Review: Gray Matter (PC)

Posted: April 30, 2011 in PC, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

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

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Comments
  1. I’m glad you included that final sentence, Chad! Could this be a permanent return for Mrs. Jensen to the world of videogame design? I sure hope so…

    Also, here’s to hoping, in her next game, we’ll see a reuniting of some sort with Tim Curry, hands-down my favorite voice actor ever!

  2. Chad, I’m intrigued by Grey Matter – I loved the conspiratorial atmosphere and banter of GK3, if not the puzzles so much. I’ve not played the earlier GK games so sadly those comparisons you offer are lost on me.

    If I had more game time this year I would definitely pick this up and give it a stir.

    So what would give this title? 76/100? 79/100? Reviews need numbers dammit. =)

    • Chad M. says:

      I give the game my hearty recommendation to adventure game fans, rather than a score. 🙂

      And if you’re lacking in the complete GK experience I believe GoG.com has all the entries fairly cheap.

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