Tomb Raider Go is a mobile game that ignores all the blockbuster action of its console cousins in favor of clever puzzles. The Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Go is not a survivor or warrior, she’s… well… a tomb raider. It’s a wonderful alternative to the console game and received quite a bit of praise upon its release. Uncharted: Fortune Hunter is a similar game with a similar goal, but it hasn’t received anywhere near the amount of acclaim as Lara’s game. Part of this is likely due to its nature as a tie-in game with the recently released Uncharted 4, whereas Tomb Raider Go stood confidently as its own game. However, it’s also likely that Fortune Hunter has gotten less notice because the puzzles in it feel very different.
Tomb Raider Go is arguably the better designed puzzle game, but Fortune Hunter better captures the tone of Uncharted — a spirit of improvisation and adventure — that is missing from Lara’s game. It’s all about the puzzles.
Tomb Raider Go is a game about timing. Each puzzle is presented like a board game, with enemies and traps and obstacles placed on a grid. Lara moves one square at a time through this gauntlet of danger. As she moves, the monsters move, and the traps spring into action. Many puzzles use this concurrent movement as part of their central conundrum: How do I get past a giant scorpion when it always moves to block me?
This emphasis on timing makes for some very clever and well-designed puzzles that move like clockwork. Everything exists as part of a closed loop. Every switch, every enemy, every lever, and every move have a purpose, and more importantly, a purposeful order. They’re puzzles that ask us to intuit order from chaos: Figure out how all of these switches and things work and how they work together. There’s a mechanical brilliance to each puzzle, requiring us to reverse engineer them to their exact solution. And the solution must be exact. That’s part of the nature of this kind clockwork puzzle. The solution has to fit with the rest of the turning gears.
This is where Go can get frustratingly hard. It’s easy to see how the timing of the traps works, but it is far harder to see how Lara fits into that timing. I know that I have to push this level to knock down a boulder, and then hit that switch to make a bridge, but how do I do those things in that order and not get stuck on the pointy end of a scorpion’s tail? The order of events is absolute, and somewhere along the line I’m making a wrong move, moving one square too far or too short of where it should be. I know what I have to do, but not how to do it, which is an annoying hurdle for any puzzle game.
Fortune Hunter is a game about order, and for the most part, timing be damned. Each puzzle is again presented like a board game, with switches and barrels and traps on a grid. Nathan can move around them, but in this case, he can move multiple squares at a time. Moving around is, thus, pretty easy. The challenge of each puzzle isn’t in inserting myself into a clockwork mechanism. It’s in pressing the switches in an order that opens a path to the treasure. The puzzles demand that I find that order, but without any timing requirement, I’m free to experiment with gleeful abandon.
In Go when I want to test a theory, I have to start the puzzle over again. In Fortune Hunter when I want to test a theory, I can run around and pop those switches until I solve the puzzle as if I knew what I was doing all along.
This results in a game that’s easier, less intricate, and arguably not as well-designed, but also one that feels freer to have more fun with itself. It’s odd to accuse a puzzle game of taking itself too seriously, but Go does feel stiffer and more formal when compared to its freewheeling peer.
One puzzle in particular sticks in my mind: Nathan starts surrounded by dart-shooting turrets that turn with every square that he moves. In two corners of the board are discs that he can shoot to change the orientation of platforms. There’s also a pillar blocking what seems to be an important path, while on the other end of the board is a switch. So many things to keep track of. The solution: Make a beeline for the treasure. It’s not open now, but the turrets will shoot the discs and open it for you. All those traps, all those obstacles, and the level can actually be solved in just one move. The game is clearly just messing with me, to the degree that it feels less like a poorly designed puzzle and more like a friendly jab or banter between developer and player.
Then there are the levels that take place in a cave, with the only light coming from Nathan himself. We can’t actually see all of the puzzle, so it’s clear we’re not meant to finish it on the first try. We’re supposed to spend some time just running around and getting the lay of the land before we can even start to think about switches and levers. These are puzzles designed to discourage efficiency.
Fortune Hunter does still reward efficiency, however. We’ll get a special key if we can finish a puzzle under a certain number of moves. However, even that number offers some leeway. I’ve finished puzzles, for example, well under that reward limit, suggesting that the number is not actually a representation of the true difficulty of the puzzle. Even when the game encourages efficiency, it’s not a strict efficiency.
All that extra movement that Fortune Hunter allows for creates a sense of improvisation. It allows me to stumble into a solution because I can come at problems from more than one angle — literally. And that kind of improvisation is one of the central appeals of Uncharted and Nathan Drake, the lovable rogue always in over his head. I run around and hit switches until the platforms line up just right, and I don’t solve anything, I don’t learn any pattern. I just get lucky. That may be a poorly designed puzzle, but it also seems like something that someone like Nathan Drake would do.