Tim McDonald: I have written so many introductions to news items or articles about Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers – 20th Anniversary Edition that I don’t know where to begin without just rehashing them all at once.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers – 20th Anniversary Edition is a remake of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, a mid-90s point-and-click adventure starring an author and bookstore owner named Gabriel Knight, who gets involved in some grisly supernatural goings-on. It’s notable for being one of the darkest and most mature games to come out of the Sierra adventure stables (mature in terms of subject matter, as opposed to mature in a Leisure Suit Larry “hee hee boobs” way), and for being a really, really good adventure. It’s often mentioned as one of the better ones of that era, and as that’s the era of Quest for Glory and King’s Quest and Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max… well, yes.
Tim: But the thing is, I’ve said all that before. In fact, I’ve played Gabriel Knight before; I’ve finished the original game multiple times over the past 20 years. As the devs were kind enough to send over two codes, I enlisted Gabriel Knight virgin Peter Parrish to come and give me a hand with this review. I’m an old hand who knows the original game backwards, and he’s someone who’s never played a Gabriel Knight title before. As such, this review of the Gabriel Knight remake will hopefully offer perspectives both from someone familiar with the series, and from someone coming in completely fresh.
So, Peter! Everyone knows my opinion on the original Gabriel Knight game, and we’ll doubtless get onto my thoughts about the remake before too long, but: what did you think of the Gabriel Knight remake?
Peter Parrish: I’m a bit worried about the connotations of being a “Gabriel Knight virgin” given the main character’s lascivious nature. Anyway, is this where I tell people about voodoo?
Tim: I was deliberately avoiding making that reference.
Peter: That wasn’t just a lame excuse to make the reference! Okay, it was a bit, but it’s also my way of saying I really could tell you about voodoo. Gabriel Knight actually taught me about it. Adventure games are the sum of several things, many of which are shared with traditional story-telling due to how much text and dialogue there tends to be. Location. Characters. Theme. Puzzle design.
Peter: This one is based in New Orleans (or ‘Norlins’ as the local drawling dialect would tend to have it) and centered around voodoo shenanigans. There’s a huge difference here between the way Gabriel Knight goes in-depth with its voodoo research and, say, the more traditional cartoonish way it’s dealt with in Monkey Island 2. The tonal intent with the latter game was obviously very different (and I do love the voodoo lady and her Juju bag) but I think it says a lot about Gabriel Knight’s more serious approach that it’s a title all about voodoo which features a voodoo doll just once. And even then, only in passing.
There’s still stuff about spiritual possession for dramatic purposes, of course; it’s still an adventure game, not a documentary. But you actually get a fair bit of proper religious background with your supernatural investigations. I can rattle off a bit of information about the Loa, or gris-gris and feel vaguely informed. The setting and tone are really strong, and haven’t particularly dated. Other than in the sense that it’s set in the 90s so people don’t have cell phones and so on.
Actually, I quite like some of the 90s presentational vibe that’s been retained, like in the opening credits sequence (and music) that could’ve come from the televisual glut of paranormal shows around the time of The X-Files.
Tim: I’m sure there’s an argument that the prevalence of cell phones have done serious damage to adventure games set in the modern day, if only because “where has this person gone” or “I need to contact this person” puzzles and plot hooks suddenly require some more investment into why the hell you can’t just phone them.
Peter: Here’s the question which kept coming back to me while playing, though: would I have enjoyed the original just as much, or even more? From talking with you about some of the remake’s changes, I’m still not totally sure. Whenever the special features tab showed me a scene from the original in its pixel-art glory, I tended to prefer that look.
20th Anniversary Edition has plenty of terrific re-done locations (Gabriel’s shop, the voodoo museum,) but it does have issues with the 3D characters and objects rather gliding over backgrounds. And some of the animation is pretty ropey. At one point Gabriel has to kind of contort his back and lean through a table in order to show something to police detective pal Mosely.
There’s much more to say on this area, so let’s get deep into the ups and downs of remaking this adventure classic.
