Archive for April, 2011

Gray Matter Review

Legacy

Back in the early ’90s, there were some big names in the graphic adventure field – Roberta Williams, Jane Jensen, Al Lowe, and Ron Gilbert to name a few. Although graphic adventures are no longer the big-selling, big budget games they were back in those halcyon days, they are by no means a dead genre. Jane Jensen, creative mind behind Sierra’s classic Gabriel Knight series, has come out with a new game after many years. That game is Gray Matter.

Gray Matter starts out as many a great mystery yarn on the proverbial dark and stormy night, with American street magician abroad Samantha Everett taking refuge from a storm in the ominously named Dread Hill House. It turns out the owner, reclusive neurobiologist-in-a-Phantom-of-The-Opera-mask,  Dr. David Styles, is seeking and expecting a new assistant for his research. Samantha takes the job and assumes the identity of an Oxford student as Dr. Styles enlists her to find test subjects for his research into neurobiology and psychic phenomena. As Samantha looks for willing participants, she also seeks entrance into the exclusive Daedalus Club, a conclave of master illusionists.

The game is divided into chapters (which work similarly to the “days” in the original Gabriel Knight. Each chapter has you playing as either Sam or Dr. Styles.

Exploration

Gray Matter for PC

Samantha will often find herself using her magic tricks to con unwitting marks out of items needed to advance, as well as putting together clues laid about by the Daedalus Club. Her segments are more exploratory than Dr. Styles’ – she travels all over the length and breadth of Oxford as she investigates strange phenomena that may be linked to Dr. Styles’ experiments. I really liked the magic tricks as puzzles in their own right, because they subvert the typical “try putting everything together and then rub the resulting object on every conceivable surface” that is common to vintage adventure games. Who knows, maybe being out from under Roberta Williams’ thumb has given Jane Jensen the chance to design puzzles that don’t operate on insane troll logic (which isn’t really fair to say, because Gabriel Knight‘s puzzles were pretty straightforward). In any case, it’s a nice break from those absurd “solve the soup cans” puzzles we saw so many of back in the day.

Styles, on the other hand, has more straightforward gameplay involving less exploration, more careful examination of objects, and generally less interaction with other characters (well, he is a recluse). This actually works pretty well as he and Sam trade off the spotlight every other chapter, and his more straightforward affairs allow you to take a bit of a break from Sam’s more item- and exploration-heavy segments.

The game notably bears several stylistic similarities to the first game in the Gabriel Knight series, Sins of the Fathers. It’s a comparison that begs to be made, as for many of us it’s a lithmus test for Jane Jensen’s games (and adventure games in general). In many ways it feels like an evolution of that game. You have a city map of Oxford, much like the New Orleans map, as well as an action bar at the top of the screen. You’ll even run into a few similar locations like a church and a pub. A few puzzles will also probably ring a few bells of nostalgia. But the one thing that stands out so well is that it keeps up its atmosphere very well in the way I remembered from Sins of the Fathers. It’s also worth noting that it possesses its own atmosphere entirely – more mystery than GK‘s horror themes.

Gray Matter - Jane JensenIt’s here that the music (composed by Gabriel Knight collaborator and Jensen’s husband, Robert Holmes) comes into play – it’s very moody and understated, and it helps set the mood of the game terrifically. The only real downside is that there isn’t a huge amount or variety of pieces – you’ll hear a lot of the tracks re-used in numerous locations, which is a real pity considering the talent involved. However, it is good to hear Holmes composing again, so I can’t complain too much.

The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag – Sam and David are very well done, while the others range from good to rather goofy (Styles’ housekeeper in particular irks me as she sounds like someone doing a bad Angela Lansbury impression). Not being British, I can’t vouch for the fidelity of the accents, but I’ve heard of some sources criticizing them. At the very least it’s well-written, but this isn’t a surprise. Jane Jensen writes good material. It’s what she does! It’s not like she’s Hideo Kojima, where you’d be shocked if a coherent story came up.

The voice acting leads us to another thing that separates this game from the Gabriel Knight games – Sierra gave those games a huge budget, while Gray Matter was certainly made by a smaller team with fewer resources, and, as such, lacks the production values of its spiritual predecessors. This isn’t to say that there’s not good work behind the game – the backgrounds are gorgeous, the graphic-novel style cutscenes are mostly well-rendered, and the character models are excellent. While Telltale Games may have the adventure market cornered, they don’t make it look and feel this good. On the other hand, the characters don’t blink so…I had to turn the subtitles off, as it shows the character’s unblinking face as they talk. It just creeped me out.

