Hack Magic Woman – Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers needs a witch doctor, stat.
Do you ever have a really bad night that you can trace back to a single thing? Maybe it ends with a huge argument with someone you live with, all because you put off doing the dishes one time too many. Maybe it even ends in a breakup, all because your significant other made some offhand comment that got under your skin. That’s an extreme example, though, so let me give you another: a night begins with this humble reviewer turning on his computer to play Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, and ends with that very same reviewer laying face-down on the floor, both laughing and sobbing at the mechanical nightmare that he has force-fed himself for the last several hours. Utter frustration fuels his every thought, as he accepts that the game has won. It has broken him, utterly and completely.
I’m very excited to write this review.
Gabriel Knight is a writer and business owner in 1990s New Orleans. Owning the St. George bookstore is only one half of Gabriel’s life, the other being devoted to working on his next book. New Orleans is a city chock full of voodoo culture, and it is upon that culture that Gabriel is basing his newest novel. The only problem is, he’s been facing some devastating writer’s block, accompanied by a reoccuring nightmare that plagues his sleep. When a series of killings dubbed “the voodoo murders” lay seige to New Orleans, Gabriel decides to get as much info as he can about the murders. What he will eventually discover is that his nightmares may be directly connected with what’s going on around him.
Despite my scathing initial thoughts, let’s start with the positives. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers shows that Jane Jensen knows how to put together a good cinematic. The game is a remake, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original 1994 point-and-click, and presentation is one department where some nice upgrades have been dished out. The opening sets a standard found in some other cutscenes through the game, creating what becomes a great motion-comic style that really stands out. Striking colors and great music make these moments some of the best parts of the game.
Once the opening credits have rolled and Gabriel awakens from yet another fitful night of slumber, things begin. At its core, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is a point-and-click adventure game, and while it doesn’t try anything particularly new mechanically speaking, it does give the player two or three different options of interaction with each item in a given area. These can vary from “look at” to “use thing with,” “open,” “take,” or “interact with,” and a couple others. There are usually only one or two that show up on any given item, though, making that feeling of variety sometimes feel more like a misdirection.
Gabriel Knight also manages to create a good sense of space in most of the game’s locales. Players are given a score counter, which will give you points every time you do something that either progresses the story or expands upon some aspect of the world. Solid presentation and top-notch environment art present all these elements well, but don’t distract from individual items around Gabriel. Even if you feel like you’re missing something, simply holding down the space bar will highlight each and every clickable item in the area; perfect for those who can’t leave a single rune-inscribed stone unturned.
Something that’s always a bit of a challenge in an adventure game, especially in longer ones such as this, is keeping a good balance between actual story pacing and the pacing of puzzles. Sometimes, figuring out more contrived and complex puzzles can take a very long time to do, and can be very frustrating if they aren’t well-presented. The trope of “use everything on everything until something works” is still not uncommon, but that doesn’t excuse it from being sloppy game design. To help fight the good fight in that regard, Gabriel Knight supplies the player with a special notebook, into which Gabriel writes his thoughts as the game progresses. If you’re stuck on where to go or what to do at any point, this can be very helpful in leading you in the right direction. If you have three or four different places to start, having them all listed out can help you find the right place to start. The book also features a hint system, which goes from vague clues to specific instructions that come up if you’ve taken long enough trying to figure out how to get something done. The book also includes concept art of areas, as taken from the original 1994 game.
Sadly, and as good as an idea as it is, the notebook has a fatal flaw; players will inevitably come to rely on the little guidebook symbiotically, in order to untangle the web of illogical thought patterns that were used to construct some of the puzzles in the game. Over the first couple days, (out of the total ten across which the game spans) things are pretty straightforward and satisfying. By day 4, however, the paths you follow are some of the most illogical and contrived design choices of the year.
Any good point-and-click adventure game should have at least some semblance of logic connecting aspects of a puzzle. It can be broad, and make you run around getting items and using them on things, but there has to be something – a line of dialogue, or even a subtle hint in visual design – that the player will eventually notice, in one of those “aha!” moments that moves things forward. Such moments end up feeling more rewarding than the kind of game that requires you to blindly click on everything in combination with every OTHER thing until something works. The elements involved in a lot of Gabriel Knight‘s puzzles are so spread out and disconnected from each other that the whole ting begins to feel like an unstructured mess. If buying a seemingly useless and unrelated item will get the player a second item, needed in another puzzle, then that fact should be made clear in some way. It doesn’t have to be broadcast loud and clear, but it has to be led to come across the player’s mind. Not doing that – as we see in this case – feels like drawing a map of three roads, but leaving a huge blank space when you would normally draw those roads intersecting.
