Gabriel Knight II:
The Beast Within
|Review by Thaumaturge
It has been nearly a year since Gabriel Knight, bookstore owner and horror novelist, began investigating the Voodoo Murders as part of his research for a new novel. Nearly a year since the heady, powerful mix of love and ancient magic pulled him to the heart of a Voodoo hounfour. Nearly a year since his life changed, shifting with tectonic force. He loved and he lost. He discovered duty and responsibility. He discovered the secret of his heritage – his blood was Ritter blood, and the Ritters were Schattenjägers – Shadow Hunters. Almost a year ago he reclaimed the talisman of the Schattenjägers, atoned for the sins of his forebear, and annulled the curse that had been laid on the Ritter line. Almost a year since Uncle Wolfgang, the Schattenjäger before Gabriel, gave up his life so that the family could regain the talisman and confront the evil that had claimed it.
In this time Gabriel has moved into Schloss Ritter, the ancestral home of the Schattenjägers. With the money taken from the Voodoo hounfour and the success of his fictionalization of his experience with the Voodoo cult he has begun to refurbish and repair the time-worn castle. His bookstore, previously all but empty, has begun to throb with life under the management of Grace Nakimura, whose research was invaluable to the unraveling of the Voodoo cult.
However, Gabriel is frustrated with his attempts at a new novel. Nothing seems to be working. Similarly, the quiet, cloistered life that he has led in Schloss Ritter is a marked contrast to the life of pleasure that he led in New Orleans.
Change is marked by a pounding on the door of the castle. A group of townspeople have come seeking the Schattenjäger. A series of brutal attacks, seemingly the work of wolves, has reached the Huber family, and through a relative in the town they have come to the Schattenjäger for aid, for they believe that it was no ordinary wolf - it was a werewolf.
With this as his start, Gabriel begins his investigation into the “wolf killings”, and in time into a highly exclusive hunt club. Meanwhile, Grace travels to Germany and, through clues found in the Ritter archives, begins investigating the mysterious Black Wolf and his connection to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Grace’s investigation seems unrelated to the immediacy of Gabriel's case, but the two are in fact inextricably linked.
This double story is easily the greatest strength of this game. Both strands have the character of an investigation into the supernatural, rather than the descent into darkness that characterized the first game. This is the logical approach given the position of the characters at the start of the game and follows the progression of their overall story naturally. The main characters are for the most part interesting, especially the members of the hunt club – and most of all the magnetic founder of the club, Baron Friedrich von Glower.
In addition, the characters of Gabriel and Grace are better filled-out in this game than in its predecessor. Their evolution as characters is clearly visible and important to the game. As such, it is a good thing that their evolution is well-handled. The emotions and tensions between the characters are also stronger in this game, which I feel makes for a richer and more compelling story.
Where Gabriel's section deals with the immediate killings and the people around them, Grace's section delves into history. While this section, and the amount of exposition that it involves, may deter some players, the story that it tells is, in my opinion, well worth it. This section weaves together elements of real history with excellently-crafted fiction, telling a story that I feel both enhances and supports Gabriel's section, leading to the final fusion and resolution of the story strands.
Duality is a major theme of the story – it is expressed in the characters of Gabriel and Grace, in the separation of their experiences into separate chapters, and the seemingly unrelated and dissimilar storylines that each follows underscores this. Just as the final chapter brings together the two storylines into one, both Gabriel and Grace will be called upon to achieve this resolution – if either fails, both may fall.
The music that accompanies this story is in general very good, at times rising to beautiful. At its best it is stirring and effective; at its worst it is still at least fitting. While the music disappears in the more mundane regions of the game, replaced by appropriate ambient noises, in the more dramatic scenes it rises to enhance and set the mood, at its most stirring in the most climactic scenes.
Much like the music, the graphical artwork is effective and appropriate to the setting at its worst, while it is simply beautiful at its best. Using photograph-based backdrops and characters, the graphics manage to portray a range of settings from the mundane to the otherworldly beautiful and the darkly ominous. Each setting has a suitable aesthetic and atmosphere, being very well designed and at times using color and lighting to excellent effect. The only serious flaw in the graphics is that the backdrops are often a little static. However, this may well have been a technological limitation at the time that this game was created.
