Date: Originally written September 2005, revised July 2013
Release Year: 1996, Developer: Sierra, Publisher: Sierra, PAGODA Link
I have been searching for Gabriel Knight II for almost over a year in Istanbul. I can’t describe my excitement after finally finding a copy in an underground PC store! Gabriel Knight I was one of my all-time favorites and even before playing it, I knew The Beast Within was going to win my heart too. Unlike many people, I actually do enjoy Full Motion Video (FMV)s a lot (even the ones with bad acting such as Phantasmagoria), so the game being made with real actors was a big bonus for me. Anyway, this is a top quality game and it definitely deserves to be called an adventure classic. Although, compared to the previous game, it falls a bit short in the puzzle department, the game contains a fascinating story and one of the best acting performances I have ever seen in an FMV.
Bavaria, Wagner and Werewolves
The story is set in Germany, two years after the events of GK 1. Gabriel has embraced his German heritage and now lives in the Ritter Castle in Rittersberg, which served as the house of Schattenjaegers for hundreds of years. Also, his latest book based on the events of GK 1 became a best-seller and Grace is handling all the bookshop business in New Orleans. Thus we find Gabriel in a much better position compared to his loser status in the beginning of GK 1. However, a Schattenjaeger’s duty never ends… Soon the locals visit the Ritter Castle and ask Gabriel to investigate the murder of a family at a farm outside Munich. As you can guess, this is not an ordinary murder. The witness claims that he saw a werewolf at the scene. Gabriel is a bit reluctant to accept the investigation at first, since it is known that a pair of wolves had escaped from the zoo recently and the witness might just had confused a wolf with a werewolf. Nevertheless, Gabriel takes his family relics (the blade and the medallion) and starts to investigate the murder scene. The plot thickens as he starts connecting the dots to a hunting club in Munich.
So did you think this is just going to be about a supernatural hunting story? Of course not! We know that Jane Jensen’s primary talent is integrating the supernatural themes with actual historical elements, and she doesn’t fail to deliver. After realizing that the case is far too complex for Gabriel to handle by himself, Grace flies to Germany and begins researching werewolves and related incidents in the area. It would be a huge spoiler to tell what happens afterwards, so I am stopping here. But if you are interested in seeing how distinct concepts such as werewolves, Bavarian castles, the Black Madonna and Wagner can be tied together in a coherent setting, you should definitely play this game.
There is no doubt that the story is the strongest point of the game. At first, Gabriel’s and Grace’s investigations start from a common point but soon they diverge considerably. Gabriel’s investigation is more like an undercover cop work, which consists of interrogating people and gathering information by breaking into rooms/buildings. On the other hand, Grace’s investigation is more research oriented, she mainly follows leads that she finds in books and visits historical places to gain new insights. It is amazing how these two different stories are tied together near the end of the game. The plot keeps you guessing till the very last moment. And after everything is revealed, the story ends with a very satisfying (although a bit action oriented) final act.
It is also very impressive to see how much research is went to create the background story of the game. During Grace’s investigation she visits a lot of museums and all of these museums are loaded with extra information that you don’t need to solve the game. Yet, they come a long way to set the mood and the background. Often, you feel that you are not playing a game but indeed doing actual research to solve a mystery. Any adventure game that can convey that feeling deserves to be a classic in my opinion.
Good Acting in a FMV game!
The graphics are based on the engine of Phantasmagoria, however to me GK II looks much better, probably due to heavy use of real photography. Many gamers complain that GK II looks outdated and lacks visual style, but I beg to differ. The game contains a very large array of locations, ranging from ancient castles to modern day apartments, and I can’t remember a single scene that looked ugly. Especially, the outdoor scenes are very well done. My only complaint would be the small screen size that only covers the half of your monitor, but I can understand that there weren’t many powerful graphics cards back in 1996 to support high resolution video.
