Publisher: Viva Media
Release Date: 02/22/2011
Unless you are a fan of point and click games for your PC, you probably don’t recognize the name “Jane Jensen” right off the bat. She is, however, the creator of the Gabriel Knight series as well as being an integral part of games like Police Quest III and King’s Quest VI. After a long absence from the traditional adventure game world, Jane Jensen is back with Gray Matter. Now this game has been out in Europe since November, but due to how buggy the Euro release was, I decided to wait for the official US release of the game through publisher Viva Media in hopes that the reported issues would be cleared up. They got it to me a little late, but better late than never, right? Sadly it does look like we’re only getting the PC version stateside, as I was hoping fellow staffer Mark B. would get a chance to play the 360 version.
So how does Gray Matter stack up, especially since 2011 is on tap for a lot of excellent adventure games?
It was a dark and stormy night and Samantha Everett (Sam to her friends) gets lost due to the weather. Her motorcycle conks out in front of a large and looming house and as she goes to get help, she sees a studious young lady run from the manner, terribly frightened by something. It seems she was meant to be the assistant for one Dr. David Styles, who dwelt within the manor known as Dread Hill House, but something made her change her mind. Samantha however, who is in dire needs of money and shelter, lies and claims to be the assistant, getting her a nice bed for the night.
In the morning she learns her new boss is a well known but reclusive doctor of neuropsychology. In order to keep her job, Sam has to further the lie and pose as a student at one of the nearby colleges at Oxford. Of course, Samantha isn’t really a student. She’s actually a street magician slash goth girl who wants to perform at an exclusive magic guild known as the Daedalus Club. However she could use the money Dr. Styles in playing and it gives Sam her first room and board in years.
Dr. Styles however has been on leave from Oxford for a while now after the tragic death of his wife Laura. In his absence, Styles has been trying to summon Laura from beyond the grave using the power of his mind, its memories of Laura and an isolation chamber. In a nice twist, Styles isn’t a mad scientist at all. He’s just still grieving for his wife.
So how do the two plots converge? Well, Dr. Styles has Sam round up four volunteers for an experiment (six including her and another student) to see if visualizing exercise can actually causes the muscles to strengthen as if they actually had done the physical work. Unfortunately, which each experiment comes a horrible disaster somewhere on campus. It’s up to Dr. Styles and Sam to find out if this is coincidence, a strange side effect of the experiments…or something else.
What I really liked is that Dr. Styles, a medical practitioner is the one who wants to believe the events of Gray Matter are supernatural in original, while Samantha, the goth chick and magician is the one that looks for a more rational down to earth reason. Styles believes it is either a ghost or psychic powers at work, while Samantha believes it is a scam being done to discredit Dr. Styles or drive him insane. I won’t reveal the true ending here, but I will say that I loved the cast, characters and plot of the game and I also loved that the game was steeped in actual lore and history from Oxford College.
The one downside to the game was the ending. Gray Matter is eight chapters long and I adored the first seven, especially the expected twist in seven, but the final chapter and conclusion of the game was pretty bad. I knew WHO was going to be involved as the game was pretty obvious about that, but I hated the resolution and overall ending of the game. Still seven out of eight isn’t bad, and although the ending was a letdown, the overall story was a very fun one and I definitely hope we’ll see more of these characters in the future.
Story Rating: Good
Graphics are a mixed bag here. The backgrounds in the game are gorgeous. They really are. Everything is well detailed and everything looks very realistic. Character models on the other hand are pretty dated and ugly. Remember the problem games had with long hair in the PSX and PS2 generation of gaming? Well, you’ll find that hear. Character models just look very out of place with the environments they are placed in. Some are downright ugly. You’ll also see a bit of weirdness with their talking. When a character’s mouth moves at the bottom of your screen, it looks more like Pac-Man with makeup and hair or a fish at feeding time. Things just look…off.
The cut scenes are something a person will either really like or really hate and it’s all going to be artistic opinion. These cut scenes are done with static images, but the images are highly stylized and are beautiful hand-drawn images of the characters. Some people will be annoyed that the game is primarily static images and text, but it’s always been a staple of the genre. Me? I liked the cut scenes. I do feel that overall graphics package was a generation behind where a lot of other adventure games are currently at and that the character models could be an eyesore (character DESIGNS were great though). The visuals in Gray Matter definitely aren’t going to win any new converts over to point and click gaming, but they are enjoyable for what they are.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
The voice acting in Gray Matter is wonderful. You have a wide range of accents and all sound authentic to the region they are supposed to be from. My favorite voice actor was David Styles as his voice sounded exceptionally familiar. Unfortunately I’ve gone through the credits of the game twice now and it doesn’t list the voice actors. I finally had to track down the names on IMDB and it was one Steven Pacey, who has had bit parts in things I’ve seen, but that’s about it. Most of the cast are minor British celebs, but haven’t really done anything that people in the States would recognize. Still, everyone did an excellent job bringing their characters to live.
