metzomagic.com Review

Gray Matter

Developer:  Jane Jensen/WizarBox
Publisher:  dtp entertainment AG
Year Released:  2011

Review by Steve Metzler (May, 2011)

Samantha, a.k.a. Sam
Gray Matter, the latest game from veteran Gabriel Knight series developer Jane Jensen, has had a long and troubled development history. It was originally announced in 2003 and scheduled for a 2004 release. Development was put on hold in 2004 until German publisher Anaconda picked it up again in 2006. Then in 2008, development was moved from Hungarian developers Tonuzaba to French developers WizarBox. Consequently, the game is set in 2005, but the graphics technology is very much up-to-date. Playing it is something akin to time travel.

Gamers who are familiar with Jane Jensen's previous work will know that her games always have a supernatural theme underpinning them (for example: Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned) and this latest effort is no exception. Samantha, the game's protagonist, is an accomplished street magician. One rainy night she is driving through the English countryside on her way to London when a road sign with a mind of its own misdirects her towards Oxford. Her motorbike breaks down in the vicinity of the Dread Hill House mansion, just as a student is getting out of a cab and approaching the door to announce herself as "Dr. Styles' new research assistant." Sam conjures up a vision to scare the student off before she rings the doorbell, then takes her place. And so she becomes unwittingly involved in the enigmatic Dr. Styles' latest psychological experiment. In fact, it is the first experiment that he has conducted since his wife Laura was tragically killed in an automobile accident three years ago. Since then, David Styles has been living as a recluse in Dread Hill House. He was badly burned as a result of trying to save his wife, and now wears a Phantom of the Opera style mask on the right side of his face to hide the scars. David was severely traumatised by his wife's death, and lately he appears to be the recipient of some other-worldly visitations from her. Is this just an artefact of his troubled imagination?

Winging it
Oxford town vista
Sam's first task as David's research assistant is to find five other students to take part in the experiment. This turns out not to be so easy as it appeared on the face of it, as most of the Oxford students consider Styles to be something of a nut case. Fortunately, Sam can use magic tricks to coerce people into doing things they normally wouldn't do, and this is a central theme of the puzzles in Gray Matter. Sam has a magical repertoire of about a dozen tricks in her book, which is part of your inventory. First you have to find a person and situation to which magic is applicable, and then you must select the correct trick from the book. But it's a lot easier than it sounds, as Sam will not let you select the wrong trick. A lot of the tricks require props, and these may be purchased from a magic shop in Oxford town. Once you have selected the correct trick and have the props at hand, you then have to 'rehearse' the various steps involved in the trick through a special interface. Once you get the steps worked out correctly, Sam then executes the trick in real time. All in all, I thought this aspect of gameplay was quite well done. You're not exactly performing magic on the scale of disappearing the Statue of Liberty, but you do get a certain sense of accomplishment.

In contrast to the magic elements of the game, the rest of the puzzles are all of a practical nature, and let me warn you straight up front: this is a very difficult game, as are all Jane Jensen games. The various locations you can visit during a particular chapter are highlighted in either gold or silver (denoting bonus points) text, and this text becomes greyed out once you have done everything you can do at a particular location. But knowing what locations you still need to visit to close out a chapter is one thing. Figuring out what needs to be done at each location is another! So you really get your money's worth with this one. I racked up about 20 hours playing time, and had to consult a walkthrough 2 or 3 times when I became totally stuck. Each chapter does provide hints in a series of progress bars that tell you what the tasks for that chapter are, and how close you are to completing each one. You will be nicking in to look at the progress bars a lot, in an effort to figure out what it is that needs to be done next. In typical Jane Jensen style, even though Sam is the main protagonist, you get to control David for a few of the chapters.

The game is afoot
The beautiful, but seemingly aloof, Helena from a cut scene
Most of the action takes place in the centre of Oxford and its university buildings, and there are many interesting locations that have been painstakingly recreated from the actual sites. You might, for instance, recognise a dining hall that features in the Harry Potter films. Some of these locations figure into a game within a game that is to be played in Gray Matter. You see, Sam is trying to gain entrance to the Daedalus Club, a secret hideaway somewhere in London where all the big name magicians hang out. In order to do this, you must help her solve some scavenger hunt styled riddles to gain clues as to the club's whereabouts.

For fear of giving away the game's premise, I can't tell you too much about the psychological experiment that David Styles begins conducting once Sam assembles the student subjects. The sessions are held late at night, and strange phenomena are occurring around Oxford as a result. These happenings are obviously connected to the experiment, but is it a magician running a 'grand game' around Oxford, or is there some other way these events might be explained?

Practical matters
The in-game scenes are very well rendered; so much so, that objects of interest don't always stand out from the background very well. Fortunately, you can use the space bar to toggle on and off text that shows where all the hot spots in a particular scene are located. Unless you're a fan of pixel hunting, you won't be able to complete the game without making extensive use of this feature. The cut scenes are done using still frames, a style that Jane first used in the aforementioned Gabriel Knight 3. I think this device works quite well, though some will disagree. Visually, the game is marred somewhat by the fact that the character animations are extremely wooden. Also, if a character is supposed to be handling an object, you see the hands moving but usually the object itself is nowhere to be seen. Looks very strange when that happens. But offsetting those graphical problems is the realisation that where this game excels is aurally, in that both the voice acting and soundtrack are exceptional pieces of work.

The Experiment. No basement should be without one
The soundtrack features three songs written and performed especially for Gray Matter by the Scarlet Furies, an L.A. folk band (though, admittedly, that is a very simplistic description of their music). Raleigh Holmes, the singer/songwriter for the Furies has a lovely, clear alto voice that is very haunting in a way, and this perfectly complemented the overall mood of the game. If you want to have a listen, just Google 'scarlet furies gray matter' and you will find the tracks up on YouTube.

I was really torn as to what score to give this game. In the end, I wound up tilting towards the higher score as, despite its shortcomings, Gray Matter is undoubtedly one of the best adventure games to have been produced in the last decade or so. And it did also manage to come up with the most imaginative use of a pair of handcuffs, like... ever. But no, it's not what you're thinking :-)

metzomagic.com rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2011. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows XP/Vista/7 with .Net Framework 2.0, Pentium IV 1.4 GHz (or AMD equivalent), 512 MB RAM (1 GB RAM Vista), 128 MB DirectX 9 compatible video card (Pixel Shader Model 2.0), 16-bit DirectX 9 compatible sound card, 6.5 GB hard disk space, DVD-ROM drive, mouse, keyboard