A relatively minor flaw, that may not even be very noticeable, is that at times the characters show that they have been overlaid on the backgrounds through their lack of shadows. In addition, there are a few occasions at which the edges of characters do not merge perfectly with their backdrops, again exposing their overlaid origins to those that notice. One final flaw worth noting is that the CGI werewolves seem inappropriately small at times, given the information that we are given on them.
To match the photographic backgrounds, the characters are all portrayed by real actors. For the most part they are well-chosen, fitting their parts well, and in a few cases they are excellently chosen – the best example of which is Baron von Glower, played by Peter Lucas. The acting, while not in my opinion a match for the best found on the silver screen, is good for a game, especially of its time. Some parts stand out as being very well-played, and again Peter Lucas stands out as the mysterious Baron von Glower. The actor that portrays Gabriel perhaps lacks a little gravity, but overall does a decent job. The dialogue writing is at least competent and at times better, if not stellar.
A minor deficiency is that the volume and quality of the characters' voices is a little inconsistent. In addition, some of the dialogue clips end a little abruptly, seemingly having been clipped a little short. On a more positive note, written information is read out by the appropriate character – generally either the writer or the reader – and this is done quite nicely.
A nice touch is found in some of the comments made by the characters. In some cases, if the player has already visited particular other locations and examined the relevant items there, the comments made on items in the new area will reflect the knowledge that the character gained in the earlier area. For example, a character might link paintings found in one area with their inspirations if she has already discovered those inspirations. Otherwise, her comments might only reflect what information she has to hand in the area around the paintings.
The game is divided into chapters. Each of the first five chapters center on Gabriel and Grace alternately on their very separate story strands. The final chapter calls on both of them to bring the story to resolution. Each chapter lasts until certain actions have been performed or discoveries made, at which point the day ends automatically.
The majority of the puzzles are inventory-based, involving finding creative ways to overcome the obstacles in the game and discover its secrets. These are for the most part not too difficult; a few might require some quite creative thought (or a little luck, of course), but most should not present too many problems.
The other element to advancement in the game is discovery. As the players discover more about the mysteries of the game, new areas, topics of conversation, and items become available. In some cases this relies upon talking about a certain topic with a particular character, while in others it requires examining a particular item. It is worth noting that in at least one case the player is required to examine an item in the inventory in order to acquire a new available destination or topic. It is thus important to examine new items – even if it doesn't yield a new location or topic of conversation, it may yet provide insight or a hint on the item's intended use.
Connected to this is the fact that it is often not possible to take certain items before either Gabriel or Grace has a reason to do so, even then in at least one case not before getting permission. While this may annoy some players, to my mind, it adds to the realism of the game. After all, it would surely be out of character for these people, especially Grace, to steal.
There are a few hot spots that might not be very obvious. However, they don't sink to the level of true pixel-hunting. These hotspots are neither too common nor likely to be major problems.
There are very few pure logic puzzles, an exception being the one found in the second-to last puzzle, just before the final confrontation. This section deserves mention for being an interesting, appropriate, and above all puzzle-driven finale. Despite being puzzle-based, it does not lack a tense atmosphere, especially in combination with the music that accompanies it.
It is worth nothing that there are a few places in which it is possible for the player to die. Should this happen, a grave is shown in cold blues, along with buttons offering the options to restore a saved game, try the section again (which takes the player back to the beginning of the dangerous section), or quit the game.
Movement between major locations is achieved via an area map. In the case of Gabriel's time in Munich, this is a subway map, with locations shown in colored boxes to match the map style, while the case of Grace's more widely-spread investigation is handled through a road map of the area around Munich with representative photographs to symbolize the locations of interest to her. The styling of these maps feels very appropriate to the locations and characters to which they apply, and in the case of Grace's map, is another example of the artistic quality of this game.
