Gray Matter Review
For adventure game fans it doesn’t get much bigger than Gray Matter, quite possibly the most anticipated release ever for the often deprived genre. Starting development in 2003 the project was known as ‘Project Jane-J’, slated for release in the fourth quarter of 2004. As the years passed the game managed to withstand heavy delays and even changing publishers and developers, refusing to give up against all odds. Thankfully the game is to be remembered as more than an idea as I can confirm that it is finished and ready for its European release of early 2011. Those wanting to get their hands on the game before that can pick up the German release, readily available and containing full English voice-overs and subtitles).
Those wondering where the game’s anticipation comes from, disregarding its stunning graphical presentation or such lengthy development timeline, it’s mostly due to the game’s designer being Jane Jensen, the mind behind the fantastic Gabriel Knight series (with various contributions to Police Quest and King’s Quest also). Having a track record for success in the adventure games genre is a rare achievement, and even managing a portion of the critical acclaim Gabriel Knight earned would seal Gray Matter in alongside the genres greatest.
Gray Matter tells the story of a street magician, Samantha Everett (or Sam, as she prefers), and an acclaimed neurobiologist, Professor David Styles. On her journey to gaining acceptance to the prestigious magicians Daedalus club, Sam finds herself taking a wrong turn and heading to Oxford instead of London. Coincidentally her bike breaks down outside of the mansion where David Styles resides, secluded away from the outside world since the tragic loss of his wife years ago. Covering as a student assistant you spend your time at the mansion running errands for David, aiding his experiments, and during these tasks you stumble across strange paranormal activities and cryptic clues that hint at a connectivity between them and your own interests.
The story alternates between controlling Sam and David, having the chance to view the world from the extremely different personalities and having varied beliefs in understanding the events that unfold as the story progresses. Both characters come to life with strong personalities and fantastic voice acting that helps cement your immersion into the game. The other characters encountered throughout the story can be a little hit and miss however, with some questionable voice talent and cheap personality stereotypes that let the side down somewhat. Investigating and manipulating those around you, you’ll find that the story unravels itself nicely with a tale that has plenty of twists to remain fresh whilst thankfully managing to remain on the sensible side of fantasy. The portrayal of David’s inner turmoil with the loss of his wife is executed particularly well, having you understand his struggle in contrast with Sam’s desire to help him promptly overcome it.
Playing the game on a console the controls are somewhat of a surprise, as considering the game is often described as a traditional point and click I was taken aback to find there was no cursor, potentially the main characteristic I’d consider for a point and click title. Instead the game’s scenes have hot spots in each location that can be highlighted by using a radial wheel, letting you slide select through possible environmental interactions. It’s an odd control method as whilst you can control the characters directly the end result is always bringing up the radial wheel with a trigger press and scrolling between the available choices, regardless of distance. For all intense and purposes you could stand still in each scene and just select each option in turn before moving on to the next scene; there is no actual investigation with the cursor, it’s all presented to you clear as day.
Being an adventure game the gameplay focus is on puzzle solving, but those new or intimidated by the genre will be happy to know that they aren’t overly challenging and often followed by more than enough instruction, or failing that intuitive progression. The majority of the game’s puzzle solving come from item management, needing you to track down, and even combine items right for the task at hand. This often means needing to recite objects you’ve encountered on a previous scene but dismissed as being of no use at the time, yet now being able to pick up and utilise. This can be frustrating at times as any given chapter can have you needing to trace through countless different environments littered with object interactions. The game tries to offset this frustration by highlighting locations on the world map that will progress the story, so you’re always pushed down the right path – even though the right path can still be a wide one.
Outside of the game’s item management puzzles you’ll often need to make use of your magician talents to manipulate and trick those around you. This process is simple enough as you’re always carrying a magician book that’ll describe in detail all available tricks .It’s a simple case of picking the right trick for the task at hand, for example staining a character with invisible ink to get them to leave the room, and following the steps provided. It’d have been nice to see more vagueness to the steps in performing the tricks as the idea works fantastically but the process is far too simple to provide much substance.
Throughout the game’s lengthy adventure, around twelve hours for the average gamer, you’ll visit a wide selection of locations in Oxford and a small selection in London. The game slowly expands as you progress, initially limiting you to the mansion alone, acting as a brief tutorial. You’ll find that different locations are accessible depending on the character you’re controlling, and thankfully the game will remove any prior locations that are insignificant in your current chapter. The varied surroundings, from the Oxford colleges to the lonely mansion, are gorgeous. The lengthy development certainly hasn’t resulted in dated graphics as the game’s presentation is stellar, able to demonstrate the delight pre-rendered environments can still posses even to this day. It was a treat to come across a new location and really get a sense of atmosphere.
It’s unfortunate that the character models popped into the environments don’t really stand up, as whilst they look fantastic in still screens the animations are rather clunky and robotic, reducing immersion in some of the game’s in-game cutscenes. Thankfully the game’s main cutscenes, played often throughout the game’s story, are hand drawn and whilst loosely animated generally look fantastic, disregarding a few inconsistencies with the discrepancies between secondary characters. Whilst their animations may be lacking, this is more than made up by the superb voice acting as touched on previously and the game’s elegant musical tracks, which whilst favouring a particular song a lot, couldn’t fit any more perfectly.
Gray Matter won’t be for everyone, as is typical for the text heavy and slow nature of the adventure genre, but those eagerly awaiting the next rare adventure title to grace consoles should look no further as Gray Matter deserves your attention. Once immersed in the game’s lush environments you’ll only want to unravel the game’s mysteries more and more, and whilst the game’s ending doesn’t tie up all loose ends the potential for a possible sequel holds my interest.