Tim: Again: I’ve played the original a lot, so seeing the graphics updated to a higher resolution was actually a bit of a treat. It wasn’t so much “this looks better/worse than the original”, but “ooh, so that’s what this location looks like now!” In a vague attempt to be critical, there are definitely a few areas I preferred in the original game, most of which were areas that just felt more crowded back then. I suppose drawing a few looping sprites is a lot easier than crafting a full 3D model for a bystander, though. There are also one or two areas that I think had a stronger atmosphere in the original, for better or worse; Hartridge’s office and the voodoo museum both felt a little more… cluttered, I suppose? I dunno – I think I prefer the new voodoo museum, but the old one had a sort of dusty charm to it. The same goes for the crime scene, which felt a bit more desolate in the original, but that might just be me. That’s why I had you play this too, after all.
Gabriel’s shop is utterly gorgeous, though, and there are some real visual treats. The Gedde estate and its parlor are beautiful. The pub now looks like a place I might actually like to visit sometime. The cathedral is a thing of beauty. Etc.
Tim: I should probably bring up the changes made to some of the puzzles, though, because this is definitely an area that is both good and bad. Here’s the bad: most of the new puzzles (of which there are about four) are of the “Soup Cans” variety, in terms of being silly roadblocks rather than actually being puzzles that make any real sense. With one exception, they’re also all logic puzzles rather than inventory puzzles – things like “re-arrange these tiles to make a picture” or “press these buttons in the right order.” I suspect this is down to the fact that actually creating new inventory puzzles that are referenced in dialogue and give you items spread out across multiple locations that don’t have obvious uses… well, it probably would’ve required a significant rewrite to parts of the game, and that’s very obviously not what 20th Anniversary Edition is about.
There’s also one puzzle which is completely different. There is a point at the mid-game where you need to sneak into your pal’s office at the police station. Previously, this involved going to Jackson Square and convincing the beignet vendor there to go sell his stuff at the police station; you’d then wander back to the police station, wait for him to turn up, and then walk on through while the desk sergeant is distracted by food. Changing this puzzle, to my mind, is a good thing. The original puzzle was utterly ludicrous (particularly for a point in the game where you’re starting to understand just how threatened you really are) and while the new one isn’t likely to tax the brains of anybody at all, it’s certainly more thematic.
Peter: The new way of getting inside is quite a funny case of “oh here, just have the item you need.” But I’ll definitely take that over what you’re describing there, which sounds like a bit of a pace-killer for that point in the game.
Tim: Yeeeah – the replacement isn’t exactly a great puzzle, but it fits in with the tone of that part of the game a lot better. Anyway! Without trying to spoil anything: I’m not quite so sold on the cutscene that occurs when you solve the puzzle. It’s undeniably creepy, but to me, it sort of undermined the realism of most of the horror up to that point; it’s so over-the-top when compared to the rest of the game. I can’t really go into details without spoiling it, though, so I won’t.
So that’s the bad and the not-quite-so-bad. The good is that a lot of the really annoying bullshit has been excised, and the game feels a lot more streamlined and a lot less bloated due to some other changes. A couple of examples: one of the first things you have to do in the game is investigate a crime scene. In the remake, you have to find a particularly small piece of evidence by clicking on a suspicious piece of ground, and then scroll around a zoomed-in view until you find something suspicious. In the original, it was just a straight-up pixel hunt. That’s exactly the sort of change the game needed.
Tim: Another good example is that 20th Anniversary Edition is a bit more guided, and I really don’t mean that in a bad way. In the original you could wander around for ages, never quite being sure what you had to do to end the day, with very few particularly clear goals barring “progress the case.” The remake cuts down on the number of locations you can visit until you actually need to visit them, which does a lot to stop you finding puzzles you can’t (and aren’t meant to) solve just yet. Gabriel’s journal provides some general guidance as to what you’re meant to be doing, too.
“Streamlined” and “guided” are dirty words in this industry, but in this case I’d argue it’s absolutely a positive. In the original version of Gabriel Knight, the first day had another boatload of locations you could visit, even though there was nothing you could really do at any of them. The remake doesn’t unlock them until you actually have a concrete, sensible reason to go there. There is perhaps one little bit of weirdness in terms of “Gabriel cannot visit the pub at which he is apparently a regular until he sees something about the pub in an unrelated inventory item” but I consider that significantly better than the alternative.
Peter: Hah, I was going to mention that one if you didn’t. It’s especially silly because the pub guy has placed an advert for his services, but he’s not even actually offering those services any more. Until you sort out a problem for him, anyway. That could’ve been handled a lot better.
