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Retrospective: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness

Welcome back to Survivor Reborn’s Retrospective series. Today, we celebrate the dark horse of the Tomb Raider franchise – the controversial but beloved Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness

Retro TR6 AoD FEATURE v6
Introduction

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was first released on the 20th June 2003. Its two-and-a-half-year development and subsequent reception marked a crucial turning point for the Tomb Raider franchise. Derby-based developers Core Design, who had nurtured Lara Croft from her inception in 1994/5, wanted to make her debut on the PlayStation 2 as spectacular as possible. Improvements in technology meant that the developers could contemplate making Lara’s newest adventure more immersive, more complex, and more ambitious than ever before. However, enormous problems with development combined with lacklustre reviews made Eidos Interactive take the decision to withdraw the franchise from Core Design and grant the development rights to American-based Crystal Dynamics. The Angel of Darkness was the last Tomb Raider title to be made by Core Design.

Plot

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was set in early 2003, and followed on from the events of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation and Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Still spiritually wounded by her experiences in Egypt, Lara Croft began the game talking with Professor Von Croy at his apartment in Paris on a dark and stormy night. The professor was deeply disturbed, and not just because of the recent spate of so-called Monstrum killings that were terrorising Paris. Von Croy was desperate to employ Lara’s help in tracking down five artefacts known as the Obscura Paintings for his sinister client, Pieter Van Eckhardt. Unfortunately for Von Croy, Lara was still resentful over events in Egypt and refused to help.

Von Croy 01

Lara was still tormented by her experiences in Egypt

Their heated argument was suddenly interrupted by an unseen attacker who knocked Lara out cold. When Lara awoke from unconsciousness, she found Von Croy had been brutally murdered – and the police were fast approaching. She remembered nothing of what had happened. Forced to flee, Lara realised that only by retracing her dead mentor’s footsteps could she track down Von Croy’s real killer.

Hall of Seasons 01

Paris’ hidden secrets were magnificent to behold

Her journey introduced her to a host of new characters, and took her from the backstreets of Paris, to newly-excavated archaeological digs beneath the Louvre museum, and back to Professor Von Croy’s apartment in her hunt for clues. In the process, she realised she was being stalked by an unknown yet undeniably dangerous man – a man who possessed uncanny powers and mystical weaponry. His powers were demonstrated to great effect when he stole the Obscura Painting Lara had just recovered from its resting place beneath the Louvre. Despite having ample opportunity to kill her, he withheld the advantage – deepening the mystery of who he was and what his goals were.

Galleries under siege 01

Mysteries and tension abounded

By this point, Lara had discovered that Von Croy had gotten himself mixed up in an ancient conflict between Eckhardt – the self-styled Black Alchemist – and a secret society named the Lux Veritatis. Reputed to be immortal and many hundreds of years old, Eckhardt wanted the Obscura Paintings in order to create a device called the Sanglyph. From Von Croy’s research and her own information gathering, Lara learned that the Sanglyph somehow held the key to reviving the Biblical race known as the Nephilim – the malevolent scions of Fallen Angels and human women. Upon her return to Von Croy’s apartment, Lara felt some of the fog in her memories begin to dissipate; she realised that Eckhardt himself had been in the apartment that night, and had been Von Croy’s murderer.

Von Croy's apartment 01

Searching for clues in Von Croy’s apartment

After a failed attempt on her life, Lara tracked the clues from Von Croy’s apartment to yet another Monstrum crime scene in the Czech Republic capital, Prague. There she confronted Louis Bouchard – the Parisian crime boss whom she (and Von Croy) had sought for help in tracking down the Louvre Obscura Painting, and who had sent the hit-man after Lara in Von Croy’s apartment. Interrogating Bouchard, Lara learned that he was also employed by Eckhardt; he, like Von Croy, was merely a tool in the Black Alchemist’s quest to recover the Paintings, reassemble the Sanglyph, and re-breed the Nephilim race. Bouchard also informed Lara about the Cabal – a dangerous (and dangerously-unhinged) group surrounding and protecting their master, Eckhardt. The Cabal had recently taken delivery of a great granite sarcophagus from Cappadocia, Turkey, which was purported to contain the last remaining intact Nephilim – the Cubiculum Nephili, or Sleeper. With vital essences from the Sleeper, and the reassembled Sanglyph, there would be no stopping Eckhardt in his quest to create Hell on Earth.