The game also has several helpful functions available to the player. There’s a journal that keeps track of your conversations. You can hit the space bar to reveal all the clickable points of interest and exits on the screen, and Samantha has access to a book of magic tricks that you can use while performing the trick so you’re not fumbling around in the dark. In addition, the game’s install comes with a walkthrough provided in case you get stuck.

The Final Verdict

The game lasted me about 14 hours, and, as it isn’t a full price title, I think that’s more than fair. I will complain that the ending feels more than a little rushed, but I found it to be reasonably satisfying. When all is said and done, there’s no reason for a fan of the genre not to check it out. It has a few issues, but I can heartily recommend it. It’s reasonably priced and Jane Jensen proves she can still spin an intriguing tale.

It’s good to have you back, Jane Jensen. I hope we hear from you again real soon!

BNBGAMING Recommended Award

Click here to learn more about how we review our games.

Advertisements

Note: The following is a summary of one writer’s opinions and, unless otherwise indicated, does not reflect the opinions of Bits ‘n’ Bytes Gaming’s staff as a whole.

Dear Sony:

I’ve been a long-time consumer of your PlayStation line. In 1996, I decided that neither Nintendo nor Sega’s systems offered what I wanted. The original PlayStation won me over with its large and varied library of games and support for 3D and full-motion video that the other two systems lacked. I’ve been a loyal PlayStation user since that time. However, the recent debacle – no, the recent utter clusterf*** – regarding the PlayStation Network has caused me to question my faith in the company.

When PSN customers signed in, they expected some things. We expected for our accounts to be protected, for our information to be just between us and you. And you dropped the ball.

I chose the PS3 for several reasons: it uses state-of-the-art technologies such as Blu-Ray discs, its reliability compared to the Xbox 360, and, in addition, my previous experiences with Sony products (the PS1 and PS2) have been overwhelmingly positive. I assumed that your high standards would extend to your network, security, and to your respect for your customers. I guess I was wrong. And that hurts.

I’ve been a loyal customer for the past 15 years. I’ve given serious thought to breaking that loyalty today. In the 1970s, when Ford’s Pinto was proven to be an unsafe vehicle, they lost a considerable amount of market share. It will take a considerable amount of work to repair your relationship with the customer base. Keep in mind that you’re not entirely to blame for the network going down, but you are to blame for being slow on the draw when it comes to letting us know the deal. It would have been nice to know sooner. Breaches of security aren’t a lightweight matter and you should open up the lines of communication with everyone affected. Let us know what you’re doing to fix it, to help get things back under control.

I will be watching and waiting to see how you respond, and then decide if I’m going to stay with Sony.

Regards,

Chad Morelock

PlayStation Customer

“THIS hurts you.” -Harbinger, Mass Effect 2

I recently began playing Dragon Age: Origins. No, that isn’t a typo, I don’t mean DA2. I just started Origins (if being some 30 hours in can be considered “just started”) because when the game was released, it was released to a campaign of really stupid, and just plain insulting, advertising. My readers, I present to you, the trailer entitled “Violence”:

I would have been interested in the game by virtue of it being a BioWare RPG. Unfortunately, this trailer, with a Marilyn Manson song over a fantasy setting (WHAT) and blood being sprayed everywhere like it’s God of War (or way worse, Splatterhouse) made me scratch my head. It was playing up violence, gore, and a sex scene that probably took up 60 seconds of total game time. I was immediately put off by the trailer and decided not to pick up the game. It makes me wonder who they (presumably EA and not BioWare, right? BioWare can do no wrong, right?) were trying to market Dragon Age to. Because let’s face it, the average gamer is an adult. A grown-up. Most of us have advanced beyond the point of being beckoned to play a game based on the promise of fountains of blood and lots and lots of sex (there’s still more than in most games, but it’s all pretty PG-13). Most gamers don’t want to be painted as horny losers who salivate at the sight of digitized blood (even if some of us are, that’s not how we want to be seen!). Yet EA has proven time and again that they don’t think very highly of their consumers. If they’re advertising to the kind of person who buys it based on this kind of trailer, should we really be surprised that there’s a fringe minority getting upset about the gay romance options in the sequel?

Stupid ads send me into a Reb Brown screaming frenzy.

