The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery

One of my biggest pop culture fears is that something I cherished when I was younger will not hold up as an adult (which is why I will not rewatch “Punky Brewster” or “Rescue Rangers”). Some heartaches are better avoided.

But then again, sometimes the call of nostalgia is so strong it will not be denied, so I found myself playing (and tweeting about) my favorite computer game from my younger days, “The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery,” or simply Gabriel Knight 2.

I’ve had this game for a long time, I’ve played it a lot over the years, but this is my first play through since leaving college, and it’s still as amazing as I remember. Truthfully, it’s even better.

“The Beast Within” is the sequel to “Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers,” and the game picks up a few months after the first game ended. Gabriel (played by Dean Erickson) has moved into his family’s castle in Bavaria and slowly but surely is accepting that he is the Schattenjger (Shadow Hunter), called upon to rid of the world of supernatural evil.

And what do you know, with a knock on the door, Gabriel gets his next case; a little girl was murdered by a wolf and her parents claim it was a werewolf. Just like that, Gabriel finds himself investigating a murder that will tax all his wits and charm.

But he won’t be alone. Sick of being left behind, his researcher from the first game, Grace Nakimura (Joanne Takahashi), books a flight to Germany and reaches the castle just after Gabriel’s departure. Grace is the stubborn sort, and soon she’s finding all sorts of clues to the mystery surrounding Gabriel’s case (a mystery which includes Richard Wagner, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and all sorts of historical goings-on…and werewolves!).

As the player, you alternate between Gabriel and Grace, researching and talking to various people surrounding the case and writing letters to each other, sharing (or not sharing) the information they uncover.

Now that the normal stuff is out of the way, here’s why “The Beast Within” is the best game ever (did I forget to mention that earlier? Oops.)

For starters, GK2 is less a game and more like an interactive novel.

During the game, the player is tethered to Gabriel or Grace and is forced to get them to interact with various objects by pointing and clicking, standard computer game stuff. A cursor lights up, we click and then, thanks to the game’s Full Motion Video, we see what Grace does with this book, or what Gabriel does with this piece of evidence.

But it doesn’t stop there. Not only do we move Gabriel and Grace along their story, we also get inside their heads. We get to hear Grace’s sarcastic comments about Gerde or the Smiths, and we get to hear Gabriel’s misgivings about his reckless investigation procedures.
Full Motion Video is by no means a perfect medium (I really didn’t need to see Gabriel get into his car every time we went to Munich), but I can see why it became all the rage back in the ’90s; it helps suck you into the story the same way a really good book makes you stay up reading long past your bedtime. By just by reading a book, you become a part of the story, and GK2 makes it happen just be showing actors responding to your commands.

Of course, all that would mean nothing if the story wasn’t any good (something a lot of FMV games failed to consider).

Do you remember the last time you read a really good mystery novel? Maybe you figured it out before the detective, maybe you just went along for the ride, but either way, when you got to the end, you realized how every piece fit together in the overall story. Even casual lines or clues that didn’t seem to make sense (“There are two wolves missing.”) all become clear.

GK2 is exactly like that. For the first time playing this game, I really saw just what a tight a mystery writer and designer Jane Jensen has crafted. Every piece of dialogue, every clue, every item you pick up means something, will do something, even if you can’t put it together right away.  

Lately, I’ve found a lot of the games I play have this breakneck pace to them, mainly because I want to keep stabbing and/or shooting things, but it’s downright refreshing to play a game where the storyline keeps me that enthralled. I can freely admit that Chapter 1 is my least favorite, but once you get into the meat of the story and the investigation, this is a game that will not let up.

It sucks you in because “The Beast Within” is not just a murder investigation game; it’s the story of two characters being tested and forced to grow when they’d probably rather stay the same. The story is just as much about the growth of both Gabriel and Grace and their “dark night of the soul” as it is a murder mystery. I can’t imagine the game would have been any good with the solid character study to go with it.

Which brings me to the game’s secret weapon, the last piece of the awesomeness puzzle: the acting.

If you have read anything about this game, you probably heard that Peter Lucas as Baron von Glower steals the show; if so, you heard correctly.

Von Glower is the mysterious leader of the hunting club Gabriel discovers in his investigations, and Lucas hits every note on making this character exceptional. He’s a charming, charismatic, sensual man who takes Gabriel under his wing (much to the consternation of his current favorite, Baron von Zell). I don’t want to spoil too much, but you will not be disappointed with this character.

Lucas might be the MVP of the cast, but really, there is not a dud among them. Erickson and Takahashi are the forefront of the adventure scenes and they pull it off. Grace begins the game pretty unlikable, and Gabriel can come off as too much of a goofball, but you can see the time and care put into the performances. And both of them nail the heavy emotional scenes, giving the journey I talked about up top that extra something that elevates the game from good to great.

Really, every performance works, even the characters that don’t have names, like the bitchy museum curator or the cuckoo clock salesman (yes, you will buy a cuckoo clock. It’s that kind of game).

I could probably talk about all the characters I liked and/or loved in this game, but really, this review is long enough already. So here’s a short rundown of some figures to keep an eye out for; bitchy Xaver; the eccentric (but charming) Smiths; flirty Georg; the hunt club members (especially when they start talking about each other); boyish but energetic bergrau; domineering but approachable Leber; and gentle Gerde. This list could be a lot longer but I’ll stop here.

So many pieces come together to make a single video game, it can feel like a miracle that one is just good. But GK2 is more than that; it is extraordinary. It combines all the best elements of gaming at its point in history and created a game unlike any other.

FMV was there and gone in a flash, and with it went the ‘novel’ approach to videogame making. I can’t think of another game that I’ve loved that really puts the player in the head of the character to this extent, and the emotional connection you get out of it pays off in droves with an absolute perfect ending.

I don’t use the “P” word lightly. In my life, I have three things I apply it to: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” final shot, and “Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within.”

Beware of the black wolf, but don’t be afraid to dive into this mystery. You won’t be disappointed.

Stray thoughts

  • It would probably take me too long to research this, but has a game’s female protagonist ever been this frumpy? Grace really does dress like a real, unfashionable person, and it’s just awesome.
  • The same somewhat goes for the rest of the cast too; maybe it’s the FMV again, but everyone looks normal. It really gives the game the realistic touch I have to assume they were shooting for.
  • If you do want to play the game, there are cheap copies available in the usual places (Amazon, Ebay, etc.). Just make sure you get all six discs (and have a good walkthrough available; some puzzles can be taxing).
  • Once you buy the game, you can play it on a PC with a patch you can download here. I played the game on my Windows 7 laptop and didn’t have any issues (with the game or with any bugs).