Gabriel Knight: 20th Anniversary Edition hands-on archived preview

Gabriel Knight: 20th Anniversary Edition preview
Gabriel Knight: 20th Anniversary Edition preview

Gabriel Knight is a tormented man. A struggling writer and bookstore owner by day, his nights are haunted by nightmares streaked with glimpses of raging flames and dripping blood, a leopard-faced woman and a horrified man, and himself – lynched from a tree. Battling the exhaustion of his restless nights, he spends his days scouring for information on voodoo to complete his novel, badgering his long-suffering best pal, police detective Mosely, for access to the crime scenes of a series of ritual murders plaguing New Orleans. On one such jaunt he encounters the rich and reclusive Malia Gedde, an influential local heiress, and is enamoured by her beauty. But as he starts to pursue her while delving deeper into the enigmatic world of voodoo, the cogs of fate start to align for a tryst with destiny that was scripted centuries earlier, in a harsher time rife with prejudice and bitter brutality. Beneath the charming veneer of the Big Easy lies a cagey society with a long history of uneasy coexistence between two very different cultures: the immigrant Europeans and their erstwhile African slaves, and Gabriel is quickly drawn into the heart of this darkness as he discovers the dangerous consequences of the legacy he has inherited.

When I first played Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers in 1994, I was a teenager, and it left me as haunted as Gabriel is by his nightmares. It was impossible to forget the pixelated yet picturesque New Orleans, from its historic French Quarter and gimmicky voodoo stores to the sandy shores of Lake Pontchartrain; the steady beat of the rada drums in Jackson Square; or the irresistible Malia, sultry as the Southern summers, who leads Gabriel down a path that bleeds subtly from self-discovery into self-destruction. Since then, each time I’ve revisited the game I have understood the intricate story better and appreciated its audacity more. So I was super-excited when Pinkerton Studios, led by Jane Jensen, the creator/director/producer of the Gabriel Knight trilogy, partnered with Phoenix Online to remake this iconic adventure game to celebrate its 20th anniversary. A year later, time stood still for me as I launched the demo and Gabriel's nightmare came to life in high definition, edgy and artistic, before blending into a quiet dawn over Bourbon Street as the paperboy skidded past the bookstore and Grace arrived for another day of agonising over the muddled accounts of her incorrigible employer.

As I ventured further, the canvas unfurled to reveal the new set of attractive, realistic-looking screens which are strikingly reminiscent of the originals despite the vast difference in their visual fidelity. Combined with the streamlined, modern interface; a smart, bold script enriched with droll humour and many new dialogues; nicely-animated character close-ups during conversations; the re-mastered soundtrack; fabulous voice-overs, and handy amenities like a multi-level hint system, they make this edition a joy to explore. The demo, which covers the first two days of the game, has some rough edges – glitchy graphics and audio, occasional buggy gameplay – but as a work-in-progress, these will hopefully be ironed out in the final release. Going by the four-odd hours I played (taking my time to relish the new screens and conversations, and clicking each hotspot to hear the charming accents and snarky remarks of Gabriel and the narrator), this remake looks set to delight the long-time fans of the series and entice new players to tread into the dangerous, seductive world of Gabriel Knight.

The demo covers several locations besides Gabriel’s bookstore: the police station, which now has an exterior shot as well as a new area (an alleyway that looks into Mosely’s office), the Dixieland voodoo store, the voodoo museum, Lake Pontchartrain, the Gedde mansion, St. Louis Cemetery #1, Jackson Square and the cathedral. It was also exciting to meet and greet the high resolution versions of familiar faces like the dour desk sergeant Frick at the precinct, Willy the shady proprietor of Dixieland, Gervais the cemetery watchman, and Dr. John, the cordial but condescending doyen of the museum. Grace has traded in her frumpy floral-printed long skirt for a pair of well-fitted jeans, and though she looks pretty in-game, her close-up portrait lacks the elegant beauty of her concept art sketch. By contrast, Malia is striking in her red business suit, with twinkling black eyes, flawless features, and radiant dark skin. Gabriel’s shaggy blond hair and classic white tee / blue jeans combo have withstood the test of time, but like Grace, he too looks much better in-game than up close, appearing a little plastic-y versus the more realistic portrait of Mosely (surprisingly attractive in this version).

The interface has also gotten a comprehensive facelift. Clicking on hotspots now brings up icons for possible interactivities, such as examine, take, open, use, or combine with inventory. Alternatively, there is an Easy mode (which can be toggled in-game), where the default action is automatically performed when you click on a hotspot. The icons for Gabriel’s journal (a new element that records his observations and provides the hints); an album of concept art, character sketches, developer notes and screenshots of the original game; the inventory and map are placed along the bottom edge, while the score (out of a total 353) is prominently displayed at top left. Collected objects are added to the inventory, where they may be examined or combined with other items. Having to open the inventory each time you want to select an object is a little cumbersome, but this keeps the screen clutter-free, and there is a button to hide even these few icons while exploring. Space bar reveals all the hotspots, and there are many per screen, both quest-related as well as general ones to enrich each scene. If hints are on, collectable items sparkle to catch your attention, but this is entirely optional.

Gabriel no longer carries a tape recorder for his conversations, which have a similar format as before, with the two speakers shown in inset windows with a list of all the dialogue choices. Essential queries are highlighted in yellow, and completed dialogues are removed from the list. Most quests are the same as in the original game, and involve using inventory objects to resolve situations, extracting information from people, and decoding voodoo codes and other graphic clues. Some of the new areas added, like the cluttered shelves of Gabriel’s desk at the bookstore, now contain items that were earlier placed elsewhere in the main scene, while a few of the original quests can be solved a little more practically. Proceedings still follow the 'day' format, where Gabriel must complete a preset number of tasks each day to proceed to the next, though during the day you have a fair bit of leeway to visit the available locations as you prefer.

The historic, vibrant locations of New Orleans provide the perfect balance for the dark, disturbing plot. The high resolution art of Bourbon Street, Gabriel’s unwittingly quaint bookstore, the luxurious Gedde mansion with its collection of Michelangelo and Picasso sculptures, and the voodoo store, stuffed with oddities, is especially attractive, with thoughtful detailing and moody plays of light and shadow. It is also pleasantly nostalgic to compare the original screenshots of each location, available in the album section of Gabriel’s journal, with their new versions. Comic book-style animated cutscenes reflect the dramatic art of the Sins of the Father graphic novel. The 3D character models in the demo, even at the ‘fantastic’ graphics setting, are a little blocky with sharp edges and uneven outlines, and don’t blend very well into the backgrounds, though these may yet be honed further before final release.

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Oct 4, 2014

Curious: when was this played? Is this the same version as the beta demo backers played? I find it really weird if theyr still distributing a build that had the same problems as the beta version, with the release date a couple weeks away.

Jackal Jackal
Oct 4, 2014

It was only played just before writing, but the press demo is at least a few weeks older than that. I can’t say for sure whether it’s the same as the public backer demo. (I could find out, but in a couple weeks that’ll be moot. Tongue)

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