Fast forward a couple of years when I’ve recovered from the insulting marketing and I discover just how phenomenally inappropriate it was to set a lot of those scenes to a “YEAH THE OLD ULTRA-VIOLENCE, PHWOAAAAR” music video. The trailer did the game an immense disservice. Many of the scenes in the trailer were from emotionally charged moments, some of which are the results of agonizing choices. It also seems to suggest that the game is relentlessly grimdark (while it’s pretty dark, it’s not without good-old fashioned levity in the face of danger). And in actuality its tone isn’t that far removed from the likes of WarCraft (the strategy game); it just has a “darker”, bloodier aesthetic.

This is far from the only idiotic advertising we’ve seen, though. And honestly it’s nothing new. This article in fact takes some inspiration from Martin Cirulis’ article in Computer Gaming World back in the ’90s entitled What’s The Deal with Sick Ads? For a memorable snippet of that time period, this was the time when BLOOD was being advertised by…a guy sitting in a bathtub full of blood. Ok, so BLOOD was an ultraviolent (if very tongue-in-cheek) shooter, but it was hardly the only stupid ad of the time. There was also a rather infamous Neverwinter Nights ad that ran in the dank pages of Maxim and featured a half-naked elf lady wearing seashells and a crab(?)who probably wasn’t in the game. It’s another case of “what audience are you trying to reach?” Again, marketing and the devs aren’t always working hand in hand but BioWare? You’re better than that. At least I like to imagine you are.

Now, EA managed to trump the Dragon Age ad with the Dante’s Inferno advertisements, but man, did they take the cake on stupid, offensive ads with Dead Space 2 or what? “Your mom will hate it”. Oh really, EA? The mom that took me to see the Alien re-release? I don’t believe you’ve ever met my mother. In any case, it’s an advertisement that makes gamers and developers look juvenile. I was in the built-in audience for Dead Space, being I liked the first one and all, and you guys had to go and make me cancel my preorder because I didn’t want to fork over my money to pay the people who were responsible for your god-awful ad campaign.

See, when they resort to this kind of crap they’re only hurting themselves. I don’t like the feeling of being insulted, being pandered to, or being expected to like something because I’m in a certain demographic.

For a comparison with the above ad, let’s take a look at the previous year’s Fallout 3 ad, which I loved. It pretty much perfectly sets the tone for the game: dark, satirical, but humorous. The violence is set to a ’40s swing tune and is very indicative of what you get when you buy the game.

Now that gets the point across without insulting you. Unfortunately, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m not going to bore you with more advertisements. You’ll know them when you see them.

For an excellent video on a similar subject, please watch Extra Credits: An Open Letter to EA Marketing

Art Thou A Noble Enough Dude to Conquer Daggerdale?

Atari has finally broken a lengthy silence on their new Dungeons and Dragons-based game, Daggerdale, with a new trailer. The game, which is slated to be a multiplayer action-RPG experience set in the Forgotten Realms, has had a quiet development cycle, leading many to speculate on just what’s up with it.

The new game is looking to be a dungeon crawler in the tradition of Diablo and Dark Alliance with significant RPG elements culled from the tabletop game.

However, it does make me wonder – since Atari acquired the D&D license, they haven’t done a whole lot with it. With the exception of Temple of Elemental Evil (which was unfortunately released incredibly buggy, and had to be patched by fans), Atari hasn’t really released a lot of Dungeons & Dragons games, and what games have been made have typically not been very true to the D&D game.

My question is: well, why not? The two previous license holders, SSI and Interplay, did great things with the Dungeons & Dragons license. SSI made the long-running “Gold Box” series, and Interplay released quite a few games, including the popular and extremely well-received Planescape: Torment and BioWare’s classic Baldur’s Gate series.

So, Atari? What’s up? You guys are letting a great opportunity slip through your fingers. Where other companies made genre-changing classics, Atari is just sort of churning out the occasional game based in a D&D campaign setting (and Daggerdale may very well be faithful to the 4E ruleset, I don’t know yet). It just seems like with all the myriad pre-made settings D&D offers (and the weight and probable cost of the license), Atari would be doing more with it. Oh well, I guess this Half-Elf Thief is just going to have to play Baldur’s Gate again.

BACH: You tearing PC gaming apart, Consoles!

When asked this question, Patrick Bach of DICE (developers of the Battlefield series, including the upcoming Battlefield 3) said, “Yes, absolutely.” He argues that most games are designed for consoles and then ported to the PC, usually with only minor graphical improvements. He said that console gaming inevitably went to the lowest common denominator, and that it is hurting PC gaming as an industry.

Do I agree with him? Not really.

