Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers - 20th Anniversary Edition review
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.
Though the remake has been updated and the graphics reimagined, Sins of the Fathers is still a game of the early nineties, and it retains core aspects from that time period, in good ways and bad. First, it’s a longer game than is common in contemporary adventures – it took me over 20 hours to complete. Jensen’s ambition to involve, entertain, and challenge any gamer for days is clearly evident. And in one long gulp – not in episodes.
Part of the reason is that the game contains a lot of dialog – more than you typically see today. I like reading elaborate dialogs, but I could have done without the many uninformative topics. Yes, of course in a real investigation, Gabriel would ask questions that people would be unable to answer. But I don’t want to repeatedly hear variations of “I know nothing about that” while clicking through conversations in a game. Though you can completely eliminate this problem by clicking only on the yellow-highlighted topics, sticking to the essential topics means that you miss some of the historical background and character development that give this game its sense of place and unusual narrative intricacies.
The most cringe-worthy leftover from the nineties is the condescending way both Gabriel and Mosely treat their female subordinates. Each of them makes comments that, in the modern workplace, would be wildly inappropriate and (in Gabriel’s case) could be considered sexual harassment. It’s disconcerting to see behavior that today would be cause for dismissal or even a lawsuit, but twenty years ago was apparently so common as to be unremarkable.
Composed by Robert Holmes, the original soundtrack from Sins of the Fathers has been remastered for the new edition. The music adds to the atmosphere in most locations and is easy on the ears. In the main menu, a dramatic orchestration with punctuated rhythms gives way to the sound of church bells and a melancholic piano interlude. A chant-like effect is achieved in the African temple using wind instruments and an unusual percussion accompaniment. Marching music blares at the police station, complete with police whistles blowing at frequent intervals. One quibble: I spent so much time in Jackson Square that I tired of the endless chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The new version contains many of the same puzzles as in the original game, plus a handful of new additions. The challenges for the most part are noteworthy for how well they fit into the structure of the story. You won’t encounter arbitrary barriers in this game, which is refreshing. Gameplay consists of inventory puzzles, dialog challenges, and many puzzle sequences that require several steps or subsidiary solutions. One of the most satisfying multilayered challenges is the crime scene analysis at Lake Pontchartrain, which involves completing a mysterious pattern in the sand. Another is the Schattenjäger rites, in which Gabriel uses medieval images to deduce the procedure that will initiate him into the ranks of his courageous ancestors. I also enjoyed the comical sequence in the police station that sees Gabriel manipulating Mosely’s vanity. Some of the more straightforward challenges are quick but fun – for instance, the “Ask the Loa” machine’s colorful levers and letters are employed to create a reassuring message for Madame Moonbeam. The dialog challenge in the confession booth in St. Louis Cathedral is hilarious. It was at this excruciatingly embarrassing moment that I first discovered that (against my better judgment) I was starting to admire Gabriel Knight.
Many of the puzzles are high on the difficulty scale. For instance, one puzzle can only be solved if you pay close attention during a long lecture on the history of voodoo or if you carefully read Gabriel’s journal – and even with the right information, there’s still some trial-and-error involved. Another sequence requires you to influence the movement of an annoying street performer; the solution is so out-of-the-box that I didn’t even consider it. A few of the challenges are timed. If you know what actions to take during these sequences, the time allowed is adequate. But the restriction forces intense experimentation, and until you do figure out the precise steps, the repetition is frustrating.
Fortunately, the game contains a journal that not only gives you clues to what Gabriel is thinking, but also records some of the specific details of what he has learned – knowledge that occasionally helps with puzzle solutions. In addition, this new edition contains a system with graduated hints for specific obstacles, as well as a list of everything that needs to be accomplished within a particular day. This list doesn’t give exact details, but at least provides you with an idea of what needs to be addressed. Each of the game’s ten days has multiple tasks that must be accomplished and/or characters to be interacted with, and some story/puzzle sequences start in one day and are carried over into another day. So I found the task list extremely helpful to get an idea of whether I was done for the day with a particular task. Once it even prevented a major frustration when I hit a glitch that neutralized Grace’s ability to research a vital topic. Knowing that I apparently had nothing left to accomplish and yet still couldn’t progress, I went back to the beginning and redid all the puzzles and essential dialogs for that day, which finally triggered the day’s end.
The interface has been somewhat streamlined this time around. Gabriel’s movement through the gameworld continues to be controlled via an easy point-and-click interface. Unlike the original, however, the cursor in the new edition automatically registers the actions that can be taken for each object or person. Some items can only be looked at, with an appropriate comment from the narrator. Other items and people can also be talked to, taken, used, or combined with an inventory item. The inventory includes a button for item combinations that highlights only the items that are combinable. Pressing the spacebar similarly reveals all hotspots in the environment.
The Steam version I played contains a bonus section with lots of background material, including concept sketches, 3D character models, and screenshots from both the original and updated versions of the game (often superimposed so you can compare the two). In addition, you can access multiple interviews with members of the original development team and read “Pause,” a short story by Jane Jensen originally published in 1995 that briefly bridges the gap between Sins of the Fathers and the next game in the series, The Beast Within. I found the bonus material fascinating even though I hadn’t played the 1993 version – fans of the original should definitely check out this special feature.
Overall, this is a memorable game that goes long and deep – it’s generous both in its length of gameplay and its depth of story. The detailed environments and historical backdrops create an authentic sense of place. It combines mature, often violent themes with realistic relationships between characters, and lighter moments that zing with droll humor. The final sequence is surprisingly elaborate, bringing plot threads and characters together to a climactic closure and a choice of two endings, one inspiring and one heartbreaking.
Twenty years ago, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was hailed as a classic. Today, though it isn't perfect, or even a perfect remake, the 20th Anniversary Edition aptly continues that tradition.
Now with crisp, modern-day graphics and sound, the Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers remake is a provocative story experience whose aim is to challenge, enlighten, horrify and enthrall. And it succeeds, apart from a few questionable gameplay decisions and a lack of final polish.