Greymatter-header

By Alex Hempel

Point & Click adventure games are not in fashion. There are still a number of titles being published every year, of varying quality. Truly outstanding Point & Click Adventures are rare. Enter ‘Gray Matter’. Penned and designed by Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen, this game was announced in 2003 and has been in development with different studios ever since. French studio Wizarbox finally finished the job. Too late or just in time?

The first impression when loading up the game is a very good one. Going into the menu, the player is greeted by a serene tune with haunting vocals, reminiscent of Dido. The opening cut-scene, styled like a painting on canvas, introduces the lead character.

Samantha Everett is an American orphan and street magician on her way to London, getting lost in the rain and having her motorbike break down on her. She makes it to an old house where, after having some form of vision, she passes herself off as the new assistant to the owner, a certain Doctor Styles. Players are started off with an optional, short tutorial that explains the game mechanics, before diving into the story.

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It quickly becomes clear that this is a Jane Jensen game through and through. The art direction is consistent and of high quality, with well-designed 3D characters and lush, detailed 2D environments. All cut-scenes are kept in the same style as the first one, looking like a painting with sparse animation.

Dialogues are well-written and directed; the voice acting is of a much higher quality than most adventure games I’ve played in the last few years. Every scene is given additional atmosphere by Robert Holmes’ distinct, piano-dominated score, occasionally complemented by somewhat folky vocal pieces. It turns out the abovementioned voice belongs to Robert’s daughter Raleigh Holmes, singer of The Scarlet Furies, a folk band that is also having a cameo in the game.

A lot of hard work appears to have gone into the story and the integration of riddles and puzzles. While those are typical trappings for the genre, not many developers put a lot of effort into them. Puzzles tend to be illogical, require lots of lateral thinking and take the player out of the story. Not so in Gray Matter. Every single riddle is integrated into the story, takes the player forward and is actually fun to solve. Typical for a Jensen game, they start off relatively easy, but become serious nutcrackers in the second half of the game

. Aside from the usual dialogue and item puzzles, Gray Matter incorporates a nifty mechanic that suits the lead character. At certain points in the game, Samantha needs to perform magic tricks. They require items, preparation and accurate step-by-step execution. It’s not the hardest thing in a game to get right, but it works so well with the premise of the story and characters. I haven’t enjoyed a puzzle mechanic quite as much as this one in a long time.

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Not wanting to give away too much about the story – it is best enjoyed with a clear mind – I can tell you that I haven’t played such an engrossing and atmospheric game in a while. The narrative is consistent and draws you in, serving twists and turns with the ease of a seasoned tennis pro. Not every day does a game affect me emotionally, but the background story of Samantha and some of the tighter moments in the game did just that.

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As in the Gabriel Knight titles, players will alternate between two characters, experiencing the story from different angles. The best part is that the game keeps you guessing, the resolution is pretty unpredictable. During the 13 hours it took me to get to the credits, I never felt bored or thought that it was dragging.

Gray Matter is not without criticism. Some of the character animations are not consistent with the environment – best seen when Dr Styles picks up the phone at his house. There are a few story moments and character interactions that are a bit overdone and thus not very believable. Luckily those are few and far between.

The biggest qualm I have with the game is the somewhat awkward inventory control. To combine an item with another item or with the environment, said item has to be ‘prepared’ by right-clicking, then pointing the (unchanged) cursor at the other item or spot in the environment and left-clicking. It’s really no biggie and does not detract from the game, but for a seasoned adventure gamer it feels a bit kludgy. My guess is that’s a design choice related to the console version. But really, whatever happened to a simple left-click?

Scoring:

Presentation: 9/10

Graphically, this is the best a point & click adventure has done in a long time. Well-made characters, detailed sceneries and artful cutscenes brightened my day. There were a few inconsistencies, but nothing that broke the immersion.

Sounds: 9/10

Nothing to complain about here. Robert Holmes’ soundtracks have always had a high quality level, and Gray Matter is no exception. The voice work is brilliant, better than some AAA titles I’ve played.

Value: 8.0/10

It is a bit on the short side, with 13 to 15 hours’ worth of storyline and not a lot of replay value. But during that time it never gets boring, it never drags, and it just kept drawing me in deeper and deeper.

Gameplay: 9.5/10

Very typical Jane Jensen and classical adventure gameplay, there are no timed sequences, no premature deaths and no arcade or platform elements in this one. It’s a pure point & click adventure with a few mildly innovative elements. The difficulty curve is very gentle, the puzzles range between ‘duh’ and serious nutcrackers, but all of them integrate perfectly into the story.

Overall: 9/10

I’m a fan of Jane Jensen’s work, but even I had my doubts about this game, having played so many average adventures in the last years. But I’m glad to say that my expectations were well exceeded. There haven’t been many truly remarkable titles in the genre since Gabriel Knight was released, and Gray Matter, while still a few leagues short of the classics, is certainly one of the best adventures of the last ten or so years. This is a work of art, and it would be a shame for it to pass by unrecognized. Now all we need is for someone to pave the way for Gabriel Knight 4…

Last Updated: March 29, 2011

Grey Matter
Summary
9.0

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