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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within

Sequels are tricky things to manage, and that goes as much for games as for books and films. They have to build on the previous story without repeating it, raise the stakes without overblowing it, and deepen the characters and expand the world-building without getting too convoluted.
The Beast Within finds the right balance, though interestingly enough, it does not raise or lower the stakes in any significant way – it merely changes them. If Sins of the Fathers was about righting an ancient wrong, reclaiming ones heritage and wiping out a criminal cartel, then The Beast Within is about saving two souls from damnation and preventing a centuries-old killer from harming more innocent people.
It seems simple enough, and yet the story is just as deep and poignant as its predecessor. Set a year after the events of Sins of the Fathers, Gabriel has taken up residence in his family's ancestral home of Schloss Ritter and assumed the mantle of Schattenjäger (that is, Shadow Hunter). Now all he needs is a case, and so who should appear at the castle door but a gathering of solemn townsfolk, seeking the Schattenjäger's assistance...


In a nearby village on the outskirts of Munich, a little girl has been killed by a wolf – but the father who witnessed the attack is adamant it was no ordinary wolf: its eyes were human. The verdict? Werewolf, which falls under a Shadow Hunter's jurisdiction.
Gabriel promises to investigate, travelling to the Huber farm only to discover there's been a spate of wolf killings in the area, with the deaths blamed on two wolves that have recently gone missing from Munich Zoo.
Back in New Orleans, Grace is attending the bookstore, fielding off questions from her mother, and getting sick of the lack of communication from Gabriel. So when she hears he's on a new case, she's on the next flight to Germany to take up her role as research assistant. Immediately butting heads with Gerde, the castle housekeeper, she begins to look into the subject of werewolves, uncovering a centuries-old mystery surrounding King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the last of the Wittelsbach Kings.
To her surprise, her research reveals not one but two references to a person known as the Black Wolf: first in Rittersburg itself in 1750, where a werewolf named Baron Claus von Ralick was captured by the Schattenjäger and duly executed by the village-folk, and then in a letter from a later Schattenjäger in 1864, warning King Ludwig of a dangerous enemy agent in his midst. Is there a link between them? And could there be a connection to Gabriel's case?  
Writer/creator Jane Jensen's technique of weaving real history into the fabric of her own stories was apparent in Sins of the Fathers, what with her use of the Haitian slave revolt, New Orleans culture and frequent mentions of Marie Laveau, but here she goes for broke in her creation of a conspiracy surrounding the (very real) figure of King Ludwig. From the history books she plucks his friendship with Richard Wagner, his deposition from the throne, and his mysterious death alongside the doctor who had been treating him, and interweaves it with a theory that his strange behaviour and eventual demise was down to the curse of werewolfry.
She also finds room for "real" werewolf lore, a lost Wagner opera, and a centuries-old Thanatos Gambit that finally plays out in the present day.
It's awesome, especially when it begins to connect with Gabriel's investigation, which has led him to an exclusive hunting club and its handsome, charismatic founder Friedrich von Glower.
***
SPOILERS AHEAD...
Like the previous game, the story takes place across a week (though with a climax that takes place some months later), but here both Gabriel and Grace are playable characters, each controllable on alternating days. As Gabriel looks into the death of Toni Huber, Grace delves into the mystery of King Ludwig and his connection to the subject of werewolves.
You're bound to have a preference (for instance, I found Grace's research-adventure much more fascinating than Gabriel's investigation) but the two storylines intertwine beautifully, and each become more suspenseful as each day passes.
One thing that can get easily overlooked in discussing The Beast Within is the technology used to bring it to life. The game was produced entirely in full motion video, with real actors playing the characters. Games like this simply don't exist anymore, partly because the technology dated extremely quickly, and partly because it was quite expensive to utilize. These days there's been a resurgence of 8-bit pixel games as nostalgic throwbacks to the early Nineties, but FMV has done its dash. You'll never see anything like this again.