Bouchard 01

Lara demonstrates her powers of persuasion

With the help of a local reporter, Lara infiltrated the Strahov – the Cabal’s fortress and base of operations in Prague. Having gleaned information that the fifth Obscura Painting was supposedly hidden under the Strahov inside the so-called Vault of Trophies, Lara was determined to find and destroy the Painting before Eckhardt could use it. However, in her quest to penetrate the Strahov’s security, Lara deactivated ALL of the power systems. Unbeknownst to her, this allowed a fearsome Proto-Nephilim monster – one of the Cabal’s many hideous experiments – to escape its confinement deep in the Strahov’s lower levels.

Strahov fortress 01

What happens if I press THIS?

A short while later, Lara’s exploration of the Strahov was cut short when she again crossed paths with her mysterious stalker. He promptly locked her inside an airlock and promised to return after he’d restored power to the lower levels. His unique occult gifts allowed him to overcome the Strahov’s many obstacles – including the Proto-Nephilim. True to his word, he returned to free Lara. He introduced himself as Kurtis, the last remaining member of the Lux Veritatis. Like Lara, he was seeking Eckhardt in order to prevent the restoration of the Nephilim, but also for revenge – in his case, for his father’s murder. Before Kurtis’ father died, he passed on several sacred Lux Veritatis relic-weapons into his son’s safekeeping – the three Periapt Shards and the telekinetically-controlled Chirugai.

Alliance 01

Didn’t anyone ever tell Kurtis that it’s rude to stare?

Lara and Kurtis agreed to an alliance to destroy Eckhardt and the Obscura Paintings. However, when Lara later emerged triumphant from the Vault of Trophies with her newly-recovered Painting, she was forced to surrender it to Eckhardt in exchange for Kurtis’ life. Eckhardt stole away to his secret laboratory to begin awakening the Sleeper, and left Kurtis and Lara to the mercy of a former Cabal scientist – Boaz. Boaz had borne the brunt of Eckhardt’s displeasure and been transmogrified into a hideous man-eating beast as punishment. Unable to escape Boaz’s chamber himself, Kurtis quickly gave Lara his Periapt Shards and told her to go after Eckhardt before it was too late – throwing her clear with his telekinetic powers.

Boaz 01

Cabal scientists don’t die – they just get mutated into man-eating monsters

Reluctantly leaving Kurtis behind, Lara hastened into the Strahov’s lower levels. As she fought to recover the third Periapt Shard – needing all three to kill Eckhardt – Kurtis battled and overcame Boaz’s monstrous form. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of turning his back on her corpse, which lashed out and stabbed him through the stomach with her dying strength. Crippled and bleeding to death, Kurtis lost consciousness.

Meanwhile, Lara confronted Eckhardt. The Black Alchemist had successfully reassembled the Sanglyph and stood poised to awaken the Sleeper whose motionless body hung suspended from the laboratory ceiling. Despite Eckhardt’s relentless attacks, Lara managed to stab him with two of the three Periapt Shards – fatally weakening him. As she closed in to deliver his death blow, the Shard was suddenly wrenched from her hand – by Karel, Eckhardt’s second-in-command. Much to Lara’s – and Eckhardt’s – shock, Karel drove the final Shard through Eckhardt’s skull, killing him.
Eckhardt 01

His usefulness was ended

When Lara demanded an explanation, Karel revealed himself to be a Nephilim shape-shifter. He claimed to have helped steer her safe course to this moment ever since she arrived in Paris. He offered her the hand of friendship, and asked that she join him in creating a benign New Order in the world. However, the sight of his hand with its peculiar scarring removed the final veil from Lara’s memories. She remembered Eckhardt killing Von Croy, and then magically shape-shifting into Karel – the real murderer. Lara refused Karel’s offer of alliance, and he turned on her. Lara grabbed the Sanglyph from Eckhardt’s corpse and, dodging Karel’s attacks, climbed to the highest point in the lab and jammed the device into the Sleeper’s body. She just managed to sprint clear before the combined energies of two such powerful objects enveloped the chamber in an explosive compression wave – but Karel wasn’t so lucky.

Sleeper 01

Yep, that’ll do it

Exhausted but triumphant, Lara returned to the chamber where she’d left Kurtis. However, nothing was left of the last of the Lux Veritatis except a puddle of blood – and the Chirugai. When Lara picked it up, it activated and tugged her around to face the exit. With a hopeful smile, Lara turned and walked through the door into the darkness – and the unknown.

