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Game: Gray Matter
Developer: WizarBox
Publisher: dtp entertainment
Year: 2011
Reviewed: 2011
Platform: PC
Genre: Adventure
Game Version: Original, unpatched
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

More than a decade on from Gabriel Knight 3, finally we have another adventure game designed by Jane Jensen. The Gabriel Knight series was one of the crowning achievements of the adventure game genre, so it was disappointing that Jensen seemed to vanish from the world of gaming after the third entry. Gray Matter is a very different game from that series, but it’s just as good and marks the best point and click game to come out in many years.

Gray Matter British steam vents?
Ah, one of those steam vents. You see them lining the streets everywhere here in Britain, of course. Or it could have just been put there because it’s needed for a puzzle.

Gray Matter follows the story of Samantha Everett, an American magician visiting England when her bike breaks down in stormy weather. She takes shelter in a typically gothic looking mansion called Dread Hill by posing as a student sent there to work. Which you would, of course, rather than doing anything weird like simply asking if you can come in or something. It also follows her employer, Professor David Styles, an overly melodramatic recluse who wears a Phantom of the Opera style mask. The plot follows both Sam’s attempts at gaining entry into the secretive Daedalus magic club and David’s brain experiments, which soon take a more mysterious turn.

The gameplay is standard point and click adventure gaming, just polished up a lot more than most recent adventure games have managed. It’s controlled in the usual way. Pointing somewhere on the ground makes your character walk there, clicking on items and scenery examines, picks up or uses them, the inventory appears at the top of the screen with the items you’ve collected, etc. It also uses many of the modern convenient features that are thankfully starting to become standard in newer adventure games, such as pressing a key to highlight all the hotspots on the level to eliminate tedious pixel hunting. There’s also a feature that I haven’t encountered in an adventure game before, which is a progress bar. You can press a key, and it brings up a list of general tasks for the current chapter and shows how far you’ve progressed through them. It’s like an RPG feature imported into an adventure game, and it’s really quite useful, since you always have some indication of what your objectives are.

Gray Matter Race track
The London 2012 committee didn’t really understand athletics.

The puzzles are a bit of a mixed bag. Mostly they’re fairly standard adventure game puzzles, nothing that will stand out as particularly memorable. The majority of them at least fit into the plot fairly well, but it does occasionally lapse into that stereotypical adventure game logic where puzzles are stuck in for the sake of being there rather than because they’re necessary. None of them are especially challenging or inventive, but this also means that none of them really impede your progress through the story too much either. The one type of puzzle that is unique comes from the fact that Sam is a magician. At several times during the game she can use her magic routines to trick people in order to get what she needs. This involves looking through her magic book and choosing the appropriate trick, then setting out a list of moves that Sam then proceeds to carry out. The trouble with these is that there’s no challenge at all. The magic book sets out exactly the moves she needs to do, so it’s simply a case of following the instructions. Maybe it would have been better if these puzzles had involved reading and understanding the instructions and having to work out the precise steps yourself, but as it is it feels a bit pointless. It’s usually entertaining watching Sam actually perform them afterwards though. The only time the puzzles become anything more interesting is in the final chapter, and unfortunately they feel a bit separated from the actual plot. It almost feels like a segment from a different puzzle-based adventure game. On the other hand, they’re very entertaining to solve and don’t last too long, so it doesn’t bother me too much.

Ultimately though, this is a story based game, and in this area it succeeds extremely well. The plot develops at a slow pace but remains intriguing and constantly has you guessing at just what is going on. All the way through the game I was trying to devise theories and was constantly reworking them as new information came to light, but the ending still managed to take me by surprise. To say anything much about the plot would spoil it, but as expected from Jane Jensen, it expertly blends elements from many genres, such as mystery, science fiction and supernatural horror, into a compelling psychological drama. The ending manages to bring the game to a suitable conclusion and provide you with all the information about what has happened without feeling the need to give a patronising step by step breakdown of everything, leaving you to piece everything together yourself. It’s a game that you’re likely to be thinking about long after it’s over, still making new realisations.

Gray Matter Professor David Styles
In sleep he sang to me / In dreams he came…

As with any game, it’s not perfect. One of the main problems with the game is in the way the cutscenes are presented. Rather than using the in-game graphics or rendered video, Gray Matter instead uses stylised still or semi-animated pictures with voiceovers. It almost feels like watching an animated comic or graphic novel. It can be quite distracting at first and feels significantly lower quality than the rest of the game, especially considering the in-game graphics are very good. On the other hand, I found as the game went by I started to actually quite like them and found they put the story forward while leaving something to your imagination, possibly better than any rendered cutscenes would have been able to in the game's engine. It’s still not perfect though, and the pictures can still look a bit amateurish at times. And while the game itself is far from buggy, there were instances where there was a significant delay before the hotspot locations appeared after hitting the key. The game also has a rather stereotypical version of England at times, more like an American’s image of what the country is like than reality. And considering it is set here in the UK, it doesn’t seem to know how to spell “grey”.

All flaws mentioned are relatively minor in comparison to the overall quality of the game, and the story kept me playing right to the end without ever becoming bored. It’s one of the best traditional point and click adventure I’ve played since The Longest Journey, and one of the best stories since Dreamfall. And if that isn’t high enough praise for an adventure game then you probably have no interest in the genre anyway.

Save System Review: Save anywhere, though there’s a limited number of save slots. I didn’t run out, but if you save in lots of different slots you may do. On the other hand, you can’t die or get the game into an unwinnable situation so it’s no big deal.
Graphics: Very good in-game graphics, but mixed quality stylised cutscenes that will probably divide opinion.
Sound: High standard of voice acting and a strong soundtrack by the band Scarlet Furies. As the game will insist on informing you at one point.
Bugs: Nothing other than the delay in hotspots displaying at times when the appropriate key is pressed.
Gameplay: Standard point and click adventuring with manageable puzzles that generally at least make sense. Occasional moments where you’re left with a couple of minor things that have to be done before the game will proceed to the next chapter, but it’s a lot more sensible than many games in the genre.
Storyline: A very strong psychological storyline with genuinely interesting characters and chapters which allow you to play from the perspective of both main characters. One of the strongest stories to appear in a game in a long time.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: The Longest Journey, Dreamfall, Gabriel Knight series.

Does the game get your brain working? Let us know in the forum!