The game also had a limited budget. According to reports, the actors were allowed no more than two takes for any one scene, and many of the green-screen effects have certainly dated poorly. (And don't get me started on the werewolves). More problematically, there are some odd gaps in the story. For instance, one of the most important plot-points, one that's foreshadowed often and early, is that Gabriel must eventually choose between the priestly duties of the Schattenjäger and the hedonistic immortality that Friedrich offers.
According to the game, his very soul is at stake, and yet there's never a moment in which Gabriel definitively makes his choice between good or evil – in fact, Grace keeps Friedrich's crucial letter (and its proposal) from him right up to the end. The novelization compensates for this somewhat, with a scene in which Grace gets clarification on the decision Gabriel wants to make, but it's still a pretty serious oversight in the game itself.
There are rumours of other (less erroneous) portions which were cut. Apparently there were initially eight chapters instead of six, and a sequence that involved the player taking control of King Ludwig to hide the lost opera throughout the rooms of Neuschwanstein Castle, all of which could have fleshed out the story to a greater degree... but though it's easy to think about what might have been, the finished game works perfectly well on its own terms, with a strong beginning, intriguing middle, and satisfying (though somewhat hasty) conclusion.
And there are several nice moments of foreshadowing strewn throughout, which actually go back as far as Sins of the Fathers when Gabriel disguised himself as a wolf to infiltrate the cartel. Here there are plenty of sneaky clues, such as a reference to Little Red Riding Hood (and her foe) when Gabriel confesses to eavesdropping on a conversation and another character drolly remarks: "what big ears you have."
There's also this little snippet from the novelization:
"Gabriel pulled out the chair, suddenly starving. Gunther was apparently used to serving hearty eaters, for he kept bringing the food, and Gabriel ate and ate and ate."
In the greater context of the story, it sends shivers down my spine.
***
You might think that the quality of acting would be below-average in a project such as this, but the performances are consistently good, even from those who have to put on convincing German accents. Dean Erikson and Joanne Takahashi are Gabriel and Grace brought to life (though Erikson understandably tones down Tim Curry's over-the-top voice-work), though it's the work of the supporting cast that really allows the player to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. Any false notes would have brought the whole thing crumbling down – and there aren't any.
Heck, some of the actors actually elevate their roles, which often are just expository. I love the warm geniality of Ernest Habermas, the mayor of Rittersburg who helps Grace in the early stages of her investigation, and the quiet, gentle dignity of Joseph Dallmeier, a Ludwig scholar who clearly (though non-explicitly) relates with his chosen subject due to their shared sexual orientation. Even hapless Xaver is a comedic figure without going overboard, and they all feel as though they have lives outside the gameplay.
As for the members of the hunting club – well, take a look at their profiles on Internet Movie Database and prepare for a surprise. Many of them have long careers as character actors, and they treat their roles here with as much seriousness as they would any other. Special mention has to go to Peter J. Lucas as Friedrich von Glower, since ... look, you guys know I have no predilection for dangerous, seductive bad boys who try to lure our hero/heroine over to the dark side, but... damn.
He's so charming and handsome that even though you know he's gonna end up being the Black Wolf, you desperately hope he isn't because he really is just that compelling. He really does capture the allure and charisma of evil – something that many actors/writers nowadays just think involves a low voice and a lavish wardrobe – and there's an intriguing subtext throughout that suggests he has no concept of his own immorality.
Early on in the game he denounces the wolf attacks, insisting that the philosophy he ascribes to is orderly and rational, and when he comes face-to-face with the corpse-filled lair later on he looks genuinely appalled. A lot of who he is and how much he understands remains shrouded in mystery, and it takes Grace to remind Gabriel (and us) that his legacy is ultimately: "that pit of bodies; Ludwig's suicide", and that (to quote Agatha Christie): "the children of Lucifer are often beautiful."
