Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in Retrospect

Wednesday 3 August 2022

The Angel of Darkness is maybe the only notorious game in the otherwise much loved and acclaimed Tomb Raider saga. Released in 2003 following a great hype and even greater promises, it unfortunately featured innumerable flaws alongside its good elements. Core Design, the historical development team that had been responsible for the first five (eight with the gold expansions), now classic, Tomb Raider games, had very intriguing plans for both the game and its possible sequels but sadly all went down the rabbit hole after The Angel of Darkness saw the light and all of us saw how much more work it actually needed before getting a release. Several problems led to this, and since the release date of the game had already been postponed more than once, the sixth Tomb Raider installment eventually had to appear in the market while, in reality, it was still in development.

The story of the game takes place a few years after the events in The Last Revelation. In the fourth game's dramatic finale, Lara got trapped in the depths of the Great Pyramid and, as we can see during most of the fifth game, Tomb Raider Chronicles, was presumed dead for a certain period of time. Her old friend and mentor, however, Werner Von Croy, followed his clues and subsequently located her, while she was still alive and breathing. 

We assume that Lara was then rescued and it is implied at the start of The Angel of Darkness that she was still holding a grudge against Von Croy for supposedly leaving her to die in the pyramid. And this is where the problems of the game actually begin. Because we do know very well from The Last Revelation that Von Croy didn't really abandon her. For starters, he was possessed by the evil god Seth for most of the game's story, during which he acted as an enemy. But at the end, after Lara locked Horus in his temple inside the pyramid, Von Croy was not only set free, but he also desperately tried to help Lara get past the collapsing rocks, something that Lara knew because well, you know, she was there to witness the whole thing.

So the initiation of the scenario in The Angel of Darkness is actually based on a concept that isn't really true, and this is something that both protagonists know, and also something that we know. This somehow sets the pace for the rest of the story, but in fact the story itself is much more interesting, much more intriguing and much more complex. Von Croy asks Lara to find an artifact for him, a certain painting, but while they are in the middle of an awkward argument, something happens, Lara loses her senses and when she comes to, she sees that her hands are full of blood and that her mentor is lying dead in front of her. Doing her mathematics in seconds, she realizes that she will be accused of Von Croy's murder, even though deep down she knows she wasn't the one who killed him. Feeling that the death of Von Croy has a lot to do with the painting he wanted her to find, she begins her quest which leads her first to the criminal underworld of Paris, then to the very Louvre Museum itself and a secret dig site at its basement and eventually in Prague where she finally locates the culprits and puts an end to their evil plans. All this, not before she solves some fascinating, old-school puzzles and not before meeting a mysterious stranger who happens to have a connection to the painting as well and whose own story is also very interesting.

Said mysterious stranger is Kurtis Trent, a new character with whom we have the chance to play two chapters and carry out a nasty boss fight. Core Design had some pretty awesome plans for Kurtis, but with how things turned out, he prematurely became part of the game's past mythology. Kurtis was met with enthusiasm from a decent amount of Tomb Raider players, and it's almost certain that if all had gone smoothly and The Angel of Darkness hadn't been such a hell to play, he could very well still be active in the saga somehow.

But as I just mentioned, The Angel of Darkness is a hell to play. Technically, the game is not much different from the previous ones. The control system is pretty similar, and there are also a few new cool moves, like the commando crawl or the stealth attack. The problem is that the way Lara and Kurtis are programmed, they respond to the commands as if their whole life bores the hell out of them, and their movements are so slow that you so feel the urge to fast-forward everything somehow. For some insane reason, they always - and I mean, ALWAYS - make a few walking steps before they start running. I don't know if this was supposed to be there for realism, or if it was a left-over, or a feature that was going to be present in certain occasions only, but it still is one of the most problematic things that I have seen in gaming. There is a sequence where Lara must go through a hallway trapped with deadly lasers while taking cover in doorways in the way. At the end of the hallway, there is a strong enemy waiting to shoot at her. While Lara is trying to make it from one doorway to another in a zig zag manner, she must also take care to not bump onto the lasers so as to not trip them. In the course of doing that, she'd better not have her weapon out because her scripted combat moves (another hell, to which I will refer later) are the worst thing that could happen to her in such a situation. Because of that, she has to move along as usual, but regardless the enemy will start shooting at her as soon as she steps out of a doorway. The most logical thing at that point would be to run as fast as you can. But NO. Because Lara is scripted to ALWAYS take a few walking steps before running, even in this critical, life-threatening situation she will AGAIN casually walk her few steps before setting off to running. And guess what, she will have already been shot several times, all this while trying to make just a few frigging steps to the next doorway.

And now the combat moves. Oh my, the combat moves. When there is no enemy around, Lara and Kurtis can walk and run (preferably walk because that's how heroes do it obviously) normally. But when an enemy shows up, even if he is behind a barrier, they will start hopping around in circles, resulting in you shooting in panic and losing your orientation in the process. And what to say about the upgrade system. Lara will refuse to push a tiny glass case if she is not "strong enough", but she may very well kick open a heavy door without the slightest shame.