Finale 01

The very definition of bittersweet

Development

The development of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness – initially titled Tomb Raider: Next Genbegan in early 2000. Core Design’s pool of developers was split into two teams. One team, including programmer and level designer Richard Morton, worked on producing Tomb Raider: Chronicles using the existing engine and features. The other team, comprising Peter Duncan, James Kenny, and Mark Donald, would lay the foundations for the new PS2 Tomb Raider next-generation game. Six months later, Murti Schofield, author of The Shadow Histories, was brought on board to help develop the story. Schofield, who had previously provided dialogue work for another Core Design title (1999’s Fighting Force 2), was tasked with broadening the scope of the familiar Tomb Raider landscape – making it darker, more realistic, and with enough material to support future chapters, playable characters, and spin-offs.

Character concepts 01

Character concepts demonstrated the game’s darker, Gothic/noir tone

The Angel of Darkness was soon brimming with secret societies, dark occult histories, the mysteries of alchemy, and fabulous arcane devices. Lara’s growing character arc was rooted in the unresolved conflict between her and her mentor, Von Croy. His murder, and her new status as a fugitive, forced Lara to turn to unlikely allies and pursue her goals without any of the resources she – and players – had previously taken for granted. Discussions between Schofield and key gameplay developers such as Morton, Andy Sandham, and programmer Tom Scutt were very positive towards this new direction, and towards the abundance of story and gameplay ideas that were being proposed.

Louvre 02

The game experimented with many new features, including stealth and real-world locations

However, as time went on, many of these ideas failed to translate or materialise further along the development chain. According to Morton in Edge Online’s “Making of: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness”, management kept urging for more features – such as a stealth function, upgradeable attributes, and RPG elements – to be implemented in-game. Senior management would also talk at length about these innovations to the press throughout 2000-2003, while back in the studio developers were struggling to deliver on these promises. Graphically, The Angel of Darkness was a significant step-up from the previous grid-based titles. Better lighting, smoother rendering, and increased polygon counts made it possible to create extremely detailed environments and articulately-animated characters to inhabit them. However, Morton also cites technical issues in relation to the new PS2 console as a source of developer frustration:

“The PS2 hardware was still proving tricky to optimise and get the best results out of it. We were designing and building levels and characters without any real restriction on polygon budgets or memory limits, which obviously came back to bite us in the arse. Levels were shrunk and characters were dropped.” – Richard Morton, Edge Online

Jonell Elliot  returned for the final time to voice Lara Croft. She was joined in the booth by a host of new faces. These included acclaimed British stage and screen actor Joss Ackland, who was brought on to lend his voice to the evil Pieter Van Eckhardt, and American-born actor Eric Loren who joined the cast as the voice of Kurtis ‘Demon Hunter’ Trent.

One aspect of the game that escaped much of the development controversy was the music and sound. Peter Connelly returned to compose the score, along with Martin Iveson handling sound effects. The music for The Angel of Darkness matched its ambitious, Gothic-inspired story with a sweeping orchestral score and ambient tracks, recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios with no less than the London Symphony Orchestra. To date, The Angel of Darkness remains the only time a Tomb Raider game score has been recorded using a live orchestra.

Tomb of Ash Jill de Jong 01

Official Lara model Jill de Jong visits the Abbey Road studios during a recording session, 2002

The marketing and hype surrounding The Angel of Darkness was aggressive, and fans were stirred into a frenzy of anticipation. Dutch model Jill de Jong replaced Lucy Clarkson as the official Lara Croft model for promotional events. Numerous trailers and behind-the-scenes interviews and videos were produced – all placing emphasis on the darker, more sinister aspect of Lara’s newest adventure – although much of the material in these never appeared in the final product.

Numerous interviews and articles – including Ars Technica’s 2015 article, “It felt like robbery”: Tomb Raider and the fall of Core Design – have since been published about the breakdown within Core Design. The picture that emerges from them all is one of poor communication and organisation both within and between various departments, a lack of leadership, increasing pressure to meet financial targets (many of which were missed), and a steady exodus of staff due to stress and deteriorating morale. Many of the innovative new features did not benefit from rigorous testing, and some of the levels were left unfinished – as evidenced by missing textures, confusing plot developments, and whole swathes of unused animations and audio samples.

