In the mid-nineties, the big buzzword in the computer gaming industry was "Interactive Movies." Hollywood had invaded gaming, and production companies now had to worry about blue-screens and actors as much as puzzles and gameplay.
Unfortunately, very few good, memorable games came out of this period. While in theory Full Motion Video sounded like a good idea, in practice, the emphasis ended up being much more on "movie" than "interactive." It was found to be too expensive and complicated to film actors performing every single action possible within the constraints of a game. With the advent of 3D technology, FMV fell to the sidelines.
When it was announced that the second episode of the Gabriel Knight mysteries would be using video, I and many other gaming enthusiasts were disappointed. This combined with the fact that none of the voice actors from the first game would be reprising their roles led to worries that much of the charm and continuity of the first game would be lost.
We needn't have worried, though. Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within is a wonderfully complex and engaging piece of gaming history -- one of the few Full Motion Video games whose game play and storyline match those of its 2D predecessors.
The story follows Grace and Gabriel as they travel to Germany to solve a series of murders that have been attributed to escaped zoo wolves. Gabriel, ensconced in his family's seat in Rittersberg, is futilely trying to duplicate the success of his first novel, based on his previous adventures. His attempts are interrupted by locals who know of the Schaatenjagers and their purpose. Investigating the murder of a small girl leads him to a group of men who indulge in their primal natures, and Gabriel disconcertingly finds himself a place among them.
Meanwhile, tired of being left on the sidelines, Grace begins to work on the case on her own initiative -- learning of Rittersberg's history and the story of one of Gabriel's ancestors who faced a creature which called itself The Black Wolf. Digging further leads her to several important historical sites as she learns the final fate of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the history of Wagner's missing opera. As the story continues, both Grace and Gabriel face their own temptations and trials. Grace will have to fight her way free of Ludwig's romantic world to save Gabriel as he faces his own animalistic, selfish nature.
The sheer sense of history the game gives is difficult to describe. Much of the story's background is based in truth. Real events from Ludwig's life, his agony in his own perceived sinfulness, his relationship with Wagner, and his naive inability to understand the disappointing world around him are combined with Jensen's imagination to produce a fascinating tale of damnation and redemption which parallels Gabriel's own. Several portions of the game take place in real locations, such as Ludwig's castle of Neuschwandstein.
The acting is generally excellent, with Dean Erickson's portrayal of Gabriel being an interesting (and much welcomed) reinterpretation of the role. Yes, Gabriel is still arrogant, selfish and pig-headed, but Erickson's take on the character and his accent aren't quite as over-the-top as Curry's. Joanne Takahashi plays the role of Grace admirably, although early in the game her character's anger comes off as a bit shrill. Both actors manage to capture the changes their characters experience in the course of the game as both of them are forcibly tested in the fires of the challenges facing them.
The production values are high, with several scenes based on digitalized photographs of real German locations. The music continues the series' use of lietmotif and contains some inside musical jokes. The "Gabriel" theme returns accompanied by a haunting new one for Ludwig's scenes. The game also contains a variation of the "police" theme and a sequence where different versions of "When the Saints Go Marching In" are played (as in the first game's Jackson Square location).
The interface is a radical change from the previous installment. Rather than a menu of icons representing various actions the player can take, the player is presented with a single "pointer." Hotspots are highlighted as the cursor is moved over the screen, and clicking performs an action. Unfortunately, this simplified interface proves to be sometimes confusing as it's not entirely clear what action will occur. Often, either Grace or Gabriel would open or take an object when I merely meant to examine it. The inventory interface also takes some getting used to. Rather than choosing an action and then an object to apply it to -- as in previous Sierra adventures -- the order is reversed. Once chosen, objects can be examined, or used on other objects or hotspots in the given scene.
Conversation is again important, as Gabriel and Grace ask questions of the various people they meet. The game pauses on a close-up of the individual and a series of available choices are displayed. However, this interface is also simplified in that topics vanish as they're asked and cannot be returned to. This appears to be an understandable attempt to cut down on the possible number of dialogue sequences that would have to be filmed.
The gameplay follows much the same pattern as that of the first -- Gabriel is presented with a mystery and begins to solve it. There's some interesting amateur forensic work involved, as well as Gabriel's well-known "the end justifies the means" approach to dealing with the police and his suspects.
An added dimension to the game is the ability to play as Grace. Left behind and unable to get in contact with Gabriel (precisely how he likes it), Grace begins to follow the thread of a mystery hidden in Rittersberg's history. Her portions of the game are also investigative, but more likely you'll be digging through museums and books rather than directly questioning suspects.
While many of the puzzles follow the high quality started in the first episode, some are unfortunately uncued and illogical. One of the worst of these involves a cuckoo clock used in an unusual way towards an uncertain end. Also, sometimes actions that don't follow naturally from the storyline will be required to complete a chapter. Grace's sections in the later chapters involve wandering through two museums and a castle. The game will not continue until all of the important hotspots have been examined. This brings the narrative to a crashing halt and it can be incredibly frustrating to have to completely search all three locations to find the one thing necessary to continue the game.
Still, the remaining puzzles are excellent. One of the most difficult (solved by Grace in Chapter Four) requires both an excellent memory of various disparate clues and a certain level of intuition to solve.
The two threads of narrative eventually converge towards a climactic ending in the bowels of an opera house. Unfortunately, the final sequence of actions is both timed and only solveable by trial and error. The combination of the two can be incredibly frustrating, as there's no way for the player to know if a series of actions failed because it was incorrect, or simply mistimed.
By the end of the story, Gabriel and Grace find that they have been profoundly changed by their experiences -- an unusual quality for a computer game. While containing moments of comedy, the entire game is permeated by a quality of sadness, most acutely found in the form of Ludwig himself.
The Beast Within is an incredible achievement. While not flawless, any problems with the game are easily outshined by the wonderful storyline, deep background, and excellent puzzle design. I highly recommend it to any adventure gamer as an shining example of what could be accomplished with Full Motion Video, as well as a classic gameplay experience.