The music of the game was done by Robert Holmes (Jane Jensen’s husband) and his band, The Scarlet Furies. The music is wonderful and really helps to capture the various moods you’ll find in the game. Sound effects are also wonderfully done and the full auditory experience of Gray Matter is a treat for your ears.
Sound Rating: Very Good
4. Control and Gameplay
As I mentioned in the preamble, the original German release of Gray Matter was pretty buggy. I remember the demo having some particular issues. I’m happy to say that nearly all of them have been cleaned up.
Like with any adventure game, you’re going to be using your mouse for everything. Click on a person to talk to them, click on the environment to learn something about a hot spot, click on an item to pick it up. So on and so forth. If you’ve played one adventure game, you have an idea of how 95% of the controls work be it Sam and Max to Still Life.
A big problem with Gray Matter is that throughout the game you’ll occasionally get a spot where hot spots overlap. This means you’ll often click on something and it will take you to something different than what you wanted to click on. This is especially true in chapter eight where so many things are crammed together, you just have to kind of wait for the actual hot spot you want to come up and then click on it. Pressing the space bar is supposed to bring up a list of all available hotspots to help you out, but all it does is show you how crowded things are. It also doesn’t always work, and when it does, there is definite lag between pressing the space bar and getting the hot spots to show up. Finally, pressing the space bar doesn’t actually guarantee all the spots will actually show up on your screen. Again, this is due to overcrowding.
Then there are the puzzles. There really isn’t a lot of variety here. Most of the game are the basic “use an object on something in the environment or on another object to continue on.” There are very few actual puzzles in the game save for rare ones like using a slot machine to descend into “hell.” As such, people who want a lot of variety in their adventure games may find Gray Matter a bit dull in this regard. All the puzzles do make sense in the context of the plot, so there aren’t any weird out of place things that take you out of the story.
The big gimmick puzzles here are Sam’s magic tricks. I love that the tricks actually give a real world description of how to do simple basic illusions. Doing the illusions in the game though is a bit dull. You’re basically taken to a subscreen where you have to create a list of steps you will do for the trick. Since the steps are described in your magic book. It’s basically just copying it almost verbatim. It’s just that doing the trick involves moving graphical representations around a hot spot laden version of Samantha’s body to make the steps. It’s a neat idea in practice, but a bit dull in execution.
So the overall gameplay leaves something to be desired, especially when compared to other point and click adventure games. The hotspot issue is rare, but when it happens, it’s really annoying. It’s also a mistake that shouldn’t EVER be made, especially in this genre and it just helps to make the final chapter of the game even worse. The good news is that the occasional issue and the lack of puzzle variety doesn’t keep one from wanting to continue on as the story overshadows the gameplay issues. The game is solid for the most part, but when it’s bad… it really stinks.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Decent
Like most adventure games, Gray Matter is a one and done title. The game plays exactly the same each time you play it and so really the only reason to come back is if you loved the story and characters. Now the game is far less linear than most adventure games as you have several things you need to complete in each chapter and you can do most of them in whatever order you choose. This helps a bit on the replay scale, but not much.
The game also offers you bonus points based on doing certain activities, but the points are just an illusion. They don’t do anything to the game at all. They’re just kind of there. What’s more, they are earned through actions you would do anyway as you play through the game, so I’m kind of mystified as to why this is even an option.
So Gray Matter tries to give you a reason to come back to it and it’s far less linear than most point and click titles, but it’s still really hard to think of a reason to play the game a second time unless you really fell in love with the story.
Replayability Rating: Poor
Very little in Gray Matter is challenging. Everything is pretty cut and dry in regards to how you proceed. I think the only thing that will give you pause in the first seven chapters of the game are the rebuses, and that’s only if you aren’t used to doing those. Again, it’s objects + environment = solution puzzles and thankfully, unlike a lot of adventure games, Gray Matter is pretty straight forward.
