Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy has to choose the true Holy Grail? From a table groaning under the weight of the glitterati of the goblet world, Dr Jones picks a simple, dusty drinking vessel rather than one of the many bits of biblical bling. A genuine treasure hidden amongst the gaudy escapees from Snoop Dogg’s dinner party set. He chose, wisely.
With Lara Croft Go, developer Square Enix Montreal have performed a similarly smart process of elimination. This spin-off from the main Tomb Raider franchise ignores all the dazzling cinematic adornments that distracted from the lack of actual tombs in the series’ recent reboot. Instead LCG is basically a Tomb Raider-themed board game. A turn-based puzzler that follows so keenly in the footsteps of the exquisitely executed Hitman Go it’s practically treading on its heels.
Overseeing the action from an isometric perspective, you move Lara one space at a time, attempting to navigate a safe passage across each screen. There are levers to pull, stone pillars to shove and buzz saws to dodge, all while staying out of the clutches of the snakes, spiders and lizards that frequently block your path.
As Lara clings to crumbling stonework, tiptoes past predators and clambers around on perilous rock faces it’s down to you to perform the mental gymnastics. There’s a lovely synchronicity between the game’s physical and cerebral mechanics. A clockwork precision to the way the cogs and gears in both the tomb and your brain need to grind away behind the scenes to make everything work.
The rhythms and patterns of the environments need to be observed and understood so they can be exploited with exact movements. As the levels progress, the puzzles become more complex but never stray from the game’s own ridged rules of logic. Watching a runaway bolder move obediently one square at a time is a sight to behold.
Like the entire game, it’s a lesson in restraint. There are no impeccably rendered, melodramatic cut-scenes here, no hundreds of evil henchmen lining up to be shot in the head. In fact, Lara Croft Go is a game that produces no new finds whatsoever, just one that rediscovers a humble but precious relic: the classic Tomb Raider puzzle.
To begin with, SPL-T is a hard game to warm to because it seems to offer so little. Its miserly black and white colour scheme, minimalistic visuals that look like they’ve stepped straight out of the gaming dark ages and apparent lack of ambition make for an uninspiring first impression. The whole thing comes across like Threes! reclusive cousin, cold, aloof and apparently pretty unconcerned whether you want to continue playing it or not. The spritely chip tune that chirrups away on the title screen is the only hint there may be more here for those willing to scratch beneath the dry and dusty surface.
The objective of this sparsely constructed game is to score as many points as you can by dividing up the screen with alternating horizontal and vertical lines. A tiny robot perched in the top boarder performs a perpetual workout, striking stern poses to remind those suffering short term memory loss which comes next. Run out of usable room, and its game over.
All of which seems simple enough. That is until you add points blocks, into the mix. Points blocks are constructed by using your lines to make four or more adjoining squares of the same size and their brilliance stems from the fact that they are the source of both your survival and destruction.
Points blocks allow for unprecedented increases in scoring and, when they finally expire Tetris style, endow you with fresh new areas to split further. But they also render precious screen square footage temporarily obsolete. The constant managing of their numbers and positions is the key to success in SPL-T.
The first time you harness some of their immense power it’s simultaneously liberating and intimidating; like standing on the edge of a geometric abyss. Some will recoil away in terror; others will jump into the darkness and allow it to consume them.
SPL-T is made by Swedish developer Simogo, the Kraftwork of the mobile gaming market. I’ve seen it written that this is their least Simogo-like release to date, but I have to say I disagree. Of course SPL-T is missing the strong narrative of the studio’s previous seminal releases such as Year Walk and Device 6. But Simogo games are primarily about asking players to explore the ways they interact with the device in their hands. As such, SPL-T is the perfect Simogo puzzle game. What’s going on here is anything but black and white. To find all the answers, you’re going to need to read between the lines.
If SPL-T quietly and cleverly unravels your mind, HoPiKo, from Laser Dog, hits you like a single, supersonic shot to the head. It’s fast, and by fast, I mean eyeball-blistering fast. Blink, and there’s a chance you miss not just it, but the sequel too.
The story here is that a binary Black Plague, the Nanobyte Virus, has brought an end to gaming and it’s down to you to guide the heroic Hopikos around the deadly innards of individual games machines to destroy the digital infection. Forget Sega vs. Nintendo, this is the real console wars.
The game itself is that most modern of creations, a retro platformer. Yet another 8-bit homage with an HD sheen. Its simple, single touch controls turn your digit of choice into a virtual detonator with every tap blasting your diminutive character off the platform he’s on and rocketing across the screen, hopefully, if you’ve judged it right, to another position of safety.
Not that anywhere in Hopiko is safe for long. Pause for just a handful of seconds and you’re history, move at the wrong moment and you’re toast. Windows of opportunity here are only ever open a crack. The difference between success and failure frequently the width of a microchip’s moustache.
Levels are chained together in groups, with one poorly judge jump sending you back to the beginning not just of the one you’re on, but the entire set. This adds somewhat to the annoyance, but increasingly to the challenge. Attaching the requirement for perfect memory recall to the pace of play is a key feature of Hopiko’s lasting appeal. Learning the precise moments when a second-long pause opens up a clear route reveals a surprising layer of subtlety to a game that initially seems to demand nothing but the most committed of kamikaze approaches.
There are exasperating moments when the naturally imprecise nature of the touch mechanics cause unintentional Hopiko self-destructions. But at least the irritation at having to replay levels is tempered by the game’s collection of appropriately urgent chip tunes which are worth the price of admission on their own.
You could categorise Hopiko as a forced speed run game, but there are no speed runs here, just survival runs, and it’s intensely fun twitch gameplay will leave your reflexes sharped to a point where they’re deadly. For about an hour after play even someone innocuously reaching into their pocket for their phone will have you reacting like they’re going for a concealed weapon.
Lara Croft Go, Square Enix Montreal, £3.99
SPL-T, Simogo, £2.29
HoPiKo, Laser Dog, £2.99