Another drawcard is the musical score composed by Robert Holmes, filled with motifs and themes pertaining to each character. My favourites are as the lilting piano melody that accompanies Grace every time she leaves Schloss Ritter, and the more suspenseful "tick-tock" piece that plays whilst she's collecting Wagner's lost opera. Speaking of which, credit must also be given to Holmes and Jane Jensen for arranging the music and libretto of what passes for the final act of a Wagner opera, performed by professional singers at the game's climax.
***
As with Sins of the FathersThe Beast Within was followed by a novelization by Jane Jensen, which expands on some elements of the story, while paring it down in others. Unlike the previous book, it's written less as an adaptation of the game and more as a story in its own right, one which could be read and understood by someone who had never even heard of the game upon which it's based. Less of the puzzles are dramatized, and Jensen takes the opportunity to flesh out a few of the interactions and conversations – even going so far as to add completely new scenes.
Yet other things have been cut, which is a shame. I can understand why game-puzzles such as Gabriel buying sausages to throw at a caged tiger or leaving a cuckoo clock in a back hallway to simulate a knocking door have been cut, but I was sad that the whole subplot in which Grace finds the secret passage in the castle, realizes that Gerde had been in a relationship with Wolfgang, apologizes by taking roses to his tomb, and later borrows the silver mourning heart to leave as an offering at Altötting is gone.
Also, the lovely sequence in which she takes a lily to the lake where Ludwig's body was found and quietly prays to him for assistance. And my favourite part of the game, in which Grace distracts the guards at Neuschwanstein to retrieve the lost opera – it's tense and suspenseful and oddly beautiful, but in the novelization it's told in hindsight over just a couple of paragraphs.
Yet at other points, things are expanded on: Gabriel goes to visit Grossberg's secretary personally instead of just talking on the phone, while Grace gets the full details of Ludwig's hunting accident by speaking in person with Richard Horning, the elderly grandson of his equestrian, instead of via Ludwig scholar Josef Dallmeier.
And my favourite detail: when Grace contacts Thomas Chaphill to get a full English translation of Ludwig's diary, he initially refuses her. In the game, Chaphill simply changes his mind and sends her a fax; in the book he sends it along with a message, telling Grace that he was alone in his house when he heard unexplained noises in the attic, investigated, and found a translation of the diary: "I packed those boxes myself, Miss Nakimura, and I don't recall ever seeing those pages." It keeps the sense of higher powers pulling the strings; a theme that was so prevalent in the first game.
And yet other changes are so incidental that it's a mystery why they were tinkered with at all. In the game it's Toni's father who identified the assailant as a werewolf, in the book it's her mother. In the game Victor Ritter's journal describes him as being accompanied by an assistant, in the book it is his son. In the game Harald Übergrau the lawyer is sensible and straightforward, in the book he's excitable and highly-strung. In the game the Smiths sort of fall out of the story towards the end, in the book they play an integral part in learning where Ludwig hid the pieces of the opera. And so on...
Miscellaneous Observations:
In the opening sequence while Gabriel is at his typewriter, you can see the scars on his arms where Tetelo slashed him at the end of the first game. Nice continuity!
The game has certainly dated in many ways, making it an accidental window to the Nineties. Grace and Gabriel actually communicate by writing letters to each other, and ring up associates on land-lines instead emailing them. Crazy, right? Even a fax machine is utilized at one point!
There are all sorts of fun hints and clues (or just bits of ambience) littered throughout the storyline, from the zookeeper's surprise that one of the female wolves likes Gabriel so much, to Leber's reaction to Gabriel's mention of "a black wolf" and its rumoured involvement in a cold case, to Friedrich off-handedly commenting to Gabriel that: "you look better than [Lord Byron] ever did." Jane Jensen is so good with this sort of thing.
She's also a fan of imagery and symbolism – in the first game it was snakes, lions, dragons and at least one leopard; here it's swans and wolves.
