It took me almost 20 years to finish Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.
I first caught wind of the game some time after its release in 1996, when my cousin Matthew had finished it and let me borrow it. This is how I played a lot of games in those days, since my parents were convinced that I was going to “grow out” of playing video games (my dad once said to me, “I stopped smoking when I was 20; when are you going to stop playing video games?”) and only occasionally indulged my habit. Once I had a job and my own spending money, I didn’t need said indulgence, but that was still a couple of years away when I borrowed The Beast Within (its full title is technically The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, but I’ll stick with its abbreviated title here).
The Beast Within tells the continuing story of Gabriel Knight, a bumbling cad of a fiction author who manages to get himself wrapped up in a series of grisly murders in New Orleans in the first game. In the wake of that game’s events, he writes a “novel” about the ordeal which turns into a bestseller, moves to a crumbling castle in Germany owned by his family (which it turns out is a long line of Schattenjägers, or shadow hunters–basically occult detectives) and starts on renovation and a new novel. Soon he gets wrapped up in a new case potentially involving werewolves, and when he writes his partner/research assistant/not-really-love-interest Grace about it, she hops on a plane from New Orleans to Germany to help, despite his halfhearted attempt to keep her out of it. The game alternates chapters between Gabriel, hunting for clues in the present, and Grace, digging into Gabriel’s family history and its connection to the German monarchy to find a connection to the past.
As a teenager, there were a lot of intriguing things about the game, starting with its box art and its six-CD length. The length was a result of filming the game’s cutscenes and interstitials and compressing them (poorly) into full-motion video (FMV), which was still seen as the wave of the future at the time. Actually playing the game was made more tedious by the constant transition to video whenever your characters did just about anything, but it contributed to the feeling of “playing a movie” at the time, and the attention to detail still feels admirable all these years later.
Unfortunately, one side-effect of the aforementioned poor compression is that the video itself now looks like a smeary mess, especially when viewed in “big movie” mode. The smaller movies look crisper, but it’s much more difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, especially when Gabriel or Grace interact with the many small objects you’ll have to find and click on. In the end, I played/watched the game in big movie mode just to get a better sense of what was happening, even with its trade-offs. It may seem weird that 3900MB of video (give or take the game’s other assets, since the game isn’t solely presented as FMV) would look like such a mess, but we take for granted that compressible video is essentially a solved problem in 2015.
The other intriguing thing about the game was its Mature rating by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. My teenage mind ran wild creating reasons why the game would have the equivalent of an R rating, and Matthew was coy about what exactly the explicit content entailed, but having finally finished the game, I do think that the game earns its rating, but only in a cheesy B-movie kind of way. There are a few swears, some late-game violence and the kind of implied sex scene you’d see during the height of Production Code Hollywood, but nothing too salacious. Had I gotten to any of that as a teenager, I would’ve likely been disappointed.
But here’s the thing about The Beast Within: if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a point-and-click adventure game, and while walkthroughs existed even when I first borrowed it, they were much more difficult to find than they are today, and I was shackled by a dial-up internet connection that made finding anything on the internet a chore. As a result, I blundered my way through the game’s early chapters (adventure games always start easy and then ramp up in difficulty as you solve the game’s early puzzles), but got severely stuck in the game’s fourth chapter, where you have to do “research” as Grace by clicking on everything you can find at a series of castles and libraries. Then, when you inevitably miss one tiny clickable zone, you have to go back and retrace your steps to find them all before you can progress. I hit a brick wall and put the game aside.
I returned to it at some point during my later teenage years, because once Matthew was done with games and I “borrowed” them, I tended to not have to give them back unless he wanted to replay them or explicitly remembered that he wanted them back (which was not often). Since I’d played the game’s early chapters already, I fairly quickly made my way back to the game’s tedious fourth chapter and this time managed to find all of the things I was supposed to and progressed to the game’s fifth chapter. Here I hit a fresh brick wall when I discovered that it was possible to die (in hilariously grisly fashion) at the end of the game’s fifth chapter. Once again, I moved on.
This week, I decided to finish the game once and for all. It’s now available on GOG.com, and it’s telling that the compressed download is only 2.4GB. Rose-tinted glasses quickly caught up to reality when I realized just how macroblocked the video looks to 2015 eyes. Nonetheless, I was going to finish this stupid game once and for all. I remembered a lot of the game’s early puzzles, and breezed through a majority of the game’s first couple of chapters with no problem at all. I even kind of reflexively remembered one of the game’s more bizarre puzzles from the third chapter involving a woodpecker clock and a locked door (if you’ve ever replayed an adventure game, you probably know this feeling of “I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, but it seems right for some reason”). I even made it all the way through the dreaded tedium of the fourth chapter… and then the game locked up.
For a few minutes, I frantically clicked everywhere on the screen, alt-tabbed out of and back into the game, and did everything I could think of to make it progress forward. Nothing. Even worse, I hadn’t saved the game since midway through chapter 3, so I had a lot of re-re-replaying to do. I eventually resigned myself to my fate, restarting the game and saving obsessively from there on out. I ran into one other show-stopping lockup, but other than that it was smooth sailing from there. The game just hates me and wanted to throw one more curveball before allowing me to finally complete it.
And complete it I did! I leaned on a walkthrough pretty heavily for the game’s last couple of chapters, but I did so more in the interest of time than anything. Especially once I lost a chapter-and-a-half’s worth of progress, I was determined to just plow through to the end. I started skipping a lot of the interstitial videos, though I did watch every bit of the game’s main plot, including a bizarre but surprisingly-well-staged opera scene near the end of the game’s final chapter. The endgame is the only time when I really, truly needed the walkthrough, because the game’s final task is timed and involves a mix of timed navigation and puzzle solving that I just wasn’t going to solve on my own.
The game’s ending was relatively satisfying, but after all the time I’d invested in fits and spurts over the past two decades, it felt pretty abrupt. I read later that the game was supposed to be eight chapters instead of the final game’s six, and that budget constraints caused some last-minute cutting that made the game’s final chapter or so feel rushed. I briefly entertained the idea of moving on to the series’ third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, but then I read this description of one of the game’s early puzzles, and decided against it for now.