A nice addition to the maps is a hint button. Only available in the map screen, this causes the outlines of areas that have actions still to be completed in a given chapter to flash. This allows the player to acquire a prompt when stuck, without revealing too much. The downside, however, is that it is entirely possible for one to not know what has been missed in a particular area, which could lead to frustration. In addition, if a missed action relies on an inventory item rather than a particular area, area-related hints may be of less value.
Overall, the interface is sleek and efficient. Where the previous game used a number of cursor modes, the cursor in Gabriel Knight II is far simpler. When passed over an area, item or person of interest, the cursor changes into a dagger to indicate that an action is possible there. In some cases the character will simply explain what is to be seen there; in others they might take or use the item or talk to the person. In a few cases, cursors other than the dagger are used to indicate specific actions. The primary examples of this are the “exit” cursor, which appears when the cursor is passed over a possible exit from the current area or view, and the page turn cursors, which indicate that the player can view the following and previous pages in a book, letter, or some other document. Also of note is the double arrowhead cursor which can be found at the top left and right of most of the scrolling scenes (where the available area is larger than the game window, and the view moves to follow the character). This allows one to jump immediately to the desired end of the area, making travel through these sections less tedious than it might have been with a different interface.
Some might view this simplicity as a “dumbing-down” of the interface, and they may be right. However, the gameplay relies more on investigation and inventory use than on physical manipulation, so this seems to me to not sacrifice much.
The inventory is accessed via a button at the bottom right of the game screen, the clicking of which replaces the area below the game view window (and to the left of the inventory button) with an inventory box rendered in sepia tones. Clicking on an item in the inventory replaces the cursor with a black-and-white rendition of that item, allowing the player to use the selected item in the game world. When passed over an area of interest, instead of changing to the dagger cursor, the inventory item cursor inverts colors, black to white and vice versa. In addition, clicking with this cursor on the magnifying glass button that appears when the inventory window is opened allows the player to view a full-color image of the object in the main game window, often beautifully shot. This allows the player to examine an object in more detail (at times providing important information, making such examination not only aesthetic but also useful).
Every action (save for some foot travel in the scrolling scenes, and excluding simple descriptions of items) is associated with a generally brief movie clip, depicting the character performing the desired action. This adds to the realism and immersion of the game, when opposed to games that reuse simple animations for many actions or provide no action animation at all.
Should the player wish to review what has already been learned, Gabriel carries a tape recorder which records all relevant conversations, allowing the player to play them back for review, and Grace carries a notebook within which she records her discoveries and observations. While potentially useful, these could also be tedious to work through, so it is perhaps good that they shouldn't be called for very often. However, it is worth noting that Gabriel's tape recorder does offer another feature: that of creating a tape splice from a previous recording. In addition, previously-seen cinematics are also reviewable – again a potentially useful (and enjoyable) feature.
All movies and speech can be skipped with a simple click of the mouse, allowing the player to skip through already-seen movies and speech. However, I would suggest that it may be quite unwise to skip as-yet unseen sections, as these may well contain important information.
In conclusion, Gabriel Knight II is an excellent game. While other games at the time used full motion video as this does, they tended to be fairly poor, lacking the effectiveness of either movies or less realistic games. In this case, however, the movies are well-directed and at least decently acted, and are supported by some very well-chosen actors, such as Peter Lucas in the part of Baron von Glower. The game play is fun, the story is well-written and interesting, and the characters have advanced nicely from their previous adventure. The graphics are at times beautiful, and the music at its best stirring and dramatic. This is a game that I definitely recommend to any who might find the themes of interest, and would suggest that others at least try if they come by it for a decent price.
|PC System Requirements:|
|DOS 5.0+, Win 3.1 or higher|
|486 / 33 Processor or higher|
|8 MB RAM|
|15 MB Hard Drive Space|
|256 Colour SVGA Graphics, at 640x480|
|Windows Compatible Sound Card with DAC|
|2x CD-ROM Drive|
|Keyboard, mouse, speakers|