Peter: Cutting down on the unnecessary wandering is definitely a good thing in general, though. As someone playing the game for the first time, it doesn’t (aside from the above) feel particularly forced. On certain days, museums and shops or whatever just happen to be closed. It’s a neat, perfectly reasonable way of saying to the player “nah, you don’t need to do anything over here today.” Likewise with the locations that don’t turn up until you actually need them.
Tim: If there’s one thing I’m really glad they didn’t change, it’s the music. It’s basically the same score but redone, and the music is great.
Peter: I love pretty much every single track in this game, except the Police Station one. That feels a bit too literal with its police whistle accompaniments. But the menu theme, the intro, the book shop track, Gedde estate (which does indeed look great in this remake) and all the rest are marvellous. I suspect it’ll resonate hardest with people who grew up in that 90s adventure game period (which includes me, I just missed Gabriel Knight somehow) but I think everybody will appreciate it.
Tim: The menu theme still gives me chills, as do a few other tracks. I utterly, utterly love the bookstore theme (which I tend to think of as “Gabriel’s Theme”) but it’s a little silly going into specifics because the majority of the music is fantastic anyway. As I said – it’s pretty much just like it was before, only recorded to a significantly higher quality and with a few tweaks. There are a few tracks which I think have basically been completely replaced, and I do miss them, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.
Peter: Since we’re in an audio type area here, let’s address something important. Voices. Even I know that the original game had Tim Curry (as Gabriel), Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn and Jim Cummings. There was no way the remake budget was going to stretch to bring those people back to re-record long lost over-compressed lines, and however you dress it up that’s a huge loss.
Tim: And Leah Remini! And (the sadly departed) Efrem Zimbalist Jr.! And… oh, look, it’s just a game with a staggering cast.
I think they do a pretty exceptional job of covering the gaps. I’m not sure who’s voicing Gabriel, but he’s got (to my untuned British ears) some kind of Elvis-by-way-of-a-True-Blood-vampire New Orleans drawl down. Bigby Wolf from Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us is manning the police station desk in a tremendously sarcastic manner, and Dave Fennoy does a brilliant Dr. John. Grace and Gabriel have a pretty good chemistry for the sibling-like sparring they get into too.
Tim: I’d actually agree. While the original cast will always be the “proper” cast to me, the new lot grew on me pretty quickly. For the most part I think the original cast did a better job – Leah Remini managed Grace so perfectly that it’s pretty much impossible to match her – but the 20th Anniversary Edition cast are still really, really good. There are occasional lines that I think emphasise the wrong thing, or need more or less sarcasm, or whatever, but… well, I think that’s just because I know the original so well. I doubt most people will really notice. I do really miss Leah Remini as Grace, if only because I think she completely nailed the snide-but-caring nature of the character, but the replacement does a solid job. The back-and-forth verbal antagonism between Grace and Gabriel has always been my favourite thing about the script, though, so any adjustments to that were always going to make me go “Hmm.”
Peter: While on the topic of characters, the game does well to keep Gabriel just the right side of prick-dom. He’s mostly a jerk, but manages enough moments of self-awareness and bravado to, I think, keep the player sympathetic. As much as he denies it, the game’s about his growth and accepting responsibility for his fate.
Tim: And it works! At the beginning of the game, he’s… well, to put it bluntly, he’s an arsehole, but he’s a really likeable arsehole. Then he grows, a lot, over the course of the game, but he’s still recognisable as an arsehole right down to the very final lines of the game.
It says wonders for the script and voice acting that he is actually likeable, I think. If either of those were just a little off then the balance between him being likeable and him just being an outright dick would fall apart, and it holds up well in the remake.
Peter: I’m not totally sold on the main romantic relationship in the game. Gabriel basically just pesters her into liking him. There is a strong ‘destiny demands this’ dimension to it though, which you could certainly argue acts as enough explanation.