It is such a pity that you can see all the flaws, but at the same time you can also see all the potential. The graphics are fantastic (keep in mind that the game was released almost twenty years ago, so the standards were very different), and there are sections that are unforgettable. You can imagine these in a better setup and see how amazing the game could have been. The whole dig site under the Louvre is one of the best stages in the whole Tomb Raider saga. It is a huge hub consisting of a main area and four puzzle areas that are based on the four elements - a reminiscent of the Lost City of Tinnos from Tomb Raider 3. But my most favorite is definitely the stunning Bio-Research Facility, a vast area made of several rooms that connect with each other via security doors, and said rooms host beautiful but deadly plants and a creepily calm atmosphere.

The facility rooms are in fact greenhouses, but their carnivorous plants and poisonous mushrooms are only a facade for what truly goes on underneath. Evil masterminds, crazy scientists, power-hungry madmen are again present, as is always the case in our beloved Tomb Raider games. By the way, this whole section holds a cunning resemblance to Javier's greenhouse from Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles. I guess all villains have some things in common after all.

Puzzles are not very difficult, but they do require some thinking. The aforementioned element areas under the Louvre involve a series of trials that are easy to understand but rather difficult to execute, but definitely one of the most memorable moments of this section and maybe of the whole game is the room at the top of the Hall of Seasons with the one-of-a-kind boss "fight" against the red ghost that guards the painting: it is not a typical fight in that you cannot battle against the boss, but rather you have to carry out a timed process in order to be able to take the painting and leave without the ghost messing with you. This sequence was one of those stages that back then had players, including yours truly, pulling their hair in anger and despair, but somehow now I managed to do it with my second attempt. Draining the water in the Louvre sewers is an ingenious process, as is the whole sequence with distracting the mutant fish in the Aquatic Research Area. Among my favorites is surely the puzzle in Vasiley's library in Prague, set in a lovely environment which makes you wish there was more to explore there.

The lab in the final stage is also a beautifully made setting involving a series of cleverly thought puzzles. It is in fact an Alchemy lab, as the game's backstory has mainly to do with Alchemy, and it is where the plot reaches its climax and you begin to see where all this is going. The arch-villain is a man that does not come from this century, and everything in his lab betrays that. Vintage decoration, old-time equipment, even zombie skeletons, comprise the compelling environment of his secret laboratory. Don't you just love those beautiful vintage items in games? I know I do.

Character-wise, the game is doing pretty well, although there was still room for a lot of improvement and development. Now that I got to play the game again after so many years, I saw that there is a lot more depth in both the characters and the story than I thought back then, as I also noticed details in the dialogues and the notes that I previously missed. There are six villains in the story, although only three of them actually become threatening, and Lara finds out in the end that the real evil mastermind was someone that, up to that point, preferred to move mostly in the shadows.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs above, Kurtis is a very interesting character and he had a lot of potential. Core had plans for him to be the protagonist in a possible spin-off and maybe even become a recurring character in future Tomb Raider games. Kurtis is a demon hunter, coming from a long line of ancestors that shared skills similar to his: he has some sort of telekinesis and can see very far away by using his special power. He has a powerful weapon, a Chirugai, which however he only uses in a cutsene at the end of his boss fight. I want to believe that if the game had been more complete, we could have been able to use it in gameplay as well. Kurtis can control his Chirugai with his mind and the weapon essentially "senses" his presence even if he is hidden somewhere around. Such great elements that would fit so well in the Tomb Raider world. The levels that we get to play with him take place in a sanatorium, also a secret experiment center of the bad guys, which now is a nest of creepy, blood-thirsty mutants. The bonus is a boss fight with one of the mutated evil masterminds, which, like the aforementioned red ghost sequence, used to be a nightmare for us back then. Now, after having played so many difficult games in the meantime, I realized that what truly made those sequences tough in The Angel of Darkness was the broken control system, because otherwise they were very straightforward and easy.

The Angel of Darkness has its peculiar charm and its own cult merit but unfortunately its flawed gameplay system is a curse that it will always carry on its back. Regardless, it's an experience that left and will always leave good memories to Tomb Raider players, at least; if anything, it was the last game made by Core Design and this alone is a reason to consider it historical anyway. The Angel of Darkness stands in the middle of the two eras of  the Tomb Raider saga, after the end of the classics and before its rebirth, first with Legend, Underworld and Anniversary by Crystal Dynamics and then with Reborn, Rise and Shadow by Square Enix. It was an unlucky game because at the time of its production the gaming technology had taken big steps compared to the previous decade, but still it had not reached the jaw-dropping heights that became a standard a few years later. It had so many innovative and interesting elements but its technical flaws prevented it from making a breakthrough to a bigger fanbase and thus creating its own legend in the Tomb Raider universe.

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