I have fond memories of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. It was that rarest of beasts: a arcadey spinoff from a AAA series that actually worked, and moreover arguably transcended its source material with its emphasis on pleasingly brain-twisting puzzles that could be solved either solo or as part of a co-op team of two. The multiplayer puzzles worked so well, in fact, that I’d happily put Guardian of Light somewhere in my top five best co-op experiences of all time. Given that the first game was so good it’s a little surprising that it’s taken nearly five years for it to receive a sequel, but now that sequel is finally here. It’s called Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, and..
…it really isn’t good at all.
Colour me disappointed (as well as more than a little bit surprised) but Temple of Osiris, while not being out and out bad as such, has turned out to be no more than an exceedingly average game. This is somewhat difficult to understand: it’s the same developer, making a game that they knocked out of the park the first time around, so how has it ended up in such a mediocre state? I need to unpick this mystery of a game, and I have roped in my perennial co-op partner Kenti to do that.
Kenti: Do what?
Hentzau: Yes, very droll. For the uninitiated, Temple of Osiris takes place in the ancient Egyptian ruin of Duat.
Kenti: Actually I believe Duat is supposed to be the underworld?
Hentzau: It’s never adequately explained, nor did I particularly care.
Kenti: Wikipedia tells me it’s the Realm of the Dead. I trust Wikipedia implicitly. In any case, the voice acting is such that the characters saying ‘Duat’ sounds quite ridiculous in English. Within minutes we couldn’t help but follow up every mention with “Do what?” Of course unfortunately this was one of the few ways to amuse ourselves in this game…
Hentzau: It was much funnier if you were there. Anyway, the plot is utterly insubstantial tosh but that doesn’t matter; so was the plot to Guardian of Light. All that matters is that there are a collection of tombs full of puzzles, and all the Egyptian theme changes here is that… well, the puzzles now have an Egyptian theme.
Kenti: To be honest, I found the story approach less satisfying than Guardian of Light – that at least felt like a ripping Lara Croft yarn, with an appropriate degree of tombing and mythology. Here everything felt just a touch more ridiculous and silly, and not in a good, funny way. There are some pretty zany aspects of Egyptian mythology, but I don’t think the creators bothered to even remotely touch any of those, and all the trapping just felt drab and pointless rather than a mysterious background canvas to our puzzling.
Hentzau: Does ancient Egyptian mythology have a giant crocodile that chases you along collapsing bridges? That sounds like the sort of thing they might have
Kenti: Well, yes – Sobek, but in this case it just looked like a dog, and basically all it did was represent a moving line of death in a scrolling screen.
Hentzau: Temple of Osiris follows almost exactly the same blueprint as Guardian of Light. It’s an isometric puzzler with light shooty elements; there’s an overworld with a collection of tombs that unlock as you progress through the game, and each tomb contains a bunch of puzzles that need to be cleared in order to complete the tomb. In between puzzles you might have a brief interlude where you shoot some monsters and there’s the occasional bossfight (or running away from collapsing tomb/giant enemy crocodile1 segment as detailed above), but make no mistake: just like its predecessor, Temple of Osiris is all about the puzzles.
Kenti: There are also “challenge tombs” and although these technically presented a little more of a challenge than those you traverse in the main storyline, they still did not feel all that involve or complex. Indeed, they were more challenges of keyboard/gamepad dexterity than critical thinking or puzzle-solving. Which was made all the more difficult by the vagaries of character control, netcode and for some reason isometric view confusion.
Hentzau: Osiris is supposed to accommodate up to four players in co-op now – Lara, plus fellow undead mugger Carter Somebody and ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Horus. Who are curiously un-godlike beyond having a few glowy staff powers. Anyway, with the increased player numbers comes a double requirement on the part of the developers: not only do you now have to design all of your puzzles so that they can be solved by one, two, three or four players (meaning each puzzle has to be designed four times over), but because you’ve now shoved the focus of your game firmly into the co-op realm you have to make your netcode solid.
Kenti: It was not. It was quite laughable in the week after release. And despite patched improvements still hovers somewhere slightly below ‘Adequate’.
Hentzau: Kenti was hosting most of the time so he saw little of the netcode woes, but even last week after they’d had a month to fix it up there were still several lag-induced deaths where I’d have successfully made a jump, only to die two seconds later as the netcode caught up and decided that I’d actually fallen down a spike-lined pit. Those running-away-from-giant-crocodile sequences were particularly awful for this, as a couple of seconds is often all the leeway you have and if the netcode has a bad moment – which it does, a lot — it’ll deem you to have been eaten by the crocodile and instakill you. Picking up gems was also difficult as it would take a second or two to register that I’d actually picked them up, giving Kenti plenty of time to swoop in and steal them. That one’s partly Kenti being a dick, though.