Tim: Yeah, a lot of that is “it’s fate, and she feels the same way from the start but she’s fighting it.” I know I’m still going on about the voice acting (and I really do like the new cast, honestly!) but that was one of the other areas where the original shone, and it was one of the primary things I was really worried about with the remake. In text, a lot of the dialogue between Gabriel and his romantic interest can just sound insane and stalker-ish, but in the original the voice delivery was spot on. There was an undercurrent of tension between both of them, and… look, it was just really good. It was pretty clear from early on that there was some sort of attraction between them and that it was being unsuccessfully fought against, and that was basically all in the subtext of the voice acting. I was really worried the remake would screw that up, because Tim Curry and Leilani Jones aren’t exactly an easy pair to follow.
But again, the remake actually manages it just fine. Some of the subtext isn’t quite there, but I never really thought it was a problem. It worked perfectly well. It was perhaps a little more eyebrow-raising than the original, but if you can get over the sudden leap between “never talk to me again” and “okay, I’m coming over” that happens in the first few in-game days, the rest of it all seems pretty natural.
Tim: Now: for all that I’ve said “aha, but the original did it better because X” I would honestly recommend everyone with even a passing interest play the remake. Part of this is because if it sells well then we’ll hopefully see more Gabriel Knight games in the future, and that’s the sort of future I want to be a part of, but I also genuinely think it’s a really good remake.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is a classic, but 20th Anniversary Edition does a fantastic job of updating it for modern computers and removing a lot of the irritations and inconveniences, and the raw game itself is still superb. This really is a slice of the 90s adventure golden age that’s been transported into the present, and I suspect it’ll be the best “proper” point-and-click adventure I’ll play all year.
Then again, I know the original, and for me this is like some sort of magical pseudo-nostalgia trip into an alternate reality where Gabriel Knight first came out in 2014. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t swept away by the joy of playing this game again, because I was. So I want to know what you think, Peter. How was it for you, as a first-time player? How were the puzzles? How was the story? Does it all actually hold up and is it still one of the best adventures there is, or am I blinded by the past? And, perhaps most importantly, would you recommend it to the general public?
Peter: I kind of have two impressions in one, and I’m finding it hard to reconcile them. Playing through this adventure for the first time, I think it’s justifiably remembered as a classic. The New Orleans setting with paranormal overtones almost as oppressive as the area’s humidity is terrific, and another example of how adventure games were (and are) capable of really pushing the boundaries when it comes to theme and location. I can’t think of many other games based in New Orleans, or those which treat voodoo seriously, at least.
Tim: I want to briefly interrupt you to agree that the oppressive atmosphere is unbelievably well done. It all starts of feeling safe and normal, and then as you start uncovering the truth, the exact same locations start to feel really menacing despite not really physically changing at all. It’s one of my favourite things about the game.
Peter: The puzzles have evidently been improved in some areas (except for the rubbish new ones,) and apart from an irritating fascination with clock spokes they felt quite well structured around Gabriel’s general investigations. I’m not necessarily the best judge of this either, since at this point I’m fairly well attuned to adventure game logic. There’s a Catholic lady who won’t let me inside her house and I have a random black shirt in my inventory? I know where this is going!
Writing and voice acting are pretty great in this remake too. It’s the whole adventure package: setting, theme, puzzles, the lot.
Peter: As a remake though, I’m not quite so blown away. I realise a lot of this may come down to issues of budget, but while I’m impressed with a lot of the art work (the static backgrounds are generally good,) some parts do look a bit cheap. Jackson Square is pretty rough-looking, and isn’t aided by the somewhat odd perspective. Again, the animations for character movement are pretty dodgy at times as well. Puzzles and pacing have been improved in some areas, but in others make no sense (the pub bit) or are really poor additions (really now, tile puzzles?) I think the presentation of the archive and concept materials could’ve been better too, they’re often too small to really get a proper look at.
The benefit of having a more easily accessible version of Gabriel Knight to play means this is all fairly tolerable, but some of the remake aspects don’t match the quality of the original piece.
Tim: I think we’re in relative agreement, but just to check: some aspects of the remake aren’t as good as we’d like, but the game itself still holds up and should be played by pretty much anyone with an interest in adventures?
Peter: Yes, absolutely. The original isn’t exactly impossible to get running on modern machines, but I’m well aware that a lot of people won’t even consider doing that. Having a version of Gabriel Knight available which just works like a normal, modern digital game and smooths over some of the more frustrating examples of traditional adventure game puzzling is very welcome. If you’re like me and somehow missed it the first time around, there’s now a straightforward way to put that right. And you should.