A Vaudevillian Veteran Plays: Gray Matter (2010)


Credits to:
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Gray Matter Belongs to Jane Jensen
Thanks to all who helped with proofreading.

Disclaimer: There may be some small spoilers but no major plot points or twists will be spoiled. You have have been warned!

Gray Matter (2010)

  • Genre: Adventure/ Point-and-Click
  • Rated: image
  • Developed by: WizarBox
  • Platforms: Microsoft Windows / Xbox 360

  • Note: This review is coming from the 360 version of this game.

    Gray Matter is the newest game from Jane Jensen reknowned for the Gabriel Knight series- a staple of the point-and-click adventure genre and her general contributions to mystery games over the years. It was first announced in 2003 and was set to release the following year, where it was put on hold until 2010, finally being released during November in Germany and Spain, then February 2011 for Europe and North America.
    I myself first heard about this game while browsing for cheaper games online, the premise had intrigued me, but finding much information on this game or even finding it in-store proved difficult until I took the plunge and found it. I admit that I have not played many point-and-click adventure games nor had any idea of the pedigree the game had beforehand under Jane Jensen's name, but I was interested. In comparison to the regular variation of games released for the Xbox 360, the presence of a new point-and-click adventure game was a interesting new experience.

    ...Oh you and your rage~
    ...Oh you and your rage~

    The game is set in modern day Oxford, England, centering around an American magician named Samantha Everett or Sam, where while travelling by motorbike to London to further her career, is thrown off track by a wooden sign that is switched around by the winds of fate (don't you hate when that happens? Apparently in this version of England, there are still wooden sign-posts, Constables called Reginald and everything is very quaint). However, her bike breaks down in the rain forcing her to seek shelter at the near-by Dread Hill House by posing as the resident "mad scientist" David Styles' new assistant. After staying the night, she tries to sneak away but realizes that leaving a fairly well-paying job, a roof over her head and having 3 square meals a day, seems like a bad idea and continues to pose as the assistant.

    Eventually, David orders Sam to recruit six students as test subjects for David's research. Through clever manipulation and magic tricks, Sam manages to find four students willing to volunteer for the experiment. The professor recalls her to Dread Hill House, letting her know that he found a fifth candidate and making Sam herself the sixth.

    As the game progresses, Sam learns about the professor's tragic and illustrated past, his research on the paranormal, the prestigious members-only Daedalus magic club, a series of bizarre events that take place at Oxford University, and how these events are connected.
    The story itself is fairly original and keeps the player guessing the entire time, even if the ending itself is slightly lack-luster and there are a few pangs of "Soap Opera" to the narrative.
    The game itself ping-pongs between playing as Sam, trying to get into a magician's secret club and working out the strange goings on in Oxford, utilizing her slight-of-hand talents to get past obsticles, while keeping it under wraps that she isn't really a student or the real assistant. Sam's repertoire is limited to a book of a dozen or so illusions, and after you have selected the right one for the right occasion, you have to coach her through the intricacies of performing it, moving objects from the left hand to the right sleeve, for example, and choosing when to misdirect. Admittedly something new and interesting to work with.

    Er...The Dark Magician? The Phantom of The Opera Rises?
    Er...The Dark Magician? The Phantom of The Opera Rises?

    David's portion of gameplay is far less exciting, focusing on him regaining memories of his dead wife from various places they went in order to do a specific experiment. Think Memento but instead of photographs, he's creepily sniffing her shampoo bottles and pawing through old clothes. David is a famous neurological scientist, so he doesn't spend much time practicing magic, so Sam's slight-of-hand memory sections are untouched. It feels less like an adventure game and more like you're being asked to act your way through a low-budget movie that you haven't been given the script to, and whenever you find something that reminds David of his beloved wife, we get a brief cutscene that can only be described as soft pornography mixed with over-top-romance cliches of their lives before she passed away. Sounds fun, doesn't it?

    David as a character spends the majority of his time being melancholy or sour but also having his moments of snark and being a genuinely interesting character. Sam too is very likable, even if she isn't without flaws too. The both of them have a good amount of chemistry but doesn't cross into romantic territory. Their growing relationship is a nice subplot that definitely added some detail to the story.

