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SummaryA great testimony of a controversial epoch
The GoodGabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was a landmark achievement even for a venerable developer like Sierra: a "serious" adventure in the vein of their own Laura Bow games, it was better scripted, better written, and thick with atmosphere.
From that point of view, The Beast Within is most certainly a worthy sequel. Like the first game, it boasts a suspenseful story adorned by meticulous attention to detail. Werewolves and obscure details about Bavarian kings hardly attracted me when I first heard about the game; I don't always enjoy Wagner's music and I certainly don't like Wagner himself. But Jane Jensen did her homework as a storyteller: she managed to present the quirky melange of "low" mythology and pseudo-historical material in such a way that I couldn't put the game down.
I clearly remember how I started playing the game with a condescending smile, and how I finished it firmly believing in the existence of werewolves. Jane Jensen does it in every Gabriel Knight game: she convinces through her knowledge, through her serious attitude towards what she tells, and by creating a believable natural background for the super-natural elements she is interested in.
The Beast Within is an example of a how a well-crafted game can actually take advantage of the dubious FMV technology with live actors. I must admit I have a weakness for that lost art. The joy of seeing your favorite adventure game being treated like a movie was among the strongest sensations of the time. Even games with handicapped gameplay (like Phantasmagoria) could create a lasting impression because, with the right tools and talent, the resulting atmosphere could be incredibly convincing. Same happens in this game, where the very first scene envelops you in a blood-chilling, yet oddly comforting ambiance of a well-told mystery. Technology here serves art, and both combine to give us a unique experience.
Don't think that The Beast Within consists mainly of sitting through cutscenes. No, there is still plenty of gameplay to find here. Much of the scenery can be interacted with. Objects have detailed descriptions and elicit comments from our heroes. You'll gather evidence, spy on people, read old documents, interrogate suspects, and solve puzzles. There are long conversations, careful examination of clues, and original elements such as a certain change of perspective late in the game. In short, The Beast Within is a solid adventure game that most clearly refuses to be degraded to an "interactive movie".
The BadIt would be, however, wrong to state that the series hasn't lost anything from the transition to FMV technology. For me, the most alarming flaw was the simplification of the interface. I generally think that the "smart cursor" was one of the worst things to happen to adventure games. I understand that the traditionally verbose interface might have possibly diminished the cinematic impact of the game, but there must have been a better way to counter that than reducing all possible actions to a default, generic "interaction".
There are a lot of video sequences, and they play even when you perform the most mundane of tasks (such as picking up an object). I must stress that, personally, I liked that feature and thought it contributed to the immersion into a movie-like experience. But the resulting slow pace is, of course, not something everyone would enjoy. Besides, I'm not sure if the game's already rich and convincing narrative needed more dramatic help from video cutscenes depicting plain, solitary actions. Also, don't expect a good movie where there is just a good game enhanced by special presentation: the direction and the acting here are completely forgettable.