Another issue that Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers seems fittingly cursed by is writing and delivery. The story has some promise; New Orleans’ voodoo culture has some interesting history behind it, as is exposited to the player in one hearty dose fairly early on. The actual plot, on the other hand, moves slower than a river of partially-congealed blood, and throws more symbolism at you than the average bible flick. The roles of a couple particular characters in Gabriel’s nightmares have been made pretty clear by the end of the first day. By day 3, I knew exactly who was responsible for the voodoo murders, and had to sit through hours of slow hinting to drive home a point that had already been made loud and clear time and time again. Making things worse is the oddly art student-esque mentality of “imagery for imagery’s sake is always cool, and never out-of-place or obnoxious.” Let me address those points in order, right here and now: it isn’t, it is, and it is.
The game boasts mostly acceptable voice acting, so the issue of delivery falls mostly to the main character. Gabriel was originally voiced by Tim Curry, but all the dialogue was redone for this new adventure. Gabe’s new voice sounds like someone trying to do their best sexy Tim Curry impression while slightly drunk, and although amusing at first, by the time you’re a few hours in it’s just wholly uncomfortable. He sounds like he’s trying to flirt with everyone he meets and everything he sees, and although this works fine when the dashing womanizer is talking to an attractive lady, it’s a little more off-putting when he’s supposed to be interrogating the mid-30s man who owns a mysterious voodoo drugstore, and ends up sounding like he wants to make some voodoo magic of his own. On top of this is the narrator, a woman with an incredibly thick accent, who narrates Gabriel’s actions. She gives off a bit of a fortune teller vibe at first, but the hamminess becomes grating after long enough, when put in coexistence with all of the other issues surrounding it.
With all that in mind, it’s time to come to the greatest sin committed by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.To poke a nice little hole in the fourth wall for a moment, the review code we got for this game was accompanied with the note that the game was still being visually polished in some areas. That’s fine and all, these things happen, and everyone wants their project to look the best that it possibly can. However, what Gabriel Knight needs is less last-minute polish, and more thorough bug-testing.
Let’s set the stage. Before playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers for review, I got a chance to sit down with a preview build a few months back, containing the first two days of the game. I remembered how things flowed pretty well when I picked up the final game, and so was startled to discover that one location I should have been able to visit on day two was not accessible. I went about the rest of the available things to do for that day, thinking that maybe things had changed, and that I would gain access to that final location once all other tasks had been accomplished. All other adventures done for the day, I checked back, only to find that this final location was still nowhere to be found. I tried reloading my save file, to no avail, and was eventually forced to completely restart my game in order to progress past the second day at all.
Ironically, the journal is very helpful in pointing out moments when this will occur. If you have the patience and conscience to go through all the hints, you’ll find a pretty decent verbal map of what should be open to you and when. This not only confirmed to me that something was wrong the first time the game bugged out, but was my only way of knowing when the exact same thing happened the following in-game day. I had to restart my game from a save point on the first day, requiring me to once again retread a lot of progress.
The final straw occurred after an update was released for the game, presumably getting it ready for the retail release. Something in this update cause the save/load menu to become completely impossible to navigate. I managed to load a save file, but couldn’t save anything. I sighed, resigned to my fate, and began to play for a several-hour span, hoping for the best. After three hours of playtime, it occurred again. In the midst of the single most contrived puzzle the game had thrown at me up to that point, I once again confirmed for myself that the correct resources required to move forward in the game had, quite simply, failed to load. The problem here was that the utterly bjorked save menu had made setting earlier save slates impossible. I would have had to replay the whole 6 hours of game I had already gone through in order to get to that point again, and hope nothing else messed up along the way. This moment of crushing defeat led me to eject myself from my seat and collapse, feeling my mind beginning to unravel. The voodoo won, dear readers. The voodoo won.
It doesn’t even stop there. Gabriel Knight is chock-full of animation bugs to boot, such as characters taking ridiculously long, inhuman strides to begin a walking pattern, or bits of their bodies turning bright red. (usually hands, from my experience) Other, visually funnier bugs include characters crab-walking to destinations, or Gabriel standing while his leg bounces up and down incessantly, as if it has been perched atop the worlds smallest trampoline. There’s a teleport feature that allows you to jump to a spot in an area by double-clicking on it, (a merciful combattant too how long it takes anyone in the game to get anywhere) but half the time this simply doesn’t function. Really, though, even if you’re able to look past all of this, the animation is just stiff and awkward, and characters always seem to be walking too slow or too fast.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is under a bad curse indeed. It feels unfinished and inadequately bug-tested in a number of areas, but even that isn’t the only issue it has going against it. The presentation is nice, but the story is extremely transparent and doesn’t stay interesting beyond the parts of it that are directly contextualized in actual New Orleans history. The lead character’s voice actor becomes legitimately, affectingly unpleasant after a while, as does the mass of increasingly-contrived puzzles the game offers. The only way to figure out a lot of the more complex tasks the game has in store is by effectively cheating, relying pretty exclusively on the most explicit of hints in your notebook. This game will break you by breaking itself. Or maybe the other way around. I don’t know. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers gets two horribly-delivered faux-Tim Curry lines out of five.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Phoenix Online; Developer: Pinkerton Road Studios; Players: 1; Released: Oct. 15th, 2014; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $19.99
Note: This review was performed on review code provided by Phoenix Online.