A floppy haired fool walks into a shop. Beside the door is a large man-sized statue with an alligator for a head. On the shelves and all over the counter are a fascinating array of weird and wonderful voodoo potions and ingredients. The shopkeeper is nervous as soon as the fop starts questioning him about the recent murders, clearly marking him out as someone to return to later.
The fool is of course Gabriel Knight, star of three games of varying degrees of quality. A wannabe author from early 90s New Orleans, he owns a charming bookshop, running it with his assistant Grace, who has a healthy disdain for Knight mixed with an annoying affection.
The first game is the best of the trilogy, dripping with atmosphere and superbly voice acted (if you played the CD version, not the original text only one) by the likes of Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn and Tim Curry.
Spread over 10 days, it's a traditional point-and-click affair that's as tough as nails, as most Sierra adventures were. Each day has a set number of things you must do before you can progress, although there are optional extras to give you an (irrelevant) points boost.
As Gabriel unravels the mysteries of the recent voodoo murders, his journey takes him from the French Quarter of New Orleans to Germany and darkest Africa, usually after dying a few times along the way. Horrible, bloody deaths were par for the course in Sierra adventures, and the first Gabe title could see you killed by snakes or just maybe your heart would be torn out in a ghastly ritual.
After voodoo came werewolves in the second game, The Beast Within. This was different in two ways – first, Gabriel had moved over to Germany to be in his ancestral home and secondly it was all done with full motion video clips and digitised actors on static backdrops.
Arguably one of the best, if not the best example of the FMV adventure genre, Beast Within was all about the Germans and their history, featuring an entire chapter devoted to learning more about the life of mad (or was he?) King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Tim Curry wasn't in this one as Gabriel, because he doesn't look anything like him in reality, but his replacement Dean Erickson, who now runs a firm specialising in “wealth management and philanthropic investment solutions” (thanks Wiki!), did an admirable job filling his shoes.
The wonderful Mr Curry did return to battle vampires and grail cultists in France for the third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. Marking yet another change in visual direction, out went the FMV sequences and in came 3D models that made use of those new-fangled video cards cluttering up PCs.
It was the most disappointing effort in the series though, as the 3D engine was a little ugly at times and some of the puzzles were just silly (one about trying to hire a motorbike springs to mind straight away).
Each game is dated in its own way, yet the first two especially remain excellent fun to play. Challenging in terms of puzzles and intriguing with regard to plot and characterisation, the first two really suck you into the world they're portraying. Even with the crude, pixellated visuals, it evokes the steamy, sultry atmosphere of New Orleans more effectively than you might imagine.
Likewise, Beast Within does a good job of making you feel all Germanic, what with a big and almost completely irrelevant (it does come in useful for one puzzle) sausage shop for you to explore. There's a cuckoo clock shop as well, plus a map of the Munich tube that, one assumes, is accurate to life.
The third game doesn't succeed in creating this same atmosphere to draw you into the story, interesting though it is. Perhaps it's the lack of emotional attachment in the 3D models, whereas with the other two games there's the quaint hand-drawn nature of the visuals or the real actors performing.
What is for sure is that adventure fans who haven't taken a bite out of the Knight sandwich really are missing out on one of the best adventure experiences of all time. Yes, it's hard. Yes, you can die and some of the later puzzles will make you scratch your head until it's raw and bloody, but there are very few games as intelligent and oozing atmosphere as the first two Gabriel Knight ones.
Keep a walkthrough close by if you do venture in, but let yourself sink into worlds full of interesting characters and devilish plots. Just don't get too annoyed by the werewolf maze bit.