Core Malfunction
Welcome back, Adventurer! Oh man, where to start with this one. The franchise went on its first hiatus since inception—a three-year gap between Chronicles and Angel of Darkness. During this time, Lara made her transition to the Big Screen in two gloriously cheesy films starring Angelina Jolie as our heroine. At this point, the brand was at its absolute highest points in terms of recognition and popularity. To maintain this momentum, Core toiled furiously on both Chronicles and Angel of Darkness, with the team working on the former swinging over to the latter once production wrapped. It was, without question, both their largest undertaking and their most ambitious.

All this makes it even more of a shame that the game released in an unfinished state. Eidos, the publisher of the franchise, was deep into debt. Releasing the game was one of the only moves they had left to stave off bankruptcy. The game itself needed loads more time in the oven, but Eidos and Core’s backs were against the wall. What they released in 2003 was buggy and incomplete. Entire levels and scenarios from their vision had to be cut due to time.

Despite this, it’s the most fascinating game in the franchise I’ve played so far. I’m much more interested in a wildly experimental failure with a ton of effort than a piece of content that aims for the dead middle without trying. Give me The Room over any Hallmark Channel movie. Give me Deadly Premonition, not the newest Battlefield or Call of Duty. If a piece of media is going to fail to impress me, I’d rather see it fail spectacularly.

Vengeance for Von Croy
Angel of Darkness starts out promising enough, with a dark and moody cutscene in Von Croy’s Paris apartment. Lara confronts him over leaving her for dead in Egypt, even though we know that wasn’t really the case. Maybe they just missed each other at the airport home. They argue before an offscreen gunshot rings out, and we see blood on Lara’s hands.

From here Lara is wanted for Von Croy’s murder and is tasked with finding out what he was up to in his final days, tracking down the game’s MacGuffins: the Obscura Paintings. A secret cabal of ancient beings seeks them to revive an elder race and usher in a new era of darkness. She meets up with some seedy characters and a failed attempt at a costar on her way to the Louvre, Prague, and the most lived-in levels of the franchise so far.

Lara Never Looked so Good
Despite its flaws (and there certainly are flaws), the game itself is quite pretty. This was the first Tomb Raider game to launch on the PlayStation 2 and the presentation is night and day compared to the previous entries. The blocky levels are done away with, replaced by much more realistic city blocks and tombs. Character models are much improved, with lips that actually move during dialogue adding to the game’s immersion.

Angel of Darkness also introduces one of my favorite little touches of the sixth generation of console hardware: rag doll physics. When Lara shoots an enemy, they slump over in a lifelike manner. The same happens to Lara. If she misses a jump and falls to her death, a unique animation plays out each time. This is an earlier instance of rag doll physics, and there are times where death poses are unintentionally hilarious. Think of enemies flipping head over heels down a fight of stares or Lara tucking her head between her legs. There’s just one fly in the ointment—the game cleans up the bodies. This isn’t uncommon for games, they need to do this to free up memory and keep the game running smoothly. But seeing a person keel over realistically, only to blink in and out of existence before disappearing entirely a few seconds later is jarring.

There are also a few graphical glitches I noticed, though with this game it’s difficult to pin down exactly where things are going wrong. I played this game on my Steam Deck, a wonderful handheld gaming device released by Valve in 2022. It uses veritable software magic to play games meant for desktop computers running different operating systems. So if I notice a flickering texture, bugged sound effect, or stuck AI, I have to remind myself that I’m playing a twenty year-old PC port of a notoriously buggy PS2 game on hardware which it was never designed for.

The soundtrack, though, is markedly better. It’s the first time that the franchise used a full orchestra for its score, and the charm and warmth of live musicians playing a song previously only heard in computerized renditions never gets old to me. I can still remember all the little flourishes in the main theme, even days after finishing the game.

Mixups for Better or Worse (Usually Worse)
There are quite a few gameplay change-ups from the last game. Each of them represents an attempt at a significant departure from what the series had done so far. Each of them also missed the mark.

First is an attempt at an open world. Early on in the game there’s a section which takes place in the back streets of Paris. It’s relatively nonlinear and there are multiple approaches to any given objective. Lara can visit shops and back alleys to find clues and guidance from its residents. She can also pawn items and purchase upgrades for her weapons. I enjoyed this idea, and hints of Shenmue, an adventure game which released four years prior, crept into my mind while playing. I really go in for games that thrust a virtual notebook into my hands and tell me to ask around. It helps me get more invested in the game world and even build connections with some of these characters.

So imagine my surprise when this lasted only the first quarter of the game. I try not to do any research on games before I play them, instead picking them up as typical gamer would with little to no idea of what I’m in for. This large shift away from a solitary experience, only to come back around to Lara versus the world again left me confused. After Paris, the rest of the game plays much the same as the games prior, save a few important distinctions.

There’s a currency system thrown in, though it’s used so infrequently I have to wonder if its implementation was significantly scaled back. There are valuables to be pawned in a Paris shop, and that money in turn can only be used as a bribe a handful of times in the entire game. I couldn’t return to this shop after certain plot points happened, and I did not visit this shop until those events had already occurred. As a result, I had loads of jewelry and champagne and doubloons clogging up my inventory for the rest of the campaign. Again, just bizarre design on top of an incomplete product. It’s tough to know where it’s a fault of the design or a casualty of crunch.