Now, it’s not necessarily that I disagree entirely with the sentiment. Consoles have been behind PCs in most major developments over the years – disc-based media, hard drives, online play, what have you. Until the early 2000s, PC and console gaming were largely independent of each other (not that lots of people, myself included, didn’t play both). However, now they’ve reached a near equilibrium, with most developers choosing to develop initially for the XBox 360 and then port their efforts over to the PC and PS3 from there.

Composer Johann Sebastian Bach, probably not related to Patrick.

Now I won’t argue that many companies jumping on the console bandwagon has had some ill effects – I can’t help but think of the near extinction of flight sims (at least there’s a new IL-2 coming out!), and the PC certainly gets shafted when it comes to some releases – but to be honest, it’s been a learning experience for many companies, and in some cases the exchange between the two formerly seperate worlds has been a good thing, and gamers across the board have benefited.

“Consolization”, as it stands, has the fringe benefit of not having to update your PC as often. It can be expensive to keep your PC updated with fresh RAM and video cards every year, and closer alignment with console standards means that your current PC setup will last quite a bit longer than it used to.

But I can’t see consoles being at fault for Bach’s assertion that only console gaming, and not the glorious nation of PC gaming, are to fault for the lowest common denominator approach. Frankly, look at who he’s working for and what he’s making. He’s working for Electronic Arts and making an online first-person shooter set in a modern combat setting. In addition, it’s not like this is the first massively online shooter to exist or even that DICE has made. It’s the twelfth game in the Battlefield series. A series that, while fun, is a franchise for precisely one reason: it’s popular, and EA likes the money it provides.

And who are the “lowest common denominator” gamers we presume he’s talking about? Um…would those be the people who like to get online and lock proverbial horns in games like Call of Duty and…Battlefield? Consoles certainly have their share of sophisticated and innovative games (just as the PC does), yet the most popular games are naturally going to be the ones that appeal to the average gamer. In any case, Bach probably isn’t the best person to be making the claim that consoles are ruining the PC. Now if Sid Meier said it, maybe there would be a bit more reason to listen.

But DICE makes shooters. Good shooters? Sure. I logged many an hour in Battlefield 2142. When Battlefield 1942 came out, they could claim a definite feat of innovation with 64-player online play, complete with numerous vehicles. Is this rampant consolization hurting them? If by hurting them you mean paying them, then yes. Bach has made it clear that the PC version of Battlefield 3 will be the lead version and will support almost three times as many players per game as the console versions. And that’s fine. These days it’s kind of refreshing to see the PC version leading the way (and it’s equally refreshing for EA to ease up on the developers’ leash a bit).

Guess Bach is not familiar with the jazz that awaits grafting a 360 onto a PC…

As someone who comes from the “gameplay over graphics” philosophy, I guess I don’t see a reason to be down on consoles. If all you care about is graphics, you can certainly get the best ones on the PC. But I’m honestly a lot more interested in how the game plays over how it looks. After all, is being able to render one more shade of brown and gray really going to make your shooter better? Remember, few games have seen success like World of Warcraft – and its dated graphics – has over the past decade.

Sierra’s classic Quest series – that is, King’s Quest, Police Quest, and Space Quest– are on sale this weekend at a 30% discount at GoG.com.  Each of the collections they offer is ordinarily $9.99 USD, so they’re discounted to $6.99 each. These collections contain at least two games each (and one of the Police Quest sets containing FOUR games.)

 If I had to recommend one collection to you this weekend, though, it would definitely be the King’s Quest IV+V+VI collection. These are the best games in the series in this writer’s humble opinion, and are essential classics of the graphic adventure genre.

(I am a little bit miffed that the Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria series aren’t on sale too, and Leisure Suit Larry and Laura Bow have still yet to make an appearance on the site. But still!)

In other GoG news, they have recently added the original Alone in the Dark trilogy to their catalogue.  If you’re a fan of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, you should by all means check out where the survival horror style originated (and who we can blame for the “tank” controls).

Bundle of Happiness

Finnish developer Frozenbyte has put together a fresh bundle of its games which will be available at whatever cost the buyer chooses to pay. The money can be divided between the Frozenbyte team, Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity or the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The games will be redeemable on Steam, OnLive and Desura.

The bundle will include several of Frozenbyte’s previously released games, including Shadowgrounds, its sequel Shadowgrounds Survivor and Trine, as well as the prototype game Jack Claw and, when it is finished, the new game Splot. The bundle will be available for the next fourteen days.