Far-see 01

Kurtis’ far-see ability, like his use of the Chirugai, became limited to cut-scenes

One of the most daring of the game’s new features was the inclusion of Kurtis Trent as a secondary playable character – the first ever in a Tomb Raider game. But due to deadline pressures, players were left without access to his unique Lux Veritatis psychic skills which would have drastically altered and individualised his gameplay mechanics in comparison with Lara. Nor did players get to explore two of the game’s proposed areas – a medieval castle in Germany, and underground ruins in Cappadocia, Turkey. When it became clear that the game’s story would already offer huge amounts of gameplay just within Paris and Prague, the German and Turkish levels – still only tentatively mapped-out – were shelved for a future sequel. However, Paris and Prague remained littered with storytelling breadcrumbs that, with no concluding chapter, would end up making little or no sense to players. This collection of unfinished or missing material has proven to be a bittersweet treasure trove for fans, and fuelled more than thirteen years’ worth of discussions, reconstructions, and speculations.

Reception

By 2009, The Angel of Darkness had sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. However, the game received mixed to poor reviews from both fans and critics. The game’s Gothic/noir-inspired story, even butchered and incomplete, was praised as ‘compelling’ and ahead of its time. Its graphics were also admired, and were a considerable improvement over the previous grid-based titles. Peter Connelly’s musical score was universally hailed as a masterpiece; many of the tracks even ended up on an official audio CD as part of a European-exclusive Collector’s Edition of the game.

However, critics were less enthusiastic about the game’s lack of beta-testing, its woeful controls, combat, and camera systems, and the gaping holes in the innovative features that had been promised. It was painfully obvious that the game had been rushed out of the door before it was properly finished.

Cabal 02

Cabal board meetings – always a source of stress

Soon after The Angel of Darkness’s release, executive producer Jeremy Heath-Smith resigned from the studio. The development chaos and poor reviews surrounding The Angel of Darkness eventually led to Eidos Interactive pulling the developmental rights from Core Design. Having missed many financial targets with The Angel of Darkness, Eidos was not willing to gamble future uncertainty or financial losses on Lara’s home studio. The rights to develop all future Tomb Raider titles went instead to American-based Crystal Dynamics – the studio famously behind the Legacy of Kain series. It was one of the biggest turning points in the franchise’s history, and one that continues to have major repercussions within the Tomb Raider community to this day.

The story continues

Within a month of The Angel of Darkness hitting shelves, Paramount Pictures released Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the much-anticipated sequel to its 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film. However, the film received poor reviews and lower box office returns than its predecessor. Paramount Pictures even blamed the film’s poor reception on The Angel of Darkness’s mediocre reviews (although to be fair Eidos accused Paramount of pretty much the same thing in reverse).

Fan reception was mixed. Many people disliked or even hated the game’s emphasis on urban locales, Lara’s impatient attitude, and secondary characters. However, many fans – even those who justifiably frowned upon the game’s buggy controls and other technical flaws – were able to look past the problems and see the masterpiece that it could have been. This fan devotion is exemplified by community groups such as the KTEB (or Kurtis Trent Estrogen Brigade), which began life as a small fanbase in praise of Kurtis Trent, but which still maintains an active web presence thirteen years after the game’s release.

Lara and Kurtis 01

“Bow at your feet and give worship?” Been there, done that…

Other fans have worked tirelessly to de-construct The Angel of Darkness and restore it to a semblance of the game it should have been. Fan groups such as the Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness HD Remaster community are hubs for fans to show their love and appreciation of the game, whilst simultaneously creating and hosting patches and mods that restore some of the missing or unfinished material.

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness remains a controversial entry in the Tomb Raider franchise, but there is no denying its status as a cult classic. The creative brilliance – not to mention blood, sweat, and tears – of its creators shines through and more than eclipses its technical flaws. Its mystery, thrilling adventure, and unique blend of beauty and horror still inspires and maintains a passionate fanbase to this day.

Article written by J. R. Milward.

Screenshots courtesy of J. R. Milward. With thanks to the ever-wonderful Stella’s Tomb Raider Site.

Jill de Jong photograph used with kind permission from Tomb of Ash.

References

Creative Commons Licence
Retrospective: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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About jrmilward (18 Articles)
Researcher, writer, editor, proofreader, voice actress, science graduate.

1 Comment on Retrospective: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness

  1. gsquadron // July 31, 2016 at 18:43 // Reply

    The game had so much potential. I really liked it though, even if people said it was the worst.
    When I saw the team of TR1 compared to this one, it was a laugh. Yet they couldn’t do it so well.
    Very unfortunate for the series, it just destroyed everything because of poor management.

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