"You should definitely play it. But should you play this version?"
Each of the games in the Gabriel Knight trilogy could be used as an example of the best and worst bits of of adventure gaming at the time it was made. The first game was your standard point and click game sharpened to a razor's edge with voiceover from people you had actually heard of in Hollywood film. The second embraced the FMV craze in all its excess and glory and actually implemented it as decently as such a concept can be implemented. The third was rendered in full 3D with the player controlling the camera, while also boasting a plot that would foreshadow the success of Dan Brown.
They're all wonderful games, but Gabriel Knight 3 would be the last game the revered Sierra On-Line (yes they really did have a hyphen) would ever publish. Worse still, we were left with a cliffhanger in the trilogy-spanning relationship between the titular hero and one of the better-realized characters in adventure gaming, his equal Grace Nakimura, possibly never to be resolved.
It's difficult to believe it has been 20 years since the original Gabriel Knight was published. I have extremely fond memories of the game from when I was a 16 year old lad in my parents basement clicking my way through it, so I relished the opportunity to play Phoenix Online's anniversary remake.
If you've never played Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, the story revolves around the titular novelist. He has a bookshop that doesn't make any money, a brilliant student employee that he can't afford to pay (Grace Nakimura), a best friend who is a detective at the New Orleans police department, and writer's block. A series of murders that the papers are calling the "Voodoo Murders" (due to ritualistic leavings about the crime scenes) has given him an idea for a new book, and before long he finds himself embroiled not just in the history of Voodoo in New Orleans, but the history of his own family. It's point and click goodness, complete with picking up everything you can, combining things in your inventory to use on other things, and all the rest of the good stuff we love about adventure games. You should definitely play it. But should you play this version?
For starters, the 20th Anniversary edition from Phoenix Online looks great. The comic book style cutscenes are lovely, and there was one scene I didn't remember being in the original that I found quite chilling. The characters themselves also look terrific when they are standing still, and the backdrops look lovingly crafted. The journal in the game comes with a terrific feature for the old heads that compares the old version of the game to the new version, and also includes tidbits from the designers of the original — the type of thing you like to see in a Collector's Edition of a comic book or film.
The remastered music also sounds absolutely fantastic. In particular, some of the electric guitar in the more climactic sequences really added an extra punch to what is (with the exception of the New Orleans police station theme) really an all around great video game soundtrack.
It's definitely not perfect though. As much as I have enjoyed Phoenix Online's games, you really do need to look past some performance issues. I of course understand that this is a small studio trying to tell cool stories, and the real enjoyment comes from puzzle solving and the hand painted backdrops, but characters in the GK remake still look awkward when they move around. In addition, there are weird clipping and performance issues, especially during the sequence in Africa.
Special mention has to be made of the voiceovers. Gabriel sounds like less a native New Orleans gent and more like Elvis trying to get peanut butter off of the roof of his mouth. The original voiceover files were apparently not recoverable, so new ones were recorded for this, and for the most part they're not bad, but Gabriel in particular sounds like more like a caricature than an actual character.
There are small variations on a couple of the puzzles as well, just to throw the occasional curveball at somebody who knows the steps of the game backward and forward. Most of them don't feel particularly invasive, but there is an additional puzzle at Madame Moonbeam's that is flagrantly bizarre. I don't really think the game is improved by its presence as I'm still not certain what the mechanics of that puzzle box were — I just clicked wildly on it until I got the phrase I wanted.
The question you have to ask yourself with a remake is whether or not it is an improvement on the original. As lovely as this was to play, look at, and hear, I found myself at times wishing I was simply playing the original. That may not necessarily be an indictment of this version — it's difficult for this reviewer to know whether nostalgia was at work or not. But as remasters go, this is closer to Star Wars than Blade Runner for me: with the former, I'd rather be watching the original, as beautiful as the remaster is to look at.
The journal, with all of the trivia about the game, was worth the playthrough by itself for me. But it's hard to know whether to recommend the remake, especially when the original can be had for $6. In answer to my question above of whether you should play this — I don't know. I liked it, but if I was going to play through Gabriel Knight again, I'd fire up the old version.
Is that a fair criticism in this case, though? After all, Gabriel Knight at the time of its original release was state of the art, with the backing of a true AAA studio. Pinkerton and Phoenix are smaller outfits trying to cater to a niche audience. Is it fair to judge when the budget disparity between then and now is probably pretty high? I don't know.
In a very real way, most of the redesign seems aimed at an eventual tablet release. Even the redesigned pointing and clicking itself, where clicking brings up a menu of actions as opposed to cycling through actions with right click, made me think that this would work quite well on a touch screen. While we know the game is on its way to both iPad and Android tablets, we don't yet know when those versions will release. At that point, this version will definitely have been worth the investment, as I suspect this modern rendition will not only look great on tablets, but be a hit there as well.
One thing I very much would like to say is that I love what Phoenix Online is doing — they make games that have clearly been influenced by Gabriel Knight, and it seems perfectly natural that they are the studio to release this, even if it didn't necessarily "click" for me this time (haha get it because you point and okay I'll show myself out). I'd very much like to see what they could do with a remake of Gabriel Knight 2, stripped of FMV and reimagined. That
would be a remake that, unlike this one, didn't simply layer a fresh coat of paint on top of an old house — it looks nice enough, but you miss the charm that got you to move into the house in the first place.