There's a fun mention in the novelization of Mark Kobyashi, a character who is never seen in the first game (or mentioned in the second), but who Grace was briefly considering as a potential husband. The mention of him in The Beast Within is her telling her mother: "I don't care if he's engaged!"  It's cute that Jensen remembered this otherwise throwaway detail of Grace's past.
There's a case of What Happened to the Mouse when it comes to Christian Ritter, the Schattenjäger who initially warns King Ludwig of the Black Wolf. Though the letter is what first puts Grace on the trail of von Glower, we never actually discover what happened to Christian, nor why the letter was never sent.
Despite drawing attention to it at the museum, no meaningful connection is made between King Ludwig and the Order of the Knights of Saint George. I can only assume it's because the real Ludwig was a member of the Royal Military Order of Saint George for the Defence of the Faith and the Immaculate Conception; which was too good a tidbit for Jensen not to include, even though it amounted to nothing.
I mentioned in my last Reading Log that I watched the film Angel Heart after learning that it was a source of inspiration for Sins of the Fathers – and I was pretty chuffed to see that the actress Judith Drake had a small role.  Because what do you know, she plays the fairly important role of Mrs Smith the psychic American tourist in The Beast Within. Tis a small world.
There's a nice example of Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy at work between Gabriel and Grace, though it's more in the spiritual sense than the physical one. As Grace discovers during a tarot card reading, she's represented by the masculine Chariot (drive, discipline, logic) while he is the Magician (intuitive and spiritual).
As it happens, the two of them barely interact throughout the course of this game, so there's a nice little moment that connects them when they each mutter "oops" after separately taking an object from some theatre rigging and nearly toppling it over.
As it happens, Gabriel carries a Ritter dagger around with him for the entirety of the game (it's even the game's curser) but when it finally gets utilized in the final act, it's just to pry open a grate.
FAQ
If this review has inspired you to either play or watch The Beast Within, then below are some of the questions (and answers) that stumped me when I first experienced the game. Because it involves such an incredibly dense and complex storyline, it's easy to miss some of the finer details – but it's worth getting a full picture of Jane Jensen's vision, just so you can appreciate how rich it really is.
Who is the boy in the prologue?
That's von Glower as a child. As you'll recall, the first werewolf case Grace investigates involves a man called von Ralick who was captured by the Schattenjäger and sentenced to death in Rittersburg.
As per the book on werewolf lore (which reveals the curse is hereditary) Habermas informs Grace that Ralick's entire family would have been executed in order to stop the werewolf bloodline from continuing. Yet in Ralick's confession Habermas finds a letter from a lawyer in Buenos Aires, asking for information "for the family", which was sealed in black wax with a wolf insignia. This was a clue that members of the family had survived – and as we see in the prologue, von Glower's mother was hastily ushering him out of the house.
Who is the High Priestess in the tarot card reading?
Mrs Smith identifies her as Gabriel's "other" (that is, the most significant person in his life at that moment) as well as the entity that possesses her in order to pass on the warning about the black wolf to Grace.
It's meant to be none other than the Madonna herself, who Ludwig was faithful to during his lifetime. There are a couple of clues indicating this throughout the game: Gabriel noting that "she seems to be looking right at me" when he spots her statue in the Marienplatz, the shrine to her in both Neuschwanstein and Altötting, and the fact that Grace prays to her for help just before she nabs the theatre diagram – right on cue, a gust of wind blows out the candles and gives Grace the distraction she needs.  
What was the significance of the mask at von Glower's house?
Von Glower mentions that he picked it up in Brazil, which was a (tenuous) link to the Manos Del Sol – or Men of the Sun – that Grace reads about in the book of werewolf lore. They were an ancient priesthood that she likens to the Schattenjäger, so perhaps von Glower had a run-in with them at some point.
Just before he and Gabriel get separated in the forest during the wolf-hunt, you can see von Glower doing something with his ears – what is it?
He's putting in ear-plugs to block the sound of wolf-howling. As the book on werewolf lore points out, this could have triggered the change in him. You can also see him take them out again when von Zell is safely dead.