Modes of Play and Frustration
Next there’s a few new gameplay systems. A light RPG system doles out upgrades to Lara as she progresses through the game. Lara can increase her strength, allowing her to jump further, sprint, and push heavier objects. A stealth mode was also implemented, making it possible to take cover behind walls and creep behind foes. It’s entirely possible to go through some levels undetected, knocking out unwitting guards and soldiers when their backs are turned.

Again, these are not bad concepts. I like a little character progression in my games, something to make me feel like I’ve grown stronger since the adventure began. Mixing up gameplay styles is also welcome, though this comes with greater risk. When games with one specific mode of interaction try to add something different, the developers need to be sure that these new modes function at least as well as the core gameplay loop. Core were already guilty of this with some of the half-baked vehicle segments in previous Tomb Raiders. Thankfully, Angel of Darkness has no such vehicle segments, though the inclusion of a basic line-of-sight stealth system left something to be desired.

Controlling Lara in this entry already proved to be a chore, and her secondary “stealth” mode exacerbated these issues. Lara would often move in directions I didn’t intend, often right into the view of a patrolling enemy. Separately, in a late portion of the game, I saw no method of advancing. There was tiny vent-sized crawlspace tucked away in a corner, but Lara wouldn’t squeeze through. All other ways around led to death, so I had to figure a way though. Turns out there is a way of going prone, if “stealth” mode is activated while crouched, Lara goes prone and can climb through the vent. This certainly isn’t the most egregious example of a game withholding information from the player. I’m sure a quick perusal of the manual would have given me the answer, but there were two reasons that this stumped me to the point of looking up the answer in a guide: I’m playing through these games on PC, and the game’s tutorial did not explain this concept.

The former is easy enough to explain, since manuals for PC games (especially in this age of digital distribution) are lacking or altogether non-existent. The latter’s fault lies with the game itself. Among the cut content was a dedicated tutorial level meant to explain all of Lara’s moves. Shoehorning Lara’s explanations into the opening level took its place. This works well in a lot of games—building narrative tension while telling players how the game works. But if your tutorial excludes mechanics needed later on in the game, I have to question how good of a guide it really is.

The RPG elements fell entirely flat for me. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, these were also left half-finished in the final product. Instead of upgrades and ability unlocks being doled out traditionally, such as an XP system or ability points, these are handed to the player after Lara performs a task such as moving a heavy box or kicking down a door. It’s nice that these upgrades are more diegetic but what’s problematic about this is the arbitrariness of these tasks and how progression is gated behind these upgrades.

Outside of the Parisian streets, this is a linear game. Each task precedes another. There will be points where Lara needs to be stronger to progress, but what she needs to accomplish to earn that upgrade is often vague or contrived. The most egregious example of this is towards the end of the game, where I needed to engage in a whole box moving puzzle just to get a strength upgrade. I had to create a vertical stack of two crates and pull it, just so Lara could move another stack elsewhere in the level. Dumb, gamey moments like this pull me out of the experience. The arbitrary padding rears its head, and I grumble.

The Legend of Kurtis Trent
And how could I forget to mention Angel of Darkness’s second playable character? Good ol’ early aughts edgy protagonist Kurtis Trent. In the alternate timeline where Angel of Darkness was a huge hit, he would have had a place in the following acts of the trilogy and a spinoff game or two under his belt. Even the opening cutscene celebrates him in big, bold letters: Introducing Kurtis Trent right after Lara’s credit. He was fully planned to be Lara’s equal in every way, and maybe even a romantic interest for her.

It’s just funny seeing all that fall flat on its face. He’s got some extrasensory powers which I don’t recall getting explained, a unique weapon, and that’s about it. Other than that he’s absolutely inferior to Lara in every way. Her fun, posh accent is absent, and he somehow controls so much worse than her in the few moments where he takes over as the playable character. Having a second person to control was a new idea to the series, and like a lot of things from this entry, the idea of a costar was dropped.

Putting it All Together
So at the end of the day, Angel of Darkness was a massive flop. The planned trilogy never happened, and Core fizzled out. Paramount used the game as a scapegoat for its underperforming Tomb Raider movie sequel. The franchise as a whole faded away from the public eye for a few years.

But all this to say: should you play Angel of Darkness? I’d say probably not. But it’s not as hard of a no as I’d give Chronicles. Chronicles felt soulless and tired. Angel of Darkness felt like Core really tried to make something great, but failed due to a myriad of reasons out of their control. If you’re looking at Angel of Darkness as your entry point in the series, I’d heavily recommend against starting here. But if you’re like me and are interested in seeing how things failed and how they could have been done better, or you’re just an avid Tomb Raider fan, I wouldn’t pass this one up.

While Core were dead and gone, Lara was not. Much like her escape from the pyramids, the franchise would make its eventual return with Tomb Raider: Legend. Only this time development would be handed off to an American studio: Crystal Dynamics.