Most fans of GAGs credit Jane Jensen and Gabriel Knight series for keeping the genre vital during a very difficult transitional time. The technology was rapidly evolving towards 3D, and action-adventures like Tomb Raider were getting all the attention. By the time Gabriel Knight 3 rolled out, full motion video had lost almost all of its marketing appeal, but GAGs were lagging behind the 3D wave. LucasArts had released its bizarre Grim Fandango a year before Sierra, but to a mostly niche audience, and Cyan wouldn't join the bandwagon until 2003, with its utterly miserable Uru. Jensen's Knight series had managed to secure a large and loyal fanbase, but even a good story and characters wouldn't be enough to keep GAGs on the shelf if it didn't have a Z axis. In short, the market was demanding a blockbuster "show'em how it's done" 3D title, and it was up to Sierra to deliver it--and they did, big time. Indeed, Gabriel Knight 3 is one of the best, if not the best, GAG I've played to date. While it certainly has its flaws (hell, even Citizen Kane has its flaws!), it's a masterpiece.
It's always harder to talk about what makes a good game good than it is to describe a disaster. The same is true here. In short, GK 3 is greater than the sum of its parts. What held the game together for me were the bright, warm characters and their mature relationships. Gabriel Knight, Gracie, Mosely--they feel like real people, and add so very much to the game. Playing this game is like spending a few days in a quaint little French village with dear friends. I was very sad to finish GK 3. Indeed, I was sad when the game asked me to insert the third and final CD-ROM. However, I'm positive I'll be re-installing this game in a few years to play through this charming adventure game again.
The story behind GK 3 is one of its strongest features, and it's rather intricate and complex. I was reminded most strongly of Agathe Christie, but with a dollop of Anne Rice added to the batter. In other words, there be vampires here. Thankfully, the vampire-bit is kept subtle and avoids the rancid cheese that usually goes with anything involving fangs and blood. GK 3 offers a story rife with religious themes, including mysticism, numerology, sacred rites, freemasonry, and Catholic heresies. As the game's subtitle suggests, the focus is on blood. Jensen really pushes the envelope here, and no doubt seriously peeved some Christians with her occasional forays into blasphemy and robe-peeking. I found it all deliciously scandalous, of course.
Anyway, to make a long story shirt, Gabriel starts off looking for a royal baby that's been abducted from Prince James. He ends up in a small French tourist trap, where total losers have been coming for years in search of some mysterious treasure. Eventually, Gabe and Gracie begin connecting the treasure with the abduction, and by the end of the game, a considerable amount of excrement has hit the rotating blades. There is precious little here that is purely coincidental; everyone is duplicitous and only very astute players will pick up most of the game's subtlety. The game rewards obsessive players--the kind who write down license plate numbers and keep up with which rooms the guests are entering and leaving. They'll also keep a close eye on facial expressions and body language, which might reveal when a character is lying or hiding something. Yes, it's a mystery fan's dream come true.
While there are certain actions that must be performed to get to the next segment of the narrative, there are lots of paths to get there. I finished the game about 250 points shy of the maximum, so I know I must have missed a lot. It's a credit to the game, though, that it doesn't force you to do everything in one prescribed way to win. The developers were also kind enough to include a great "HINT" feature, which helps nudge players in the right direction and keep the pace steady. There are also plenty of indicators to suggest when a player has done something right--and it's also possible to die, though a "retry" button keeps this from being a pain. As far as I know, there's no way to get the game into an unwinnable state, but you may want to replay certain sections again (after you know what to look for) to get the best score.
I expect that most people playing GK 3 for the first time will be baffled by the camera controls. The interface is quite interesting, because it's based on camera rather than character movement. The player can zoom the camera all around a room and then send "verbs" to the avatar, who'll usually do the requested action (though sometimes they refuse, often with humor). It took me several hours to really get comfortable with the controls; my computer runs at 2ghz, and the camera had a tendency to fly about far faster than I could control. Eventually, though, I did get the hang of it, and really think that this control scheme has a lot to say for it. It gives players the chance to really explore an area thoroughly, but retains the delights that come with actually being able to see an avatar perform actions. I felt more like an assistant or advisor to Gabe and Gracie than anything else, which is really essential if these characters are to be anything other than remote controlled androids. A scholar with interests in perspective, person, and narrative would have a field day with this unique scheme.
In short, GK 3 is a delightful game that demonstrates the narrative and dramatic potential of a 3D GAG. The story, characters, and dialogue are all well-drawn and executed, and the puzzles are just the right degree of challenging. If you have any interest whatsoever in GAGs, give this game a chance.