Werewolf lore is also why von Glower throws his gun at Gabriel and makes him shoot von Zell. Due to the fact that he's the alpha wolf, he can't kill von Zell without destroying himself as well. When Gabriel says: "thank God you made me shoot him," it's because he wrongly believes von Zell is the alpha wolf, and that the curse is broken before it ever takes effect. Instead, it infects him via one of von Glower's betas.
What exactly was Ludwig's plan to defeat von Glower?
While he was struggling with his werewolf curse, Ludwig found that the change nearly came upon him during one of Wagner's concerts (something he mentions in his diary). He and the composer begin planning a new opera that – when combined with acoustics in the theatre amplified with special crystal chandeliers – will force von Glower to change into a werewolf when he unsuspectingly sits down to watch the show.
(As an aside, this plan accounts for the terrible sounds coming from Singers Hall that frightened Ludwig's servants so much during his lifetime – it was Ludwig and Wagner experimenting).
Ludwig will have armed guards at the ready, and voila. Von Glower is dead and Ludwig's curse is broken. Of course, thanks to the political turmoil of the time, it all goes horribly wrong and he never gets the chance to put this plan into action.
What the heck was going on in Gabriel's investigation? What was the significance of von Zell's notebook? How did Grossberg and Dorne fit in? Why were the two zoo wolves missing?
Okay it's complicated, so here's the run-down...
Von Glower is an immortal werewolf who – because of his condition – is incredibly lonely. As the book on werewolf lore points out, all wolves are pack animals and will be naturally inclined to seek out company. But over the centuries, any attempt to make himself a companion has only led to madness and death. Human beings who are turned into werewolves don't handle the change well.
So von Glower sets up the hunting club and seeks out members that he thinks will be better suited to werewolfry: successful, ambitious, somewhat ruthless men. He sells them a philosophy of getting in tune with nature and honing their hunting instincts, all in the hopes of mentally prepping them for the change.
Von Zell is the most promising among them, and von Glower duly changes him into a werewolf. But – as ever – the transformation is too much for him, and he becomes violent and erratic. He grows frustrated with von Glower's caution and restraint – he wants to hunt and kill wherever and whenever he likes; not just on designated hunting trips in isolated locations.
So he comes up with a plan: he'll make sure that two wolves disappear from the Munich Zoo – that way, whenever he kills someone closer to home, it'll be the wolves that get the blame. (Of course, it's this request for two wolves, as opposed to just one, that should tip the player off as to the fact that there is more than one werewolf running around). Von Zell seduces Doctor Klingmann with talk of the club's philosophy, offering to sponsor him in exchange for two of the wolves. But having done this, he now has to get rid of the wolves.
As a banker, he offers to reduce von Aigner's debt in exchange for the name of the black market dealer that supplied all the exotic animals whose trophies were on display in the downstairs room of the club. This accounts for the figures in von Zell's ledger: Gabriel notes that von Aigner owes him a lot of money when he finds the ledger in the club, a debt which has been halved when he rediscovers it in his room at the hunting lodge.
The dealer was a man called Grossberg, who helps get rid of the wolves via Dorne. But then Grossberg gets greedy and decides to blackmail von Zell: money in exchange for his silence on the whereabouts of the zoo wolves (Dorne mentions to Gabriel that Grossberg spoke of a "new business partner" that would cover recent costs – he was talking about the blackmail money). Von Zell arranges a meeting and kills him just a few blocks from the hunting club.
What were Ludwig's last wishes or the "unusual request" that Elizabeth of Austria's letter in the museum mentions? And what were his last words to Frau Vogel the postmistress that she never reveals?
When it becomes apparent that Ludwig is not going to have the opportunity to lay his trap for von Glower, he arranges for Elizabeth of Austria to do it in his stead. He writes her a letter and hides the three pieces of the opera in the secret alcoves in his castle, but is interrupted on his way to the tower to hide diagram of the theatre – the one which shows where the crystal chandeliers should be situated.