The accursed chapter eight is a whole other story though, as the entire chapter is one gigantic puzzle (and one anticlimactic solution post that puzzle). It’s very long, very dull, and it has a ton of hot spot issues, so it will frustrate you, but not because of difficulty reasons. Instead it will just be, “HOW MUCH LONGER?” and, “That’s not what I clicked on!”
So there isn’t a lot of variety to the puzzles and the game is pretty easy except for when bad gameplay designs factor in. The story outweighs any of the negativity in the gameplay or the balance areas and the game is definitely playable. The overall product is fine – it’s just disappointing that there wasn’t any real variety to puzzles or any actual challenge.
Balance Rating: Decent
On one hand, the story is pretty unique. I like the juxtaposition of a lot of clichéd elements, such as which care is rational and which is spiritual, or the fact the doctor living alone in his spooky old estate in the middle of nowhere is actually a really good person. On the other, the game’s puzzles are somewhat generic and they can be dull for long time veterans of the genre who have seen it all before. The magic tricks are a nice touch and a breath of fresh air, but they definitely could have been implemented better.
So you have a pretty unique and fun story and one new twist on puzzles found in these type of games, but everything else is pretty standard (or even unimaginative) for the genre. Let’s call it a thumbs in the middle here.
Originality Rating: Mediocre
I really enjoyed my time with Gray Matter. I loved the story and I beat the game in about 24 hours (My actual playtime was roughly six.). I played a chapter, then walked away for a bit and then came immediately back to the game. I finished half Saturday night and the other half Sunday morning. Considering it took me forever to wade through Ar tonelico Qoga, that should tell you how much I enjoyed playing this. Sure chapter eight sucked, but the other seven chapters were a reminder as to why I always come back to adventure games – because the stories are usually excellent, as well as being the focal point of the game.
Gray Matter was an easy game to love and a very hard game to put down . Again, I really hope Jane isn’t going to go another decade without giving us a high quality adventure game and I really hope this isn’t the last we see of Samantha Everett.
Addictiveness Rating: Very Good
9. Appeal Factor
It’s probably a wise decision on Viva Media’s part that they didn’t bring over the 360 version of the game. Adventure games seem to do worse on Microsoft’s newest console than either the PS3 or the Wii. Even Telltale abandoned it after the Wallace and Grommit sales while adventure games sell decently on the Wii and surprisingly high for the genre on the PS3 (Which makes no sense since the Wii is tailormade for this genre). In North America, where the adventure genre has fallen starkly in popularity from the Lucasarts golden era, adventure games seem to be mostly played by PC fans. Occasionally we’ll get something that spikes, like Heavy Rain or Sam and Max Season Three on the PS3, but for the most part, it’s all PC baby.
Gray Matter isn’t the type of game that newcomers to adventure games will probably like. The gameplay issues will probably throw them off, as will the graphics. Longtime fans of the genre will love the story though and the fact it’s Jane Jensen’s first adventure game since Gabriel Knight III should be enough to bring back older gamers that were fans of the genre in its heyday. He game won’t set any sales records over here, but it should do okay.
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Gray Matter has a retail price of $29.99, which is a bit steep for adventure games these days. However, its pedigree helps to offset that price point. The game also highlights not only the reason why people still love the adventure game genre after all these years (It’s probably the best genre for pure storytelling) , but also some of the reasons why many people have left it behind (gameplay issues, lots of backtracking and the same old puzzles). At the end of the day though, I really enjoyed my time with Gray Matter in spite of its flaws. It was a fun game and I loved the characters. It’s great to see Jane Jensen back in form and the game was just what I needed after being burned out on video games in general for a few weeks.
I will end this review on a slightly negative note though – as a lifetime owner of rabbits, the game was pretty appalling with how it treated them. DO NOT EVER PICK UP A RABBIT BY ITS EARS. That will severely injure them. As well, you don’t feed them only carrots and you don’t keep them in a cage small enough that they can’t turn around. I know it’s only bad programming and/or graphics, but the handling of poor Houdini never failed to make me cringe.
Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Gray Matter is a fun adventure game that boasts an intriguing story and a memorable cast of characters. The eighth and final act does fall apart, but you’ll definitely want to see more of these characters again. The game does suffer from a few hotspot issues as well as a lack of imagination regarding most of the puzzles, but the game still manages to keep you glued to your PC from beginning to end. Also, it teaches you a few basic magic tricks. How neat is that? A nice return to form for Jane Jensen.