Gabriel Knight is high on the “A” list of the most recognizable names in adventure gaming. Designed by Jane Jensen and originally released in 1993 by Sierra-Online, Sins of the Fathers enjoyed critical acclaim from both gamers and critics at the time, and spawned two similarly popular sequels. The 20th Anniversary Edition – a contemporary remake of the first game in the series – retains the strengths of the original with its oddly engaging characters, clever one-liners, engrossing story, and lengthy gameplay while featuring a streamlined interface, new puzzles, and modernized graphics that series newcomers will surely appreciate, though longtime genre fans who adore the original pixel art version may not.
I’ve never played a Gabriel Knight game before, so I represent the portion of the audience that will come to the 20th Anniversary Edition with few preset expectations. I knew the series was darker than King’s Quest and its other contemporaries, that Sins of the Fathers is set in New Orleans, and that the character of “Gabe” is beloved of many adventure gamers. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge when I hit “New Game” in the main menu and saw “Day 1” accompanied by lines of poetry splashed across the screen. As dawn turned to day and light illuminated the rain-slick pavements, wrought-iron balconies, and picturesque awnings of Bourbon Street, it was already clear that what was to follow would be an immersive, ambitious, and out-of-the-ordinary experience.
The elaborate, twisty story unfolds over a ten-day period, with each day of the first week dawning as St. George’s Books opens its doors. The shop’s owner, Gabriel Knight, writes tepidly successful fictional thrillers, and is afflicted by a repeated, terrifying nightmare about a witch-burning and a hanging that could easily be scenes from his next novel. Gabriel has been researching the history of voodoo in New Orleans as literary inspiration. Serendipitously (for him), a series of horrific murders within the city have left the victims with ritualistic voodoo symbols surrounding their bodies. The murders take Gabe to the office of his longtime friend, Detective Franklin Mosely. Gabriel uses this friendship to manipulate Mosely into giving him access to police files and anything else that might add credibility to his latest literary endeavor.
Grace Nakimura, Gabriel’s assistant at the book shop, is loyal, helpful, and works for long periods without any pay. Intriguingly, she is immune to Gabriel’s half-serious romantic advances. Though she seems exasperated by his selfishness – even describing him as a lout when she knows he’s listening – she hasn’t given up on him. Why she remains at her post with little reward – especially when he leaves her unprotected against evident danger – is one mystery whose solution is only hinted at in the latter part of the game.
A studio apartment adjacent to the shop serves as Gabriel’s home and office. Above his bed is a painting of a lion, which is surprisingly apt. Like a lion, Gabe has a long blonde mane of hair, a lovely muscled body, and practically no morals. Part of his appeal when on the prowl for females is his deep, southern drawl. Another part is his wry sense of humor and innate aplomb. Come to think of it, “southern drawl” is something of an understatement. Gabriel’s accent is broad with a basso profondo effect: he sounds like a cross between Johnny Cash and Johnny Bravo. Like the two Johnnies, Gabe is larger-than-life, in a way that his own fictional creations probably couldn’t replicate. There’s more to him than first meets the eye.
A large assortment of secondary characters populate the game, including the sophisticated, dazzling Malia Gedde; the laid-back, chatty cemetery groundskeeper; and the politely menacing, pristinely-attired Voodoo Museum curator known as Dr. John. My favorite among the supporting cast is Grandma Knight, who cared for Gabriel after his parents’ deaths. Her gracious manner and surroundings make her an oasis of calm amid the troubling violence overtaking New Orleans.
Each character exhibits specific traits and distinctive appeal. Dialogs are ample and well written, with essential dialogs appearing in yellow font. Voice-overs for the various characters are professional and effectively bring the many different personalities to life. Kudos to the narrator, whose Caribbean accent enhances the game’s exotic New Orleans flavor and counterbalances Gabe’s outrageous drawl. Character movement is a bit stiff, but does not detract from the gaming experience.
New Orleans itself is an important presence, and Jensen has taken unusual care in presenting the city and its history. The Big Easy comes alive in outdoor scenes, ranging from the circular sidewalks of Jackson Square to the elaborate tombs in the St. Louis Cemetery. Yet it’s the interiors of the homes and shops that are the most striking. The Voodoo Museum, for instance, with its dripping candles, mottled human skulls, rotting fruit, and bottles of congealed liquids. Or Madame Cazanoux’s home, a hideaway cluttered with religious paintings and icons, heavily curtained and dimly lit. The Dixieland Drug Store is stocked to the ceiling with mysterious jars, bags, boxes, bowls, and a robed crocodile mannequin, while smoky light streams through the windows at St. George’s Books, revealing jumbled tomes, brick and stucco walls, and a cobwebby chandelier. Each environment contains small ambient animations, whether mist drifting by, smoke rising from a candle flame, a snake twitching in its cage, or a squirrel frolicking amongst the tombs. The characters in populated locales each have a signature animation that defines them and keeps these scenes looking lively.
Unlike its pixel art predecessor, graphics in the 20th Anniversary Edition are now in high resolution. The details are carefully and realistically rendered: the upturned corner of a rug, the glimmer of light in a crystal, the serpentine patterns formed by tree roots, skulls gathered in a makeshift net, a bloodstained machete on a filthy wall. Unfortunately, the price for this increased fidelity is computing power. Though my computer met the system requirements, the game had a tendency to crash until I turned the graphics settings down from “Fantastic” to “Good.” Near the very end, the crashes resumed, and I had to dial the graphics down to an even lower setting to achieve stability. This did not noticeably affect the environments, but did change the character models, which looked less smooth and detailed; it also removed the shadows cast by the characters outdoors.
Cutscenes are presented in a graphic novel-like format. These are dramatic, not only because of the unexpected costumes and rituals, but also due to the bright colors, vivid character expressions, and creative camera angles. One of the cinematics presented information that took me so much by surprise that I just sat there, stunned for a while afterward. Then I remembered earlier oddities that, if I’d paid more attention, would have helped me anticipate where the story was heading.
A further story layer is offered via a graphic novel in the main menu. This details the actions of one of Gabriel’s distant ancestors, who was tasked with solving a series of ritualistic murders in Charleston. It blends the past into the present, both for Gabriel’s family and the historic practice of voodoo in New Orleans. It also establishes an international journey that Gabriel must eventually take within the game when The Big Easy becomes too hot for him to handle. Before he can get to the bottom of the New Orleans Voodoo Murders, Gabriel must travel to his ancestral home in Germany and an isolated, underground temple in Africa. This also becomes a spiritual journey, as he explores the implications of his relationship to the Schattenjägers – shadow hunters tasked with confronting forces of supernatural evil. As his self-absorption begins to fall away, Gabriel wrestles with the chivalrous, far-reaching role that destiny seems primed to require of him.Continued on the next page...