Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned Review

It's been a while since a major U.S. publisher has released a traditional adventure game, so it's not surprising that a lot of gamers have been awaiting Jane Jensen's latest installment of the Gabriel Knight series. Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned may not live up to all of the hype and it does have a few noticeable flaws, but it is still a quality game worth serious consideration.

GK3 begins when Gabriel is hired by James Stewart, Prince of Albany, to protect James's infant son from the "night visitors" that have been troubling the Stewarts for years. When the child is taken in the middle of the night under his watch, Gabriel follows the kidnappers and ends up in the French town of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Rennes-le-Chateau is home to a real-life mystery as well. While renovating his church in 1891, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Chateau discovered documents containing hidden messages. After finding these documents and possibly reporting his findings to members of secret groups, the formerly poor priest Sauniere was able to spend large amounts of money on his church. Sauniere died without revealing what he found in the documents or where his wealth came from.

Although Gabriel is primarily interested in finding Prince James's son, other guests of the local hotel are part of a tour group out to solve the mystery of Sauniere's treasure. When Gabriel's assistant Grace arrives, the two soon discover that the kidnapping and the treasure are part of a much larger mystery involving the region's long history of unusual activity.

The game itself is divided into a series of time blocks; Gabriel or Grace must solve certain puzzles or witness certain actions to progress to the next block. Within each time block, the suspects also go about their own actions, and watching the suspects, collecting fingerprints, and performing other detective work is a key part of the game. In some cases, Gabriel and Grace must pick up clues to proceed to the next time block, but there are a lot of optional actions that serve to enrich the story.

A riddle known as "Le Serpent Rouge" also plays an important part later in the game. After Grace finds the riddle in the middle of the game, she must find the hidden meaning in its verses and in other clues from the Rennes-le-Chateau area to locate the lost treasure. Grace's portable computer, SIDNEY, helps to decipher the clues and provides a significant database of historical information, which you can use both to solve "Le Serpent Rouge" and to learn more about some of the key figures in the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery. In-game hints also provide some assistance with the riddles but not with other puzzles.

With all the clue gathering and riddle solving, there are relatively very few traditional adventure game puzzles of the sort that have you use objects on each other or on the characters. A lot of the game centers around detective work, where the few objects that you have to use (like the fingerprinting kit) all have very obvious uses. Instead, the game is mainly about solving the riddles and watching the story and mystery unfold.

The amount of effort that went into researching the mystery and developing the story is quite impressive. Throughout the game, there are people to talk to, conversations to overhear, information to research, and clues to collect. Not all of these actions fit in with the mystery directly, but they do help to creating a dynamic and often compelling game world.

GK3's strong story is of course not unique to adventure games, but it is nice to see again in a genre whose games have recently relied more frequently on stringing together seemingly unrelated puzzles. The story is sometimes awkwardly paced -- in particular, it starts out too slowly, although it does tend to pick up once it turns to the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery with Grace's arrival. In spite of its problems, I would still say that the story is a good one, although I hesitate to reveal too much more about it.

On the other hand, it is often too difficult to control the flow of the story. Time blocks generally consist of a few key actions that you must perform, plus many more additional actions. It's too easy to trigger the end of the time block accidentally, causing you to miss the rest of the time block and forcing you to restore if you want to see all there is to see. Fortunately, there are no true dead ends, but certain details later in the game will be omitted if you miss some optional actions, so some players may feel compelled to save and restore to get the full story.

Conversely, not all of requirements for a time block are clear from the story alone, or when they are, the only clues may have been given in an earlier time block. If the story didn't provide any clues (or you missed them earlier), you must explore randomly until you find the right things to do or ask the game itself to point you to the locations of any remaining critical actions.

Not all of the "critical" actions even have much of an impact on the overall story, or at least, they do not immediately seem relevant to the story. As a result, you're not always solving puzzles in the traditional sense -- you're just doing things that the developer wanted you to do. Certainly, the time block format is preferable to a real-time format that would allow you to miss critical clues or actions, and the time blocks work some of the time, but portions of the game still feel forced.

Unlike most third-person action/adventures, GK3 gives you complete control over the camera, and you can even move your character (Grace or Gabriel) without moving the camera. Using a combination of the mouse and keyboard, you can change both the direction and location of the camera anywhere within the game world, although the controls can take a bit of getting used to. Cinematic sequences also are seen with a default view. There are a few preset angles in each room, but selecting these is often more difficult than moving the camera manually.

Locations (even outdoor locations) are often subdivided into several small rooms, and each of these rooms are loaded separately. But in spite of the use of small rooms, frame rates can be slow. My Pentium-II/233 in software mode dropped to a few frames per second in many locations, even with minimal detail and resolution. Even a Pentium-III/600 with a TNT2 video card slowed down slightly in one or two places with the detail turned all the way up.

The graphics themselves are decent but not overly impressive. While some of the textures in a few locations are quite nice, many others are average at best. Character's heads are reasonably detailed, but the bodies are less detailed. Bits of sky often show up in between texture intersections, although I noticed no truly serious graphical problems. Voice acting is uneven: Tim Curry's Gabriel is often too smug for his own good, but Grace is much more well-acted.

The puzzles also are a mixed bag. The few object-based puzzles early in the game feel a bit contrived, both in terms of their solutions and their place in the story. While the riddles in "Le Serpent Rouge" are fair and occasionally challenging, you sometimes have to go to unreasonable lengths before you can provide the solution. For example, to draw a circle on a treasure map, you first need to scan a document without any direct relationship to the problem at hand to find a hidden shape. Picking a circle from a list of available shapes and applying it to the map directly would have been much easier and less artificial, especially since SIDNEY already seems unrealistically powerful.

Gabriel Knight 3's main appeal is that it provides an often immersive game world with a good, but not great, story. Unfortunately, some puzzles are weak and artificial, although on-line hints can keep you from getting too stuck if you don't mind resorting to them. Some die-hard adventure fans may prefer a more traditional format, but a greater focus on investigating than on the usual adventure puzzle solving may also appeal to many who've shied away from traditional adventures.

-- Jason Strautman