When 3D engines took over the games industry, adventure games tried to jump on the bandwagon, but usually failed to impress. Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned might not have succeeded in setting the world on fire with its graphics, but it sure did with its storytelling, marking the end of the classic gaming review part of this Halloween special.
Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned (PC)
(USA 1999, developer/publisher: Sierra On-Line (defunct), platform: PC)
Gabriel finds himself in French village Rennes-le-Château after following the abductors of Prince James’ son, a descendant of the House of Stuart, and together with Grace they become entangled in a plot of bloodlines, vampires, and the Holy Grail.
A detective mystery horror (hi)story of epic proportions
If the second game was an epic tale, the third installment is even more complicated. Jane Jensen again shows that with her research (in no small part thanks to Michael Baigent/Richard Leigh/Henry Lincoln’s book Holy Blood, Holy Grail) she’s unmatched in weaving together fact and fiction. This time she touches religion in a big way, leading to some controversial revelations about Christianity. At times the writing seems a bit self-indulgent, sounding more like a history lesson. But that’s what is to be expected from her work, considering that her former games weren’t any different.
It’s a very complicated plot, to be sure, and despite the vampire story and some other elements becoming a bit too much, storytelling is still strong and compared to games like Broken Sword takes itself more seriously and demands the player’s full attention to understand it. This is also because of the many characters which are introduced, each with their own well-written personality, their own agendas. There were interesting characters in the Gabriel Knight series before, but here they are truly memorable. The great thing about them is that revealing their secret backgrounds is part of the gameplay.
Follow the leads and solve the mysterious puzzle
Investigation has always been an integral part of the series, but it’s never been used as originally as here. Despite still being linear, a sense of free exploration is evoked when Gabriel gets on his bike and pursues individual members of a tourist group. With the help of binoculars, one can also see what they’re up to from different vantage points. Depending on the time, certain conversations can be overheard and others missed as well. This adds to replayability and also reality. Unfortunately it takes a while to reach this point with a very slow first chapter that mostly consists of reading museum plaques and doing everything the designer intended. This reliance on triggering events (illustrated hours passing by and a day/night cycle in steps) is the most annoying. Even with an added hint system that shows which locations to visit on the region map, it’s often unclear what to do, with very few clues as to where people are.
The game’s puzzles are much more difficult than in previous entries, but also much more satisfying. Despite some very obscure puzzles (the infamous “use cat hair for a mustache” solution) and later annoying Indiana-Jones-type traps/puzzles with instant deaths, the variety of conundrums is staggeringly high, and it’s also great that one has the freedom to earn extra investigation points in certain cases, being sometimes able to tackle different problems in any order. Finally when one reaches the point of using Grace’s computer system SYDNEY (that can also be used to make fake ID cards or compare fingerprints) to solve the Serpent Rouge puzzle, there’s no doubt that this is one of the best puzzles ever created and never surpassed even today.
A snake puzzle worming its way into your head
While Gabriel tries to get fingerprints and other information that is added to the system’s database, his partner works with cryptic verses of a mysterious scroll which is closely connected to a treasure, supposedly the Holy Grail, hidden in the surrounding area of Rennes-le-Château. This means first understanding what the individual lines refer to, then using a search engine (which is an encyclopedia in and of itself one can spend a lot of time in) to find out more about specific topics, and finally trying to pinpoint exact locations on a map of the region. The latter becomes increasingly crowded with all kinds of geometrical shapes that stem from hidden messages in letters or photos. If this sounds too mathematical, rest assured that it doesn’t require a deep understanding of numbers, but of logic. This puzzle that spans many chapters is so extensive that even its own hint system is added, although it doesn’t take away too much from the satisfaction of figuring out the solutions.
Looks can be deceivingly old, but sounds will never change
When it comes to graphics, the game can’t hide its problems with the 3D engine. Originally planned to be in 2D and then turned all the way around, it becomes apparent that it would have worked much better in its original state. It’s not like a first-person or third-person adventure. One controls both the camera and Gabriel/Grace, i.e. by using the keyboard the camera can move forwards/backwards/sideways, up/down. It’s also possible to choose between various camera positions while pointing and clicking at objects. It’s extremely annoying that characters don’t simply exit a location when clicking on it, but the camera has to be right in front of the next transition, making navigation cumbersome and slow. Looking closely at objects is also fiddly, so it’s more about struggling with camera controls than with puzzles.
The character models and backgrounds don’t fare any better, as they show few animations (except for unintentionally funny facial expressions) and lifeless locations, although the cutscenes work a bit better. Comparing the real places and the in-game ones shows the same attention to detail Jensen’s other games had, but with such a weak engine, some of the atmosphere is lost in translation. Speaking of translation, the voice acting is strong as ever, with Tim Curry reprising the role of Gabriel Knight. Even if his accent (in addition to the French ones) is over the top, it fits the character. So do the other voice actors or actresses, each nationality being captured perfectly. The soundtrack is also excellent, as is to be expected from Robert Holmes who always knows how to choose the appropriate piano or synthesizer tunes for the right situation.
Best story, best puzzles, but best game?
Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned is one of the best adventure games and the highlight of the series. The story has so many twists and turns, incorporates as many facts as it includes genres that it’s amazing it all fits together somehow without breaking the seams of coherence.
But not only does the story require patience and attention, the puzzle design is also (except for some headscratchers) one of the best the genre had and has to offer. Only the graphics engine and controls (which were already outdated when the game was published) in addition to some unnecessary difficult death sequences prevent the game from being perfect. So if ever there was a need for a remake with much improved graphics and completely reworked controls, then this would be it.
As it is, the third and final part of the Gabriel Knight series was a swansong for Sierra and showed Jane Jensen at the height of her storytelling skills, something which has never been bettered, even by herself after so many years.
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