- Fantastic and strong cast of characters
- Beautiful story
- Clever puzzles
- The Daedalus Club
- Point of view switch helps connect with the characters.
- Fantastic use of Oxford locations and history.
- Character portraits aren’t very good looking.
Gray Matter is a Point & Click adventure game developed by Wizarbox, published by DTP Entertainment, and most importantly, designed by the awesome Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight trilogy and Phoenix Online Studios’ Story Consultant for their fantastic episodic game Cognition.
I first saw the game years ago, and have been hunting it for three years now, but I could never find it and it was never released on Steam. Thankfully, a few months and with a stroke of luck I found a PC download version on Viva-Media, and I wasted no time buying, downloading and playing it.
The story is set in Oxford, England and its many Universities and campuses, and stars Samantha Everett, a traveling street magician trying to find the elusive Daedalus club, the place where the best magicians perform. During the game’s opening cinematic, Sam takes the wrong turn on the road, going to Oxford instead of London, and not long after that, her motorcycle dies, leaving her stranded. Thankfully, she sees a house in the distance and makes her way there. On arrival, she notices a woman repeating the phrase “I’m the new assistant for Dr. Styles” to herself over and over again, but after she rings the bell, something scares her and she runs away. Not wasting the opportunity, Sam walks up to the door and introduces herself as Dr. Styles’ new assistant.
The first time you control Sam, you’re given the option of going through the tutorial, revolving around Sam’s pet rabbit, Houdini, who’s escaped from his cage and needs to be found somewhere in the room, fed and given water, in the process showing you all the different mechanics and contextual cursor icons (the cursor changes shape depending on the type of action you can perform with the object/location). If you decide not to go through the tutorial, you don’t get any other tutorial messages in the game, giving experienced players or re-players a chance of going about their business without the game prompting you what to do. It’s a very interesting and smart design and one I applaud.
As Dr. Styles’ assistant, one of your first tasks, and thus your first puzzles, is to get him a number of test subjects (including yourself), for the reclusive Doctor’s experiments. Sadly, Dr. David Styles has a bit of a reputation in Oxford, and not a good one. After the accident that claimed his wife and left him with severe burns, mostly on the right side of his face, Dr. Styles becomes a hermit, rarely leaving his home, and soon after, rumours start to float around campus, building him a very bad reputation and making Sam’s life a bit harder; but with ingenuity and Sam’s nice book of magic tricks, you get your subjects together and begin the experiments. It is then that things start taking a turn for the weird. On the flip-side, while going about on Dr. Style’s business, Sam comes across a magic shop and the first of a few of Daedalus Club puzzles, meant to test those interested in the club and have them prove their worthiness of performing in the elusive club.
The game handles like your traditional Point & Click game, you click to move, see (eye icon), pick up (palm), use item with (hand with “?”), interact with environment (cogs), inspect (magnifying glass), and move to (door); and which icon shows, as previously mentioned, depends on the object and what you’re supposed to do with it. An item you don’t need will show the eye icon to look at it, but if you get to the point where it’s useful, the icon, of course, will change to reflect that.
Gray Matter is a Point & Click adventure game, and as such, let’s talk about puzzles. While there aren’t any brain sizzlers, though you might be stuck here and there, the puzzles are actually quite clever, using their environment to the utmost. By environment, I mean Oxford and its locations, up to and including the Christ Church College Dining Room, featured for many years as Hogwarts’ Dining Hall. In the very truest Jane Jensen fashion, there’s also plenty of History worked into the game, one of the best examples being the 2nd Daedalus Puzzle, revolving around Oxford native author Lewis Carroll. Further enhancing the puzzle variety and complexity in some cases, you have Sam’s magic tricks. Several situations/puzzles in the game need to be solved using them. You use her book to select which one fits the situation and then, you need to “build” the trick following the steps from the book but applying them, with some improvisation, to the current situation. It’s extremely clever and all tricks find their use in the game. The Daedalus Club deserves special mention for their intriguing puzzles and mysterious nature, and it’s one organization I hope to see in future Jensen games.
Visually, it’s very good. Character models are fluid and very well animated. Environments are hand-drawn and they are all gorgeous. There isn’t a single drab environment, even the “mundane” look absolutely fantastic, and the 3D characters move very well in the 2D environment. It’s something that’s usually not even worth mentioning, but enough times have I seen 2.5D go very wrong. The only downside is the character portrait. When they talk, they are a bit too zoomed in, somehow making them seem ugly compared to the full body model. Cinematics are also hand drawn, in a stylized comic book style, with a very interesting visual filter on top, adding something of a paper-esque quality to the screen, as well as some grain to the video.
On the sound side, it’s amazing and it’s the Jensen family package. She did the story and game design, her husband Robert Holmes did the music and of course, the Scarlet Furies, with singer and Cognition voice star Raleigh Holmes, performing three of the game’s songs, including the Theme Song! Voice acting is, for the most part, pretty damn good. Sam’s voice star, Phillipa Alexander, does a fantastic job with the street magician-would-be-assistant. Steven Pacey voices the grieving David Styles, and the performance is so good you end up feeling his pain and loss as your own.
Speaking of them, characters and of course, characterizations are solid. Sam’s an amazing character, motivated, headstrong, but extremely caring and willing to go to any length to protect those she cares about. David on the other hand is a tortured individual, who has suffered so much he can barely see beyond his own pain, making him appear bitter and sullen to other people. Mrs. Dalton, the housekeeper, is Mrs. Doubtfire made flesh; caring (sometimes overprotective) and wise but with a stern streak when she needs to warn people not to do or say anything they shouldn’t. Gray Matter has a considerably small cast, but they’re all very well developed characters, with plenty of shades to them.
The story is beautiful. It’s a tale of grief and moving on, but also searching for your dreams, whatever they may be. It’s also a cautionary tale, a warning of the dark side of ambition, loss and love, of what happens when those go to extremes and become obsessions. The story, just as in other Jensen games, is told over the course of several chapters (days in Gabriel Knight), with the plot divided evenly between Dr. Styles’ experiments and their strange consequences and Sam’s own quest for the Daedalus club. Supporting this split, and as a fantastic design choice when handling such a complex character as David, your point of view switches during the course of the game between Sam and Dr. Styles, giving you enough time with each of them to fully know, understand and care for them.
In the end, Gray Matter is a fantastic game, and once that once again proves Jane Jensen is the master at her craft, with a compelling and tear-inducing story, couple with fun and engaging and very clever puzzles. This is a must-buy game for all adventure gamers.
The ending leaves you with two very good questions: “Will there be a Gray Matter 2?” and “Do Gabriel Knight and Sam Everett live within the same universe?” The answer for both, in my case, is “I hope so!”
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Overpaying. There aren’t really any flaws with the game, and what it delivers will stay with you for the rest of your life. This is the highest score a game can get in The Mental Attic.
Wanna know what these scores mean? Head up to the Review System page for a detailed explanation!