I haven't played Gabriel Knight 2, so the very first game is the only point of comparison I have for this one. It's probably best that way, though, as the second game was an FMV-fest rather atypical of Sierra games in general and of the first game, and though this one is in 3D it goes back to a more traditional style. Tim Curry also returns to voice Gabriel, and while Mark Hamill and the hot chick from that show where she's married to the fat UPS guy are gone as the voices of Mosely and Grace, the replacements are so close you'd likely not know it unless told.

As far as plot goes, the second game might as well have never happened anyway, since it's barely referenced. Gabe is still a womanizing lout, the whole "will they or won't they" angle with Gabe and Grace is still in full swing, and Gabe still basically bumbles through his investigations and sounds like a yahoo when he interviews people. This time out the game is introduced in an included mini graphic novel, wherein Gabe is contacted by Prince James of Scotland to watch over his infant son. Members of his family have suffered attacks in the past that resemble those of vampires and James is afraid the time is ripe for the same thing to happen to his kid. Unfortunately for Gabe, the first night on the job vampires actually do show up, but they snatch the kid up and hop a midnight train. Gabe gets knocked out while investigating the train looking for the kid and wakes up in a small resort village in southern France, where the player jumps in and picks up the investigation.

What's new here is a 3D engine that looks, surprisingly, like Shenmue of all things, though it doesn't really control that way. The game takes place in a series of rendered rooms, and while you click around on stuff with a pointer in typical adventure style, you can also use the arrow keys to scroll all around the area (most of the rooms extend beyond the initial screen borders) and adjust the camera to look at things from all sorts of different angles. It isn't a super-advanced 3D engine, but the backdrops do look very nice. The characters are pretty decent as well, albeit a little stiff and prone to odd movements at odd times (the result mostly of a poorly implemented "fidget" system that has them do idle animations in a loop, which is supposed to make them look more lifelike, but they end up busting out with them at inappropriate times and having the complete opposite effect.) Compared to today's 3D, it's pretty garbagey, but for 1999-2000 it was about as good as could be expected.

Between the 3D engine and the voice acting for every character, however, the game sprawls out to 3 CDs and yet doesn't give you a whole lot of terrain to explore. Not counting the hotel interior, the whole of the town of Rennes le Chateau is composed of about five screens, and there's only a scattered amount of other little incidental areas to visit once Gabe has obtained a rental Harley for himself and can drive about the immediate area. I suspect a lot of gamers never even got that far, however, and the reason for this is highlighted in this much-referenced Old Man Murray review; the very first real puzzle of the game is an exercise in Looney Tunes cartoon logic that might be acceptable in a surreal game like Sam and Max or Monkey Island, but just comes off as incredibly awkward, lame and unfair in a setting like this one.

There's really a number of things weighing the game down, but the puzzles are the main problem. Rather, I should say the lack thereof. The first Gabriel Knight game had a similar structure, in which the first several game days are spent mostly in driving around to all available locations talking to all available people about all available subjects in the conversation tree, without much in the way of real puzzles to solve. The difference is that there were far fewer locations to visit, the progression of events was much more logical and definite, and there was great hand-drawn art to look at and an awesome Robert Holmes soundtrack to keep you entertained while you did so in the first one. Not only that, the atmosphere was superb, and the voodoo material was well integrated and gave the game a fascinating edge. None of that is the case with Gabriel Knight 3. The first two days play out at an absolutely laconic pace, with no tension whatsoever, and really just seem like Gabe and Grace's South France Vacation. The graphics are about as good as can be expected for a 3D engine of the time, but the stiff and awkward character movements likewise kill tension and immersion. Then there's the music, which is not bad, but much more of an ambient background noise style than in the first game, and just is nowhere near as gripping or memorable. Though the voice acting on the whole is solid, Tim Curry seems to be phoning it in for a lot of this one for some reason.

Most of the conversations, unfortunately, are boring, as the supporting characters are by and large no great shakes. Puzzles are extremely rare until Day 2, when Grace is tasked with unravelling a giant riddle on a parchment she comes across. This part should be the meatiest of the game, but it comes off as more frustrating and abstract than anything else, as you wrestle with the non-intuitive SIDNEY computer system to input and analyze clues. SIDNEY also creates a game-crashing bug for Windows XP users in late day 2 and early day 3, which Sierra could never be bothered patching. Their suggested solution on the official website is to delete a codec from your system instead, which is an unacceptable solution for a publisher to offer.

What really belabors the game most is the fact that most of the challenge simply comes from scouring the same areas over and over again, looking for random "trigger" events that advance game time (but quite often have no logical connection to one another, or prior impetus to send you in that direction.) It's sort of like Sierra's earlier Laura Bow titles in that respect, but with more ground to cover, and much more tedious. Much more time is spent doing this than engaging in puzzles or seeing major advances in the story. There's also a more-than-acceptable amount of pixel-hunting present.

The rather tepid story does begin to pick up in Disc 3, but I suspect they ran out of development cycle time or money in the budget, because the game caps off with a bunch of puzzles ripped from Indiana Jones, including a final arcade-esque sequence that is right up there with the hated ones of Sierra yore in being rather clunkily programmed and unweildy. The way the story ultimately wraps up just seems very rushed, somewhat deus-ex-machina, and on the whole fairly ludicrous, and left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly compared to the great ending of the first game.

One final issue with the story is that it covers a lot of the same ground that the Da Vinci Code did, though this is not the fault of Jane Jensen or any of the rest of the staff, seeing as Gabriel Knight 3's commercial release predates that of Da Vinci Code by more than three years. However, if you've read the book/seen the movie and liked it, you'll likely find it all a little too familiar. If you don't care for Da Vinci Code, having these "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" plot elements trotted out again might make you wince a little, though Jensen is a little more interesting and creative in where she goes with them than Dan Brown was (crappy ending aside.)

I loved the first Gabe Knight game and wanted to love this one too. Even coming into it cutting it all the slack in the world, I can't honestly say it's much better than mediocre. There are problems all through it, to be sure, but I wonder if the wretched condition of both the gaming market in general and Sierra On-Line's adventure games division at the time were really the greatest culprits in causing this one to fall far short of it's potential. If you're a Gabe fan and can grab it for a few bucks (or less), it's got enough going for it to be worth a look, I suppose. If you take a pass on it you won't be missing anything great, however, and it certainly comes nowhere near the lofty standard set by the first game.

Links :

SIDNEY bug - Sierra's official fix suggestion
Saved games
Soundtrack - MP3 format

Videos :

Gameplay Video

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