Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers - 20th Anniversary Edition opens on a quiet New Orleans street in the French Quarter. I mean, it's actually Bourbon Street which in real life is anything but quiet, but here in the game it's sleepy in the early morning fog.
The sun rises, and a newspaper boy bikes past. You can tell this game came out twenty years ago because people still get newspapers. He tosses that rag, the New Orleans Times, onto a doorstep and pedals off. Apparently only one house on this street cares about reading the paper.
As he speeds off, Gabriel Knight's I-don't-get-paid-enough-to-deal-with-you employee Grace shows up to unlock the bookstore for the day. It's a lovely little scene.
You'd never guess you're about to uncover a vast voodoo conspiracy.
Adding new sins to the pile
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition actually arrives on the 21st anniversary of the classic Sierra adventure title Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, which catapulted both its titular main character and writer/director Jane Jensen to fame.
If you missed this series the first go-round, Gabriel Knight is your everyday antique bookseller-turned-monster hunter who somehow gets involved solving a series of voodoo-themed murders in New Orleans. At the time of its initial release, Sins of the Fathers garnered acclaim for its adult-themed story, well-crafted characters, and moody visuals.
How does it hold up two decades later? Better than expected, really. The story and dialogue aren't anything special nowadays, but they're also not outright bad which is more than you can say of some other 90s games. In fact, I'd say that the dialogue and pacing in Sins of the Fathers is leagues above Jane Jensen's game from earlier this year, the dreadful Moebius: Empire Rising.
But the main problem with this remake is that it feels unnecessary. That's really a testament to the quality of the original game. There aren't many titles from 1994 that you could remake and have the updated version feel superfluous, but here we are.
The big selling point of this 20th Anniversary Edition is undoubtedly the art. All of the game's original environments, from Jackson Square to Schloss Ritter, have been redone in a hand-painted style that manages to up-rez everything while still staying semi-faithful to the original game. Some of these environments are exquisite, with Gabriel's bookstore in particular taking full advantage of the increase in screen real estate.
There's a side benefit to this from a gameplay perspective in that it removes the original game's infuriating pixel-hunting aspects, and nobody will cry about that. You can also hold down the spacebar to reveal every hotspot on the screen, which helps if you're still missing something.
What 20th Anniversary Edition gains in visual fidelity, however, it loses in character. I'm hardly one to defend pixel art, but the pixel art in the original Sins of the Fathers was so damn good that this super-polished update feels less like an improvement and more like a lateral move.
It doesn't help that the 3D models are broken. The game is rife with times when the 3D models seem to float above the 2D backgrounds instead of resting in them--it's not something that's easy to show in a screenshot, but it's incredibly obvious in motion. Characters also, like in Jensen's Moebius, walk like there's a 2x4 attached to their back.
All of the voice acting has been redone, and like the artwork this is at best a lateral move rather than an improvement. The original Sins of the Fathers was made at that time when, for whatever reason, a ton of B-list Hollywooders wanted in on game voice acting. As such you had Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn, and Leah Remini in the main cast.
The remake disposes with all that voicework and replaces it with a less star-studded cast. Again, it's not bad. It's also not better. It's just different, and longtime fans will undoubtedly miss the old voices. Gabriel's voice in particular takes some getting used to. While Tim Curry's performance was uneven, the new Gabriel Knight's voice sounds almost like a parody of itself at times and some of the more emotional moments come off weak right when they most need to sell the character.
Another oddity: All of the dialogue is apparently timed to the backgrounds, so when you click to skip past a line the entire background also fast-forwards. It's a small issue but incredibly distracting, especially in the foggier environments. Skipping lines also sometimes triggers overlapping dialogue, typically when you skip a line that's less than five words, causing you to miss the next bit of the conversation. This can be a nightmare considering there's no conversation log and many puzzles rely on innate knowledge of what characters said.
And then we come to the puzzles. Good lord, the puzzles. This is a 1990s Sierra title through and through, meaning the puzzles alternate between stupidly easy and "Just go look at a walkthrough" difficult.
I don't want to ruin any puzzles from Sins of the Fathers, on the off-chance you haven't played it yet, so instead I invite you to read about the infamous Cat Mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 if you don't know what's meant by "Sierra hard."
Basically, the Gabriel Knight series is incredibly guilty of Adventure Game Logic--the idea that puzzles don't hinge on actual real-world logic but instead task the player with getting inside the mind of the puzzle creator, oftentimes with awful results. Sins of the Fathers is one roadblock after another in the way of the player, and although the remake tries to rectify this by providing the aforementioned hotspot labels and a built-in hint system, the game is still a mess.
There's no way to fix this, per se--I want an unfaithful remake of Sins of the Fathers even less than this faithful one. However, I'd wager most of the people interested in a remake of a 1993 adventure game are here for nostalgia, and those people are just going to replay the original. New fans...well, they're just going to be discouraged by how many walls they encounter.
Finally, there's the last big draw: the bonus content. Sins of the Fathers attempts to woo old fans with what's essentially Bonus Features on a DVD. On each screen you can tap a button and be presented with old concept art, interviews, et cetera.
It's a great idea in theory, but the execution is a mess. I'm not sure why, but instead of letting you access this content from the Main Menu each piece is tied to specific rooms in the game. That means if there's a room you only go to once--say, the Gedde mansion--you have one opportunity to see this content. Forget, and it's inaccessible.
Gabriel Knight's first adventure is absolutely a classic and--if you're into that style of ultra-hard adventure game--a must-play title. However, unless you are deathly allergic to pixel art or vomit whenever you hear Tim Curry there are very few reasons you should seek this remake out at three times the price of the 1993 Sins of the Fathers.
That's a shame, because the work put in here isn't bad. The environments are mostly pretty, and the voice acting and hint system are solid. The original Sins of the Fathers is so strong, however, that it still outclasses this workmanlike remake even two decades after the fact.