Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Game Review: Gabriel Knight

In keeping with my re-exploration of old-school adventure games, I recently completed one of the few Sierra game series I never had a chance to play in their heyday: the "Gabriel Knight" trilogy, comprised of "Sins of the Fathers" (1993), "The Beast Within" (1995) and "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" (1999).

There are a few factors which set "Gabriel Knight" apart from its contemporaries, even within Sierra's own product lines. First of all, it's the only series in which all the games had voice-acting (apart from "Phantasmagoria", though that doesn't really qualify seeing as how they were two completely unrelated games that happened to have the same title). Granted, "Sins of the Fathers" came out relatively late in the company's life - in fact, "Blood of the Sacred" was the very last traditional adventure game Sierra ever released - but even in 1993 you had games like "Space Quest V" that never got vocal treatment.

And the cast for "Sins of the Fathers" is pretty impressive: Tim Curry as Gabriel, Leah Remini as his assistant Grace Nakimura, Mark Hamill as Police Detective Franklin Mosely, and Michael Dorn as creepy voodoo expert Dr. John. Everyone involved delivers a great performance, with the possible exception of Curry's ultra-cheesy attempt at a New Orleans accent that actually got more outrageous in the third game. But we'll get to that in a bit. You also had a hilariously sardonic Cajun narrator mocking Gabriel every chance she got.

Another odd thing about the "Gabriel Knight" series is that popular opinion positions the first game, "Sins of the Fathers", as the best of the three. To be honest, while I think "The Beast Within" has its charms, I'm inclined to agree - it's the most "traditional" game in the trilogy in terms of gameplay, graphics and the interface, something that fits in quite easily with other Sierra masterpieces like "Quest for Glory IV" and "King's Quest VI". It has a strong, broad mystery that takes you from Louisiana to Africa to Germany and back, and it takes a very clear-minded (and surprisingly non-Hollywood-pop-culture-educated) view on Voudoun as religion vs. Voodoo as black magic. Also, "Sins of the Fathers" depicts Gabriel and Grace at their best: they bicker, they banter, they come pretty close to admitting mutual attraction, but neither of them are particularly interested in acting on it. At least, not yet.

None of this detracts from the fact that the second game, "The Beast Within", is appealing in its own way. The format shifts to interactive movie, so obviously it's a lot more streamlined and offers the player less possibilities in terms of plot-branching. But Jane Jensen again earns points for doing the research, taking the historical tale of Ludwig II, last king of Bavaria, and throwing werewolves into the mix, and players get to alternate between Gabriel and Grace, each tackling the same case from very different angles (Grace's storyline involves a lot of historical research, while Gabriel goes undercover and confronts the danger head-on). And if Dean Erickson takes the "pretty-boy" angle a little too far, flipping his hair every time he sits down like a slimmer Fabio, he still fits the mold nicely. Joanne Takahashi, on the other hand... let's just say Grace becomes seriously unlikeable in her first few scenes, generally played as an attention-starved stalker obsessed with Gabriel and biting the head off anyone who gets in her way.

Kudos are due for Jensen's use of homoeroticism - I'm not even talking about the explicit stuff like "Louie" being Ludwig's lover, but von Glower caressing a half-naked Gabriel as he sleeps? von Zell getting all bitchy because his ex-boyfriend has a new (and prettier) toy? Wow. Not the sort of thing I would've expected to find in a 1995 video game.

Which brings us to "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned". And... it just doesn't live up to its predecessors. I mean, it's admirable that they try something new every game, and here we have a fully 3D environment in which the camera can move completely independent of the player character - refreshing at first, but you'll get tired of it very quickly when it comes to navigating and/or finding a specific item or person in a huge sprawling area. Fortunately, the camera moves swiftly, but still, it's an annoyance.

Tim Curry is back as Gabriel, and like I said, he's even more over-the-top here... So Bad It's Good? I honestly can't say. Anyway, after facing a voodoo cult and werewolves, Gabriel and Grace are up against vampires this time around. Sounds exciting? It would've been, if the game were actually about vampires. But that whole storyline gets sidetracked for most of the game so Gabriel can investigate - I kid you not - the Holy Grail. And it turns into a ridiculously muddled mess, with a bunch of scavenger hunters digging for treasure, some mumblings about alchemy, the 11th-hour appearance of the Wandering Jew and an origin story for the Ritter line that is so corny, so ludicrously and blatantly Christian-By-Numbers, that my eyes almost rolled right out of their sockets.

And if Grace and Gabriel didn't come off too well in "The Beast Within", they - and good old Mosely from New Orleans - are even worse here: Gabriel calls Grace a walking chastity belt while she's within hearing distance, and then he has a bad dream about a vampire attacking her and bamp-chicka-wow-wow, Something We Know Not What ensues. And the ending... abrupt, unsatisfactory, supposedly grows out of earlier events but I'm hard-pressed to see the connection. The whole Gabriel/Grace dynamic is just screwed to hell with this game, and that was a big part of the fun in the first game (and, to a lesser extent, the third as well). It doesn't help that "Blood of the Sacred" has some of the most obscure puzzles in the trilogy, especially towards the end with the whole "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" bit.

So, yeah, lousy ending to a great pair of games, for what that's worth. I'd say stick with the first two and give the third a pass - any closure you think you'll get from "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" will be disappointing to say the least.