By Marty Mulrooney
Gray Matter heralds the long-awaited return of Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen to the point-and-click adventure genre. Taking place in Oxford, England, players must take control of Samantha Everett, an American magician, and Dr. David Styles, a reclusive neurobiologist, as they unravel a complex plot where science and magic clash with paranormal phenomena. Originally announced in 2003 as Project Jane-J, the game saw numerous delays – as well as a change of developer – before finally seeing its English release in 2011. But was the long wait worthwhile?
Gray Matter begins with Samantha Everett, an American traveller, caught in a thunderstorm on her motorbike. Seeking shelter, she comes across Dread Hill House and in desperation, pretends to be the new assistant of the mansion’s owner. Awakening the next morning, Samantha quickly decides to keep up the ruse and soon finds herself running errands for the mysterious Dr. Styles in Oxford Town Centre, gathering up student volunteers for a secret experiment.
The opening cutscene, described above, utilises a unique hand drawn style that reoccurs regularly throughout the game. Although the in-game graphics are of a more traditional nature (3D models on top of pre-rendered backgrounds) the two starkly different visual styles actually merge very well, serving to create a fully coherent world. The game’s mechanics are introduced via a short tutorial, where players learn that hotspots will automatically change the cursor icon depending on what action is available. Using items, looking at objects, talking to people, picking up items, combining items or using a magic trick are all possible with a simple click of the left mouse button. The inventory is located at the top of the screen and hotspots can be highlighted with a press of the spacebar.
Although a traditional point-and-click game in many ways, Gray Matter also has some new tricks up its sleeves, often literally. Samantha is a mentalist and carries her magic trick book with her at all times. At specific points in the game, the right trick must be selected to help solve certain puzzles. These sequences utilise a diagram of Samantha where players must input commands after carefully studying the instructions of the current trick. These puzzles work wonderfully and go a great way towards helping the player feel that they are truly performing magic.
During certain chapters, the player must also take control of Dr. David Styles, who has half of his face hidden by a mask. Haunted by his beloved wife who died tragically in a freak car crash several years earlier, David is determined to vividly recreate his memories of their time together. In one of the most effective chapters of the game, David must gather items that remind him of her, triggering intense recollections, before fully submerging himself in an isolation tank filled with water and travelling back to a beautiful moment where she was still very much alive. Not only one of the best parts of the game, this haunting sequence – accompanied by an exquisite song performed by The Scarlet Furies – may well be one of my favourite moments in any adventure game, ever.
The two protagonist’s stories entwine when David conducts experiments on Samantha and several student volunteers she has gathered from Oxford University. The students are instructed to imagine that they are exercising whilst their brains activity is actively monitored. Shockingly, doing so seems to cause unexplained paranormal phenomena to occur at the places being imagined. Samantha and David begin to investigate and soon uncover fresh mysteries. Could this all have something to do with Samantha’s magical aspirations? Or could it have something to do with the ghost of David’s dead wife? Or even worse, perhaps one of the student volunteers is sabotaging the entire experiment…
Travelling between locations is handled via a map of Oxford, with place names changing colour depending on what remains to be done there. This is an excellent way of keeping track of where you must head to next, and combined with the Chapter Progress screen, players will seldom find themselves unsure about what needs to be done next. Sadly, although a points system is in place (with bonus points available) there is no reward for completing everything 100%, which I saw as a wasted opportunity: unlockable music tracks or artwork would have made welcome rewards.
Jane Jensen has once again outdone herself with her meticulous research. There are plenty of real life truths sprinkled amidst the fiction of Gray Matter, with magic, science and paranormal phenomena all presented in a realistic, intriguing manner. The fact that the game chooses to juggle so many different subject matters, whilst managing to weave them all into a satisfying narrative whole, is testament to Jensen’s supreme storytelling skills. Oxford is lovingly recreated, albeit with some artistic licence employed to give the environments a slightly gothic, almost Victorian appearance. Some British players may find this approach ignorant: I found it rather charming.
Samantha and David are voiced effectively, with both voice actors well suited to their roles. Unfortunately, the supporting cast are often a mixed bag: the student volunteers are great for example, however a young child in Timmons Park sounds terrible and some other characters seem slightly devoid of personality. Luckily, the main vocals are mostly strong and even when there is the occasional instance of a dodgy voice over, it is usually for such a short period of time that it can quickly be forgotten.
The soundtrack on the other hand is uniformly excellent, with Gabriel Knight veteran (and husband to Jane Jensen) Robert Holmes outdoing himself with a phenomenal score that consistently heightens the emotional impact of the ongoing storyline. He also offers some additional songs via his band The Scarlet Furies, with his daughter Raleigh Holmes offering pitch perfect, bittersweet, melancholy vocals that tug at the heartstrings.
The difficulty is well balanced, with the majority of the puzzles straightforward yet challenging. Samantha often has to face Daedalus Club Riddles – challenges set by an elite magical group – alongside the main objectives, and these offer some of the more brain-teasing elements of Gray Matter. Sadly, there is no inbuilt hints system and I must confess I occasionally had to refer to a walkthrough. However, the comprehensive diary (which saves every conversation and cutscene from the game) is all most players will ever need to get through the trickier parts.
Not everything can be said to be perfect in Gray Matter. Some of the animations look stilted, the voice acting can be hit and miss, and many players will find the entire experience far too traditional and old-school. However, an involving, emotional storyline, combined with solid puzzles and a memorable soundtrack, elevate Gray Matter far above any similar offerings of recent years.
For every complaint, there is a guaranteed moment of perfection where any small faults simply fade away, overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the overall experience. Perhaps not Jane Jensen’s greatest game, Gray Matter is still one of the finest adventure games I have ever played. A worthy successor to the Gabriel Knight trilogy that will hopefully give birth to a few sequels of its own, Gray Matter is destined to become an adventure gaming classic.
10 OUT OF 10