"Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within" is an interesting game for many reasons. For one thing, it's one of the first games to incorporate full-motion video, and it does so effectively. Unlike Sierra's other pioneering CD-ROM project, "Phantasmogoria" or Trilobyte's "The 7th Guest," GK2 is still winning over new players today. The reasons are clear: GK2 has all the eyecandy of the other games, plus great characters, good drama, an interesting storyline, and challenging (yet not unsolvable) puzzles.
Jane Jensen's "Gabriel Knight" series is one of those things that you either love or hate. Adventure game enthusiasts are so divided on the topic that some claim the Gabriel Knight series almost single-handedly kept the genre alive through the early 90s, whereas others lament that it's responsible for the genre's demise. At any rate, if you enjoy adventure games, sooner or later you owe it to yourself to at least give this series a chance. I've now played all three games and consider them all masterpieces, even if there are flaws in each.
GK2 picks up where GK1: Sins of the Fathers left off. Gabriel Knight is struggling with a severe case of writer's block in his castle at Rittersburg. Relief comes in the guise of a mob of peasants, who ask the new Schattenjaeger for help with a werewolf problem in Munich. Gabriel relunctantly accepts the mission, and soon gets caught in a web of murder, intrigue, and a unhealthy dose of the supernatural. The official story is that a pair of escaped wolves from the local zoo are responsible for a string of seemingly random murders around Munich. However, Gabriel soon learns that there is something far more dangerous going on than a few unleashed canus canus--and a lot more at stake. Gracie, Gabe's assistant and quasi-love interest from New Orleans, gets involved as well, and soon starts to put together a bizarre tapestry: Ludwig II, the "Black Wolf," Richard Wagner...It's a very rich game.
Of course, the big question here is the production value. Most modern gamers groan or giggle whenever they hear the words "full motion video." Back in 1995, watching any kind of videoclip on your computer was nothing short of amazing, and plenty of folks were willing to purchase and play some pretty rancid games just for the novelty value of full-motion video. Everyone was talking about the marriage of the movie and game industry, and every game developer in the biz was recruiting third--no, fourth--rate actors and film crews to generate "content" which, just because it was new and cool, would push even the crappiest game to the top of the charts. We all know what happened--one suck bomb after another shot up and down the charts, and pretty soon FMV's honeymoon was over. Nobody wanted anything to do with FMV, and now even Cyan goes to great lengths to avoid it. However, I think it's a shame that FMV has such a poor reputation nowadays, and I bet now that we're older and wiser regarding it, it won't be long before we'll see it make a triumphant comeback. After all, Gabriel Knight 2 demonstrates that FMV can be a very effective style.
Okay, now that I've got my obligatory FMV spiel out of the way, let me talk about how it's incorporated into GK2. It's a bit more subtle than the bait-and-switch tactic of full-motion video cutscenes and low-rez play screens. While there are plenty of cut-scenes in GK 2, they are not overly long and at least as entertaining as the average soap opera or made-for-TV movie. The acting ranges from mediocre to pretty good--though, let's face it, no one here is Oscar material (or Emmy material, for that matter). However, let's not be too harsh--the acting is definitely good enough, and never made me cringe. That alone is a big improvement over most games attempting something similar. Some of the best acting is done by Joanne Takahashi, who plays, Gracie, and Peter J. Lucas is superb as Von Glower. I was somewhat disappointed by Dean Erickson's performance as Gabriel Knight. I hate to think that Erickson was the best Sierra could find for this all-important role. Surely there are other lesser-known but more talented actors that could've done a better job.
The rest of the game looks almost as good as the cut scenes. The backgrounds are photorealistic and only a few objects are obviously computer-generated (unfortunately, one of the worst are the wolves, who are terribly fake-looking and even laughable). A few parts of the screen are animated to look more filmic. For instance, when humans are pictured on the screen, they will occasionally shift into a brief clip (such as wiping a counter or shifting a bit). The idea is good, but it still looks rather artificial. Other games of the time (Myst and Rhem) tried to get around this problem by avoiding showing people on the screen except in cut-scenes. The reason is painfully obvious when you watch Gabe or Gracie strut across the screen. They move like those Chinese puppets you see in movies. The developers tried to reduce the problem by putting things in front of the character's legs (such as a subway terminal or low-hanging wall), but I'm not sure if this does much more than draw attention to the problem.
The gameplay is actually rather similar to that of the first game: third person point-and-click. The player clicks on various parts of the screen to have the avatar (Gabe or Gracie, depending on the chapter) move about, collect or manipulate objects, and interact with other characters. It's a fairly intuitive interface that's much more accessible than the rather forbidding interface of the third game in the series. Inventory management is fairly simple; neither Gabe nor Gracie ever collect more than a dozen objects. The explorable areas are also intelligently limited and quite manageable--and also quite interesting. Gracie gets to explore some very famous castles, and Gabe gets to wander about a Bavarian national forest and visit downtown Munich.
The GK games are always divided up into self-contained "chapters." Basically, what this means is that players must complete a set number of tasks before the game will advance to the next chapter. One of the big problems with this setup is that sometimes the tasks seem rather arbitrary, and a player might get easily stuck in a chapter and have to consult a hintbook. Though GK 2 features a "hint" system that helps players zero-in on the last remaining task, sometimes it's just not at all clear. Perhaps you need to re-visit some person and try talking again--occasionally a new piece of dialogue will unexpectedly crop up. I got totally stumped in this game and had to consult a hint site to learn that a fax had arrived that had to be picked up from the post office. How was I supposed to know that? I had several of these "moments" playing GK 2, and they always made me very angry. I hate cheating! There is also a bit of pixel-hunting here, which adds to the general frustration level. Still, I've learned that you should always consult some hints if you've been stuck for more than an hour or so. It's generally always something stupid that's more the developer's fault than the player's.
All in all, though, GK 2 is a fine game that provided my wife and I with many hours of sleuthing enjoyment. While Gabe and Gracie aren't quite as likeable here as they are in the third game, the Baron and his henchmen more than make up for it. Gracie's character starts to come into focus here, and her relationship with Gabe is complicated and authentic. Gabe's character is multi-faceted, and I doubt players will always be sympathetic to his interests. There are plenty of dramatic twists here that really caught me by surprise. Indeed, I was a bit surprised at how much GK 2 pushed the envelope. There are several homo-erotic scenes that are reminiscent of Anne Rice's novels, and I'm surprised that I haven't heard more about them. There's also quite a bit of foul language (the f-bomb is dropped frequently towards the end). I wouldn't recommend this game to a young child, but teens should be fine.
A few minor criticisms aside, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within is an excellent game that is well worth tracking down and playing through. I would strongly recommend consulting this page for some useful patches and fixes if you're trying to run the game under XP.