Knowing that he's failed even at this (as the novelization reveals, a malicious servant burns the letter to Elizabeth) he waits until his carriage stops on the way to his confinement at Berg Castle and gives the diagram to the postmistress with a final plea: "tell her to put this with my heart at Altötting."
"Her" being Elizabeth, and the placement of the diagram with his heart (as per ancient custom, the hearts of Bavarian kings were put in silver urns at the shrine of Altötting) being his last-ditch attempt at salvation.
There's an odd close-up on the rock that Gabriel braces himself on after he flees the wolf's lair. What was that about?
We see it better in his dream sequence, but the rock has traces of black hair on it. Since von Zell is established as being a red werewolf, it indicates that there is more than one werewolf using the lair.
What do Gabriel's dreams mean?
The first one is pretty straightforward: Gabriel is sitting on a lakeside and sees a swan gliding over the water before a wolf attacks him. The swan represents Ludwig (you'll recall he associated himself with the swan, and there were dozens of them in his castle) and the wolf represents von Glower. Come of think of it, the lakeside is probably meant to be Lake Starnberg, where Ludwig drowned himself.
This dream also has glimpses of Ludwig handing over the diagram to the postmistress and whispering his last request: an important event in the overarching mystery.
The second dream is more complicated. First of all we see Grace dressed as Elizabeth of Austria, kissing Ludwig who turns into Gabriel. They turn to look into a mirror, where Gabriel's reflection is that of a wolf.
This creates a correlation between Elizabeth/Grace and Ludwig/Gabriel; history is repeating itself with Ludwig/Gabriel both being transformed into werewolves, and Elizabeth/Grace as their friend/quasi-love interest trying to help them escape its curse.
Grace then whispers: "beware the Black Wolf," which is fairly self-explanatory, and echoes Mrs Smith's original warning.
It then cuts rapidly from Gabriel finding red wolf hair at the farm, to von Zell in the wolf's lair, to Gabriel escaping the cave and bracing his hand on a nearby rock, as well as Gabriel shooting von Zell in his werewolf form. But this time around, we get a close-up of the rock and sees that there's black hair on its surface.
Then we see von Glower emerging from the cave and him throwing his rifle to Gabriel, with Leber's voiceover: "TWO wolves are missing from the zoo." It's all pointing to the fact that von Zell wasn't the only werewolf running around: he was the red wolf, but von Glower is the black one.
We then see von Glower putting in earplugs to block the sound of a wolf howling, with his voiceover: "an alpha werewolf cannot harm a beta from his own hand," indicating that he is the alpha.
The original plan was that Leber shoot von Glower in the mittelloge. Since he wouldn't have killed von Glower himself, how would this have freed Gabriel from the curse?
It's explained better in the novelization, but Gabriel was responsible for discovering von Glower's true identity, for funding much of the production, for paying for the chandeliers, and for sending out the invitations to both Leber and von Glower. Most importantly, he chose not to follow in von Glower's footsteps. His hand may not have been on the trigger, but the intent was there, and that's the most important thing.
***
Unlike Sins of the Fathers, there are only two versions of The Beast Within: the game and the novelization (this is compared to its predecessor, which had two versions of the original release, a novelization, a remake and a supplementary comic). It certainly makes it easier to write a review, though the complexity and depth of the storyline still made this post a pretty long one.
I wish more people knew about these games, since they were such a staple of my teenage years, and so rich in character, story, premise and theme. Long before other supernatural procedurals such as SupernaturalSleepy HollowBuffy the Vampire SlayerCharmedConstantineGrimm – heck, even The X-Files, there was Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight trilogy. It's got history and romance and intrigue and a great blending of "real" folklore with a classic Nineties supernatural mystery. 
So watch them, play them, and then come talk to me about them! Next up is Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned.  

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