Kenti: There were plenty of issues affecting the host player too – instances where the next location would fail to load and after a long wait, it would just reload the place you had come from. Or failed to properly show me the position of the co-op partner so I had no idea what was going on in some timed puzzles. (And I should point out that both Hentzau and I are equipped with very fat Virgin Media cable pipes and rarely experience online problems.)
Hentzau: What’s particularly annoying about this is that it’s now 2015 AD and there’s simply no excuse for netcode this shoddy any more. We have progressed some way past the point where developers can claim that the internet is a mysterious, new-fangled thing that they just can’t get to grips with.
Kenti: Well, I suppose if they couldn’t crack the netcode, maybe they were just spending all their hard development efforts on making some really really good puzzles, fun enemies and funky weapons?
Hentzau: I’m actually willing to give them a point on the weapons.
Kenti: The weapons were actually indeed good. So 1 out of 3 there. You had pistols, rifles, shotguns, SMGs… and grenade launchers, miniguns and many many bombs. All of these were quite fun to use and were both doled out frequently throughout the campaign tombs and had more powerful or cool versions locked away in the challenge tombs or behind slightly more complex puzzles.
Hentzau: Such a shame that the enemies you shoot with them were so dull, though. Since ultimately you defeated most of them by, well, shooting at them. Ancient Egyptian beasties proved curiously vulnerable to hot lead; I think there was a grand total of one enemy type who required more than a brisk hosing down with an automatic weapon in order to kill them. Their behaviour wasn’t particularly interesting either, as all of them just run at you and try to hit you in close combat.
Kenti: That’s okay, we could also shoot each other. Also, bomb each other. Apart from a selection of weapons, you could also place down bombs which you could then detonate at will. These were wisely used to help you uncover more gold, defeat some more powerful enemies, solve puzzles and occasionally send your co-op partner flying. By the end of the game, it provided a sizeable chunk of the entertainment we were extracting from the experience.
Hentzau: While the weapons were a lot of fun, I’m really not sure about the rest of Osiris’s loot system. By which I mean “I’m really not sure why Osiris even *has* a loot system,” since it is so one-dimensionally terrible.
Kenti: You can get rings and amulets and hang them on your character. The rings provide very very mild boosts to your health/damage/ammo and the amulets give you a different effect activated by a power-up metre that charges as you kill enemies and don’t take damage. This was occasionally nice, yes, but it added nothing to the general experience and afforded very little tactical or strategic variation since both the ring and amulet effects were so minor and the enemies so largely unchallenging.
Hentzau: The kicker was the chests scattered around that you unlocked by spending the gems you constantly pick up while exploring the tombs. You’d feed in 1000 gems (which is quite a lot of gems) to one of these chests only to be rewarded by a Bronze Weak Ring of Fire that gives you a single plus symbol to your fire powerup. Exciting!
Kenti: I think the intention was for this to induce a little bit of competition between co-op partners to collect more gems so that they could roll the dice on some cool items. Unfortunately the items are not cool, and the randomness was pointless and so we just competed for gems to get more arbitrary score. We might as well have been ignoring them.
Hentzau: I don’t think any of this would have mattered, though, had the puzzles been up to scratch — since that’s what I bought Temple of Osiris for. I expected another 6-8 hours of reasonably taxing co-op fun, just like Guardian of Light, and anything else the game offered would have been a nice bonus.
Kenti: To be fair, the puzzles were decent. In comparison to Guardian of Light however, they just didn’t offer anything interesting, clever or particularly challenging. If this was your venture into co-operative puzzling, or you simply had to play the game with three of your friends, then I think the Temple of Osiris probably does the trick. Otherwise though, I think most people would get a lot more mileage from just replaying Guardian of Light again.
Hentzau: That’s the thing, though – the scalability from one to four players means that the amount of effort that’s gone into the puzzle design has been diluted right down. Maybe the four-person version of Temple of Osiris has super awesome complex puzzles that are a worthy challenge. That could well be the case, and we wouldn’t know because we were unfortunate enough to see the two-person version of Temple of Osiris, which can only be described as disappointingly basic. I think there were maybe two or three occasions in the entire game where we didn’t immediately spot a solution to a puzzle within the first ten seconds of looking at it.
