Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thoughts on Gabriel Knight: 21st Anniversary Edition

My love of the old series of Sierra adventure game series called Gabriel Knight is on record. It's a series about a New Orleansian book store owner who starts researching local voodoo murders for a novel and ends up discovering the supernatural element is real and that he is from a line of Schattenjagers - witch hunters - who deal with the supernatural. It also helps that a lot of the lore in the game is painstakingly researched from real life (enough to make me get over my fear of the Deep South of America and want to visit New Orleans) and the game has a very mature sense of writing to it. The second and third games deal with additional cases involving werewolves and vampires he takes on after embracing his Schattenjager heritage.

Sadly the series ended as adventure games fell out of vogue and Sierra was abosrbed by one of the evil megacorp game companies. The creator, Jane Jensen, now has her own indie games studio and decided to remake the first game as a Gabriel Knight 20th Anniversary edition. Having just completed it I have mixed thoughts on it. I love Gabriel Knight and I hope the sales lead to a 4th game, though there is also the possibility they may remake the 2nd and 3rd games. The 2nd game was FMV game, and one of the better ones, albeit with few alternative paths as film was expensive. The 3rd game was really hampered by an ugly slow early 3D engine and I personally don't think 3D adds much to point-and-click adventure games unless it is very stylized like Telltale Games's various series.

My mixed thoughts on the 20th anniversary edition (which amusingly came out 21 years after the game) include:-
Death by telekinesis?

  • It is interesting, and makes one feel old to realise, that Gabriel Knight is now a period piece. Still set in 1993 there's no mobiles or internet - you need to research things the old fashioned way. Thankfully the remake avoided making this too in your face - like say how when people now do 80s period pieces everyone has massive comedy mobile phones.
  • While the backgrounds are often beautiful (and Schloss Ritter is more consistent with the later games) the 3D modelling is terrible. My Dr. Who fangame looks way, way better as I opted for 2.5D (i.e. prerendered 3D models). The sprites look fine when stationary but the bodies of the character contort in unrealistic manners and are clearly not interacting with the pre-rendered backdrops of the game, frequently ice-skating across the floor or walking through walls and curtains. Complex animations, such as a character changing clothes, are avoided by 'fading to black' and then showing the character in a new outfit, which is really lazy, or by new 'comic book' style cutscenes with very limited and often stuttery animation. The original 93 game used a few comic book style scenes, but had a lot better animations both in cutscenes and in-engine sequences. Most aggredious is that during action scenes some of the 3D models are clearly not in sync with each other, such as when Dr. John decided to murder me using his telekinetic powers.
  • There are a few new puzzles added to the game, but these tend to be 7th Guest style puzzles that bring the plot screeching to a halt while you solve them. 
  • There are a few minor tweaks to the storyline - for instance a puzzle involving using a bagel vendor to distract some cops while you raid an office is replaced with a more realistic sequence where you breaking into the police station through a back alley window. Once you get the swag you need the cops are all start inexplicably acting like zombies (I'd like to have found out how the voodoo cult did that) and scare you off in a sadly uninteractive cut scene. At least it explains why you don't call the cops at the end of the game.
  • Some tweaks "streamline" the game. I personally miss the old point-n-click interfaces where you could choose a specific action on a target (e.g. try to  eat the door) and get a humorous or unexpected response. Now if one clicks on an object only the actions the programmer has decided you can do are offered (e.g. open/close the door is fine, but talking to the door is not offered). The original Gabriel Knight 1 had a ridiculous number of actions you could perform any mundane objects.
  • There was an overwhelming number of locations to visit at the start of the game that served no initial purpose (such as Gabriel's gran, a bar and so forth). These are now streamlined and unlocked at the points in the game when they become necessary - something that simplifies the game but that I personally do not like (especially as you unlock your local bar by finding an advert in the local paper for a jeweller you must talk to who hangs out there and inexplicably gives the bar as his contact details, but who - as his dialog is unchanged from the original game - is long retired from the jewellry trade and thus wouldn't be advertising his services).
  • Other tweaks are nonsensical. In the original a character, Dr. John, gives you the address of a voodoo priestess who helps you out. In the remake you find a flyer for her but the character still uses the originial script, making references to how you were sent by Dr. John.
  • Even more stupid - Gabriel now appears as he does in later games of the series, but the dialog where people comment on his appearance (such as his spiky hair, which is now long instead of spiky) is still unchanged from the original game.
  • There are game-stopper bugs in the remake that were not in the original - something I find unforgivable in a remake (the recent Baldur's Gate remakes had similar issues). I found myself being unable to progress on Day 3 despite having solved all the puzzles and had to download a save game to get unstuck.
  • The original game had Tim Curry, Mark Hamill and Michael "Worf" Dorn amongst its A-list voice cast. Sadly the recording were relatively low quality and had to be redone with... let's just say "other" actors. Generally the voice acting is ok, but I miss Hamill in particular.
  • The new music in this remake is probably the best thing about it. The old game had midi music that can't compare with the synth-electric guitar of the Schattenjager theme.
So, mixed bag really. Amusingly the original game is a mere £3.60 while the remake will set you back £12.99 and clearly still needs some work.

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