Usually the budget for FMV games aren’t too high and they end up having bad to average actors. GK II is a huge exception, almost all the actors do an outstanding job. Especially German actors are very convincing. The actress who plays Grace overacts a little in the beginning, but she also gives a very memorable performance in the second part of the game. However, the most amazing actor in the game is Peter Lucas, who portrays the mysterious and charismatic Von Glower. His acting skills are incredible, everything from his voice to his mimics and his body language convinces you that he is a very smart and powerful man. I can’t remember begin impressed this much by another character in an FMV game. My favorite part is when he and Gabriel talk for the first time in his apartment. Just look closely at the way he uses his eyes and tone of his voice, and you will find the textbook definition of the word “charisma”.
I wish I could say the same for Dean Erickson, who portrays our beloved Gabriel. He is not a bad actor and overall his work in this game is well above average. The problem is, his character looks and feels nothing like the Gabe we know and love from GK I! The original Gabriel was very self confident and charming, and although he did some stupid stuff every once in a while, he always conveyed that he was in control of the situation. Erickson’s Gabriel on the other hand is mostly shy, clumsy and seems like a very introverted person. Even when he overcomes an obstacle, it seems like he did that by pure luck rather than with self awareness. Anyway, if you haven’t played GK I or do not remember the original character, Erickson’s acting is not going to bother you much, but to me it was one of the weaker parts of the game.
Unfortunately, there are also problems with the sound design. It seems like the voiceovers were recorded in different studios or with different settings. As a result, the volume, echo and the background noise change frequently during the game, sometimes even during the same conversation! Fortunately, the music composed by Robert Holmes is once again truly awesome. Especially the opening music and tune that plays during the dream scenes are likely to spin in your head for a while. Also Homes outdid himself in this game by composing an actual mini-opera! I should say that the opera scene and the music accompanying it, is definitely an iconic scene in the history of graphic adventures.
Absence of Solid Puzzles
Well now it is time to talk about game’s biggest weakness; puzzles.. Maybe this is too harsh, actually the game has some decent puzzles and they are very well integrated into the gameworld.. But that is only true for a small fraction of the puzzles in the game. Almost all of them are inventory puzzles and a couple of them are borderline illogical. There is one particular puzzle involving a cuckoo clock which is plain silly. I hope that puzzle was added to the game as a joke, otherwise it is a really bad design.
My actual complaint about the puzzle design is the sparsity. GK 1 had lots of puzzles with emphasis on both inventory and logic. Unfortunately each Chapter in GK 2 has approximately only one non-trivial puzzle and that is it. Actually I think Grace’s chapters have almost no puzzles, most of her gameplay consists of travelling around Bavaria and looking for hotspots to click-on. Overall, the game certainly lacks in puzzle design both in terms of amount and level of challenge.
I am not saying designers should add puzzles to the game for the sake of challenge, but I think the game really has potential to have more intricate puzzles, especially in Grace’s chapters. She travels around all these super interesting historical locations yet there is no code to crack, there are no intricate mysterious devices etc. Some may argue that having those type of puzzles might ruin the reality of the game, but the drum code and the graveyard puzzles in GK 1 were perfect examples of how you can have both realistic and intricate puzzles in an adventure game. If GK II also had that level of puzzle maturity, it could have been my candidate for the title “best graphic adventure ever”.
Gabriel Knight II is an amazing adventure, it has a fairly complex story and characters, and the way the plot branches out and converges in the end is simply stunning. If I could neglect the sparsity of the puzzles, the game would easily be in my all-time top 10. Anyway, it is still a classic the way it is and a must-play for all adventure lovers.
The Good: Complex and well developed story that seamlessly integrate the supernatural elements with actual history. The best acting performance I have seen in an FMV adventure (Peter Lucas). Astonishing soundtrack. Diverse set of locations.
The Bad: Puzzles are sparse and not challenging. The sound quality varies significantly throughout the game.
The Ugly: Dean Erickson’s lack of charisma and his portrayal of Gabriel is nothing like the original game.