Kenti: This might also have been fine if there was an interesting and complex toolset that would allow us to play about and achieve the goals we had identified (Portal 2’s co-op puzzles spring to mind). Every time though, if we struggled, it was in trying to shove the tools the game had provided into what may have been round or square holes and hope that the perspective or netcode held up enough for the game to count this as a puzzle success.
Hentzau: I remember the one puzzle with the pillars over water and some pressure plates to raise additional pillars. They give you a ball at the start, and it looks like you have to somehow get the ball onto one of the pressure plates so that you can create a route to the other side of the water, and this is what we tried at first. After accidentally tipping the ball into the water, though, we tried just standing on the plates ourselves and it turned out the ball wasn’t even necessary. I got a similar feeling during many of the puzzles in Temple of Osiris: that we weren’t doing it the “right” way, but were instead solving them by brute force.2
Kenti: And while stumbling through these puzzles, we would also find ourselves occasionally madly hopping about in one spot. Jump, move a little bit, jump again, move a little bit more, jump. Scream. Anyone watching our game would have been consumed by confusion, but there was good reason for our madness – the isometric perspective was slowly driving us insane.
Hentzau: It’s weird because I don’t ever remember having this problem in Guardian of Light, but Temple of Osiris uses a very strange isometric perspective that makes it very, very difficult to gauge the height of an object unless it’s physically connected to the floor in some way. There are several points in the game where it asks you to pick up an item floating over a waterfall, or a spike-lined abyss, and these were utterly infuriating because you have no reference as to the object’s true height or position (is it really high up on the right, or really low down on the left?) and are reduced to skipping up and down on a tightrope as your co-op partner slowly moves back and forth trying to divine the actual location of the object in question. When you hit these points it’s like playing an M.C. Escher painting come to life.
Kenti: At least the game helped glue you to the rope. Although sometimes it was a little too insistent on making the grappling hook attack to a character rather than a helpful hook. Bizarrely there was also no ‘let go’ or ‘drop down’ button, so if you happened to be hanging on a ledge, your only option was to jump back up, and if you wanted to come down, you had to somehow maneuver a jump well over the edge. On the one hand maybe you wouldn’t fall down accidentally, on the other hand you could end up madly jumping up and down a ledge hoping you could somehow get down to the next level.
Hentzau: Just before we enter the wrap-up phase I want to briefly mention the game’s performance on older/lower-end graphics cards. When I played it before Christmas I was using a 560 Ti, and the resulting experience was barely playable – I was averaging 20 fps, and would occasionally drop to 12 or even 10 fps during “demanding” parts of the game. Shortly afterwards I found myself playing Alien Isolation (aka the Best-Looking Game I Didn’t Play In 2014) on the same card on “Ultra” settings with nary a hint of slowdown. The framerate issues disappeared once I upgraded to a GTX 970, but this is not a game you should need a £300 graphics card to enjoy in all of its glory. It’s not bad looking, sure, but there’s nothing about it that suggested the performance would be as poor as I found it to be. It’s certainly not something I’d feel comfortable chucking at a lower-end machine, which is weird because that’s kind of what Temple of Osiris feels like it should be aimed at.
Kenti: I think that’s more or less all there is to say about Lara Croft and Temple of Considerable Disappointment. It was sort of ok, but placed next to the previous effort in the series also completely deficient in every way. Which is very sad considering that Guardian of Light was a shining example of co-op and puzzling excellency and short-form tight game development in general. Now Hentzau, you know what you must do.
Hentzau: I really don’t. Or at least I don’t want to. Instead, I’m going to sum up. Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris is a painfully average arcade game with so-so puzzles and braindead shooting. Puzzle design in games is always a tricky thing to pitch since you need to make it hard enough that the player feels smart for solving it, but not so hard that they get frustrated and give up. This goes double for co-op puzzlers, and with the addition of two extra potential players I think it ended up being an overwhelming task for Crystal Dynamics. The worst of it is that the extra design effort expended scaling the puzzles isn’t really visible to the end user unless they play with a varying number of friends, and so from their point of view it ends up being wasted; it would have been far better to keep things focused on building a high-quality set of puzzles for one or two players. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the idea that they might have bitten off more than they can chew in terms of design, but it doesn’t excuse the generally poor technical performance of the game one bit. If you’re looking for a co-op puzzler and haven’t played Guardian of Light before, play Guardian of Light. If you’re looking for a co-op puzzler and you have played Guardian of Light before, still play Guardian of Light. It’s by far the better game.