal that's so eye-catching and as you progress the familiarity of the mansion gives way more and more to the weirdness of this mirror dimension. In sum, this is the greatest realisation of the art style that Lara Croft Go employs and it's something that has to be seen to be appreciated.
On the whole, we could not recommend Lara Croft Go enough. Performance issues with the Vita port notwithstanding, this is a near flawless game that exemplifies an attention to detail seldom seen in gaming nowadays. Charming visuals, rewarding and challenging gameplay, and a lot of replayability make this a must have purchase. If you're looking for something that's high quality while also doing something a little different, look no further than Lara Croft Go.