New Orleans. Just hearing the name conjures up the sounds of sliding steel guitars, blaring brass horns, and the lilting Creole accents of her people. It's a city with a history and a reputation as infamous as it is famous because, if anything, the Big Easy is a city that knows how to let her hair down and party. And it has a darker side, one lurking in the shadowy swamps slithering along its belly with the snakes and crocodiles. It lures people in with promises of lust and money and power and traps them in a web of magic and superstition. Beyond New Orleans' charming facade lies the darker, deadlier world of voodoo, an environment the classic point-and-click adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers isn't afraid to explore.
You play the titular hero, Gabriel Knight, a charming playboy, second hand bookstore owner, and crime novelist, and you're knee deep into the research for your upcoming book. Knight's current project follows the real life "voodoo murders," a rash of grotesque and bizarre killings that have recently taken place and bear at least some superficial links to traditional voodoo practices. Thankfully for Gabriel, his luck as a crime novelist seems to be better than that of a (rarely visited) bookstore proprietor. His best friend just so happens to be Detective Mosely, the homicide detective in charge of the voodoo murders case, and his only employee at the shop, Grace Nakimura, turns out to be a serial researcher.
As you guide Knight on his quest to get to the bottom of the voodoo murders (and, of course, get plenty of great material for the book), you're going to need to talk to everyone, look at everything, pick up whatever you can, and generally push, pull, examine, open and close anything that will let you. Controlling Knight is done with the mouse and switching back and forth between a host of action specific cursors. This can be done by either right-clicking to automatically rotate through the available icons, or by pushing your cursor to the top of the screen where all of the icons can be selected by clicking on them. This is also where you can access your inventory and the control panel that will allow you to adjust your volumes, save, restore, or quit your game.
With your wits about you, and with a little (okay, a lot) of help from your friends, you and Gabriel will be thrust deep into the investigation of the voodoo murders. As the voodoo murders investigation intensifies, mysteries about Gabriel, his past, and his family also begin to surface. Your journey for the truth about both the murders and yourself will have you following a trail of blood, magic, and desire from the streets of the French Quarter to Africa, Germany, and back, and before all is said and done you'll have to make a choice between love and duty.
Analysis: While perhaps not quite as widely known as Larry Laffer, Guybrush Threepwood, or Roger Wilco, Gabriel Knight has earned himself a permanent place as an adventure gaming icon for no shortage of good reasons. While first published in the early 90s, Sins of the Fathers was built with so much quality that it stands up quite well compared to point-and-click adventures coming out today.
The appeal of Sins of the Fathers comes largely from its storytelling. This Gabriel Knight mystery pulls no punches and delivers a gritty crime fantasy thriller that rivals anything you would find on prime time television or on the NYT bestseller's list. It manages to combine effortlessly the mysticism and culture and, yes, sexual allure, of New Orleans, providing a colorful backdrop for a story that is gripping, unnerving, and full of more twists and turns than a country road. Enhancing both the story's credibility and intrigue is the treatment with which the subject of voodoo is given; throughout the course of the mystery you flit back and forth between the fact and folklore of voodoo only to have the lines blurred at every intersection. And throughout all of this, Gabriel's history waits ominously in the shadows, whispering dark portents in obscure German.
Helping deliver the story is a cast that can be described with a phrase we rarely get to use here at JayIsGames: "star-studded." Leah Remini (King of Queens) brings a snappy, bubbling wit to Knight's assistant, Grace. Her sharp delivery pours on the sarcasm at a moment's notice, and yet she is able to let hints of concern and care creep in at just the right moments in just the right amounts. Meanwhile Mark Hamill (Star Wars, Batman: The Animated Series... as if you didn't know) plays the role of bumbling backwoods Detective Mosely with considerable skill. Even Michael Dorn's (Star Trek: TNG... again, as if you didn't know) rendition of the voodoo museum curator gives the character a real and somewhat eerie touch. But Tim Curry's (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue... seriously, if you don't know this stuff, I just, I give up) portrayal of the eponymous Knight drives the performances. As an ensemble, the cast work marvelously together and it is indeed a credit to their abilities that the most intense, eerie, and seductive moments in the game often occur not in any kind of animated cut scene, but instead with the very plain black backdrop of the dialogue sequences.
The imagery of Gabriel Knight is obviously a product of the technology at the time which provides something of a mixed bag. On one hand, the artistic direction through much of Sins of the Fathers is wonderfully imagined and executed astonishingly well. Despite the heavily pixelated limitations, each scene manages to convey depth, personality, and even emotion. The home of Gabriel's grandmother feels warm and inviting, while the attic of the same place is decidedly musty and pregnant with long forgotten secrets. In scene after scene we see the usage of color and composition overcome the limitations of the fairly large, blocky pixels to magnificent effect. The downside is that while the larger picture is easily grasped, fine detail is a different issue entirely and one that can affect gameplay. Because of the relatively low resolution (and further impacted by a cursor that doesn't change or signal hotspots), it can often be difficult to differentiate between insignificant pieces of background and items that are vital to the game's progression.
But don't think that enjoying all of the goodies that Sins of the Fathers will be a cake walk. It won't be. That's because this game is hard. Really hard. In fact, unless someone has already beaten me to the punch, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce into the gaming lexicon the term "Sierra hard," because that is exactly what this game is. Not only do the relatively low resolution graphics work against you, you can also die unexpectedly or trap yourself into a dead end (this is done by failing to get an item or accomplish a task needed for later in the game, and then progressing to a point where said item and/or task is no longer available). Hotspots can be a headache to find, and sometimes entire rooms or scenes can go unnoticed as a result of a lack of visual cues.
Once you have overcome all of this, you still have to come to grips with the fact that the item based puzzles, as is true for many titles in the classic era of adventure gaming, can be insanely difficult. Gabriel Knight ups the ante here by also throwing in puzzles that rely both on timing and situational conditions which can befuddle the old standby of trying everything on everything until something works. Let me just conclude here with the same advice I often give to those embarking on a classic point-and-click adventure for the first time; save early, save often, bring a walkthrough.
Aside from the rather high difficulty, Gabriel Knight has few weaknesses. The interface is far more complex and clunky compared to the norm of more contemporary adventure games, but the inconvenience of having to manually change situational cursors is at least a little bit made up for by the fact that doing so gives you a greater deal of freedom to explore your environment. What I did find particularly disappointing, though, is the musical selection. This is New Orleans, home to some of the best jazz, blues, and soul in the world, and yet the music in Gabriel Knight is often bland, contrived, and amazingly out of place and mood. There are times when the background music is serviceable, but this is overshadowed by tunes that goes as well with the scene at hand as oil does with water. Also, and this is more of a warning than a criticism, there are a few displays of sexist behavior sprinkled throughout the game that might make some feel a little uncomfortable. Nothing grotesque, per se, but some off color comments with little to no social commentary can either be chalked up to realism for the time, or be mildly offensive.
In all honesty, there are definitely a few aspects about Sins of the Fathers that may turn off some gamers, whether it's the low resolution graphics, the extreme difficulty, or even just a control scheme that might seem outdated and sluggish compared to modern point-and-click adventure games. But the truth is that there is far more to love about Gabriel and his dark adventures than there is to walk away from. What you will find is a game that has earned an unimpeachable place among the classics of adventure gaming, one with fiendishly difficult puzzles, a brilliantly written and acted script, and gorgeously realized locales. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers offers to those willing to brave its precarious pitfalls a thrilling and rewarding experience as well as a gripping story that could arguably be the best in Sierra's considerable stable, and that most definitely is saying something.
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