    The side characters on the other hand aren't as interesting or standable. The other test subjects are a ragtag multi-cultural team of annoying students. We have Harvey, an over the top New-Yorker who is the comic relief and is obnoxious, Angela, a shy Scottish woman who is probably one of the most tolerable, Charles, an also shy British "Mummy's boy", Helena, A rich French woman who stalks Charles because she apparently wants to seduce/sexually assault him (it is rather hard to tell) [1] and finally Malik, an Indian student who is bland. It's difficult to care about or enjoy these characters the majority of the time and can really break immersion.

    Speaking of immersion breaking, Gray Matter's technical and graphical failings are probably the most outstanding, tripping over at the first hurdle and having great difficulty getting up.

    I've fallen into a painting and I can't get out!
    I've fallen into a painting and I can't get out!

    The static backgrounds have an eerie prettiness to them that vary up nicely and bring in a great atmosphere with their thick drapery and dusty congregations of house plants within the house and the misty, cobbled streets outside. But the blandly designed CG characters for the most part, float on top of them unconvincingly. As such, the game's 2D and 3D assets coexist just barely, feeling more like you're playing with a marionette against a background. [2]

    Animation is weak throughout - watching a character turn around or navigate a table and chairs can be awkward and painful to watch. And while the music, collaborated with by Jane's husband, Robert Holmes, is moody, well-made and likable, it's partnered with mostly bad voice acting (main characters exempt most of the time) and sound effects of such bizarrely poor quality that if you close your eyes it can be hard to tell exactly what's going on.

    These issues are forgivable by themselves, but they undermine Gray Matter's dramatic aspirations in a depressing manner, with the game's final confrontation being particularly poorly served. Thanks to muted sound, a limp cloud of particle effects and the seizure-style acting of the marionette cast, the drama and story are really stepped on.

    This game's interface is bad and should feel bad!
    This game's interface is bad and should feel bad!

    With the interface, Gray Matter's original PC incarnation uses the fairly standard single-button click for interacting with the environment, but the 360 port opts for a radial menu that allows you to zip between all available hot spots in a room. But while the designers do their best to map the position of in-game objects to the correct parts of the wheel as often as possible, they fail just as regularly. Made worse by how sensitive and annoying it is to move the radial wheel, with the eye-squintingly small and blurred text on screen, this combined with the badly-made button and layout tutorials will make your first few hours with the game less than enjoyable.

    It can be given some leniency considering how many publishers and producers this game was kicked around to during it's lengthy production time and in a way, that makes it a sad story of a game with potential, hindered by far too many things.
    While Gray Matter has some really good things like an enjoyable mystery plot, interesting stage magic and parapsychology themes with good-looking Oxford environments, it is really dragged down by the aforementioned interface and other issues. Including the puzzles themselves, with are very particular and picky about how you solve them, and due to the stream-lined story, you need to make sure that you do every little thing in the chapter before you can even consider moving on.
    Final rating:

    The option of multiple endings and different ways to take the story would have made the game much more entertaining and re-playable, but for what it is and if you were and still are a fan of point-and-click adventure games, it would not hurt picking it up.

    [1] You know, for a 12 rated game, they get away with quite a few things like this.

    Good review thar. Not your best in my eyes but still a good review overall.
    And I'll be honest, this doesn't sound like a game for me. I'm not a big fan of point and click games. :P

    Very interesting.
    I like story driven point and click games so if it is even remotely good, I might check it out if I can get my hands on it.
    Do you know where I could get this? Is it available just through Amazon or something like that?
    I can't seem to find it on 360 >.>

    Very interesting.
    I like story driven point and click games so if it is even remotely good, I might check it out if I can get my hands on it.
    Do you know where I could get this? Is it available just through Amazon or something like that?
    I can't seem to find it on 360 >.>

    Seeing as you're in the UK, CEX would be your best bet for affordable (costing £12), but finding this game is a challenge. I found my copy in GameStation. If you don't fancy looking in-store, it's available on both eBay and Amazon~

    Visually, this looks like it could be my favorite game ever. Unfortunately, point and click games bore me to tears harder than turn-based games.

    Very good review though. I just wish I had more interest in the point and click style.

    Machinarium rekindled my affair with point and clickers. And this one looks amazingly well painted, so just on that alone I might give it a gander.


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