Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within

Developer/Publisher:  Sierra
Year Released:  1995

Review by Gordon Aplin (April, 1996)
gk2.jpgLet me say at the outset that I really enjoyed The Sins of the Fathers -- the first Gabriel Knight story by Jane Jensen. It was without a doubt one of the best graphic adventure games I have played. It had an interesting story, some great puzzles and an interface that allowed you to do lots of different things. When I heard that the second Gabriel Knight mystery was going to feature live actors and full motion video I immediately feared the worst. My fears were compounded when I played Phantasmagoria and discovered lots of video footage but precious little adventuring. Now, having recently finished The Beast Within, I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this game.

As an "interactive movie" The Beast Within is one of the best around and whilst it will appeal to many players, and especially those new to computer games, more traditional adventurers may well find the interaction to be a little too circumscribed. The game takes up six CDs and will install under DOS and Windows. Each CD represents a different chapter alternating neatly between Gabriel and Grace until the final scene when a bit of disk swapping is necessary.

Well crafted story
The story opens some twelve months after the events of the first game and Gabriel is now ensconced in his ancestral castle in Rittersburg, Germany. His new novel is not going well but he is soon distracted by the arrival of a group of people at his front door seeking the assistance of the 'Schattenjager' (Shadow Hunter), and muttering darkly about werewolves and missing people. Almost reluctantly, Gabriel agrees to investigate the strange disappearance/death of a young girl from a small farm on the outskirts of Munich.

Grace begins her research in chapter two and the mystery deepens as she uncovers a link between werewolves and 'mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria -- which Gabriel promptly ignores. Further intriguing plot twists result in the search for a lost Wagnerian Opera -- but to reveal more may spoil your enjoyment so you will just have to play the game to learn how it all ties together. Suffice it to say that this is a very well crafted story intertwining the lives of historical figures with the modern day investigations of Gabriel and Grace.

I enjoyed the Grace chapters a little more than Gabriel's because there seemed to me to be more logical puzzles to be solved and I particularly liked uncovering the historical mystery. Interestingly, Grace is portrayed as a patient, thorough and logical researcher (qualities usually attributed to the male), whereas Gabriel is more intuitive, more instinctive and closer to his animal (usually seen as feminine) nature. This reversal of prescribed roles worked well within the story and, once again, Jane Jensen has shown us that computer game characters can be well defined and even quite complex.

Having said that, however, I did think that Grace's jealousy was out of character and I missed her biting sarcasm from the first game. And Gabriel too, seems a little slow on the uptake. We know he can be self-centred but not learning a word of German after living there for a year is unforgivable. Also, he manages to wander around with a massive clue in his hot little hands (a receipt for the purchase of a gun) whilst not being able to make the intuitive 'leap' and guess that the exclusive club he is investigating might have something to do with hunting.

Whilst on the subject of characterisation, I didn't mind the acting, and after a few early misgivings, I soon became comfortable with Dean Erickson's portrayal of Gabriel. For me, however, Peter Lucas' Von Glower just about stole the show. From a more social perspective it was disappointing that, with the obvious exception of Grace, the few women characters had largely servile roles -- there was even one to serve Gabriel's most basic animal instincts! -- and men held all the powerful positions. Though this may have been intentional to accentuate a central theme which revolves around male bonding and the lust for power.

Video sequences
Still, despite my overall enjoyment of this game I do have a few points to make. First of all, there seems to be much less 'pure' adventuring and fewer puzzles than in the earlier Gabriel Knight mystery. This, of course, is largely due to the inevitable restrictions that the video sequences place on the game and is a problem inherent in this new genre of 'interactive movies'. Obviously, only a limited amount of video footage can be included without blowing it out to twelve or twenty CDs. Which brings me to my next point.

I thought the individual chapter opening and ending movie sequences were excellent in that they enabled the plot to progress, but the video sequences within the game tended to interrupt its flow and I felt much more like an observer rather than a participant. This may be an 'idiosyncratic' view of mine, but I did find that the internal video clips excluded me from the action, so to speak. Not only that, but they also slowed down the gameplay. For just about every object that it is possible to examine a video sequence must be loaded after which Gabriel or Grace step into the frame. Cut to item. Cut back to close-up of character for raised eyebrow or comment. Close video sequence of character stepping out of frame. Return to still scene with the character standing stiffly to attention awaiting further instructions.

Fortunately, you can 'click' through the video sequences you have already seen to speed up the gameplay, however, this can cause problems. For example, I was waiting for an important message and was stuck for quite a while until I realised that the spoken message had been delivered during one of the oft-repeated cut scenes that I had been blithely skipping.

Conversations are similarly acted out in video sequences and these too can be a little laborious at times. Also, there is no on-screen text which may cause problems for players with hearing difficulties and for players whose first language is not English. I certainly had trouble understanding some of what was spoken because of accents and, in particular, Gabriel's drawl.

Smart cursor
The interface continues the trend towards a single cursor which changes when you can interact with a character or item on the screen. This makes the game very easy to get into and simplifies the process of navigating your way through it. However, I find that, as much as anything else, it tends to limit the interaction and restricts the possibility of providing the player with a variety of puzzles to solve. It also allows for unforeseen or unintended actions to occur. For example, you may click on an item just to look at it in order to understand what it is or how it works when suddenly your character promptly steps forward and operates it for you and another 'puzzle' is 'solved'. To be fair, though, this criticism is directed at all such 'smart' cursors and not just at the one in this game.

Inventory and Saves
Unlike, Phantasmagoria, your inventory is not limited to a few slots and you are able to combine certain items to make a more useful one. Both Gabriel and Grace have their own inventories and Gabriel has his trusty tape recorder to keep track of conversations whilst Grace uses her notebook to write down her observations and findings.

Also, I am pleased to report that there is no automatic save. You can save twenty games in a single directory and you can create as many directories as you need.

For an 'interactive movie' The Beast Within does make a genuine attempt to provide adventuring and puzzle elements and, to be honest, the balance is quite good. The last chapter, in particular, is much more like a 'traditional' adventure game in that it is complex and involving. As a sequel, it perhaps lacks the atmosphere and the intricacies of the first Gabriel Knight game and relies too heavily on picture postcard shots to convey a European feel, but overall, as I said earlier, I found myself enjoying the game despite my aversion to the video sequences.

See the Gabriel Knight 2 walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
(min) 486/33, 8MB RAM, 20 MB hard drive space, 2xCD-ROM, SVGA, DOS 5.0 or Win 3.1/Win 95, SVGA, Sound Card DAC required.