"... an exceptional game that will grab hold of your senses while you play and put you in a state of immersion that few games can match."
The name Jane Jensen is one that fans of point and click adventure games hold close to their hearts. She is responsible for some of some of the greatest titles in the genre, like Gabriel Knight or my all-time favorite King's Quest VI, so I was incredibly excited to see her attached to a new game. Those few who have heard of Gray Matter may know the story of its incredibly arduous road to retail: the game jumped around between three separate developers and had difficulties in securing a publisher. If these tales reached your ears, they may have caused you some worry, but I'm here to assure you that this an excellent entry in the genre. And even if it doesn't quite measure up to some of its creator's classics, Gray Matter is still an engaging adventure that is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears.
The game opens with Samantha Everett, a vagrant woman with a love of stage magic, stumbling upon the majestic Dread Hill House, home of a renowned neurobiologist named David Styles. Capitalizing on opportunity, Sam pretends to be an Oxford student whom Styles requested as a lab assistant, and is granted houseroom and a job. She quickly learns that Dr. Styles was the victim of a terrible tragedy, the aftereffects of which have smeared his reputation in the academic world and lead many in the Oxford community to declare him quite unhinged. Not all is as it seems, however, and together they begin a series of experiments with effects that lead to impossible results, and a mystery involving paranormal activity and a grief-stricken scientist struggling to commune with the dead begins to take shape.
Spread across eight chapters which typically jump back and forth between Sam and David's perspectives, the story is interesting, and the core mystery keeps you guessing. The concept of David's attempts to communicate with those who have passed on through "legitimate" scientific methods is fascinating, and though Samantha's ambition to become a master stage magician at first seems unrelated to the main story, the game deftly weaves the two plot threads together and keeps you guessing throughout. Occasionally, things do become a bit melodramatic (David's comment upon looking at a stack of books, "I read the driest science books I can find, but they still can't put me to sleep at night," and his choice of face covering come across as some of the more egregious examples), but for the most part the story is engaging and believable. Unfortunately, the final chapter, while full of interesting puzzles, offers an unsatisfying and rushed conclusion that leaves several questions unanswered. The journey is more interesting than the destination, in a sense.
The gameplay is classic point and click adventure fare. As Sam or David, players navigate the Oxford area searching for information and clues to the situation at hand, interacting with a number of colorful characters and grabbing every item that isn't bolted down in the hopes that it will later come in handy for solving a puzzle. The majority of the puzzle solutions are logical, though they occasionally stretch the limits of credulity. The difficulty is well-tuned: while there are few brain-bustingly difficult situations, many of the solutions left me with a sense of satisfaction at having worked them out, particularly in David's chapters. To stop things from becoming a pixel hunt, pressing the spacebar calls to attention everything onscreen that can be interacted with, which ensures that getting stuck is never the result of simply missing something that can be clicked on.
My one major gripe with the gameplay is how sluggish it feels. The characters turn slowly and plod towards their destination, and while double-clicking results in a run, the character usually takes several seconds to accelerate from walking speed. Interacting with objects usually requires David or Sam to (slowly) move to a very specific predetermined location, rotate on the spot, and then finally comment on or use whatever object is before them. However, there are a few mechanics that alleviate some of this sluggishness: double-clicking on any room exit will automatically result in the player passing through it, and an area map allows for quick travel at nearly all times.
While the gameplay is fairly good, the game truly stands out in terms of its graphics and music. Utilizing polygonal characters on top of prerendered backgrounds, the graphics in the game are simply gorgeous. Some of the art is absolutely stunning, and more than once I found myself standing still, staring at the backgrounds and taking in the beautiful details. The background art is a sumptuous fusion of a realistic and impressionistic style, and it is always colorful and attractive to look at. The character models, while not quite as attractive, are fairly detailed and for the most part blend in well with their surroundings. Chapters are usually punctuated by stylistically drawn animated cutscenes, and these are similarly well-drawn and feature a minimalist design that works very well. One area of the graphics that could use improvement, however, is the animation. Walking animations are generally good, but changing directions or interacting with anything in the environment usually results in some choppiness that stands out in sharp contrast to how excellent the backgrounds look.
The music was similarly outstanding. Composed by Robert Holmes (responsible for the music in the Gabriel Knight titles), it is comprised mainly of a number of somber piano and string tracks. I was simply struck dumb at times by the combination of the music and the graphics – their combined effect contribute fantastically to the gameplay, making the numerous occasions where I found myself wandering around or solving puzzles that much more entrancing.
The game's vocal themes featuring the composer's band, The Scarlet Furies, are also excellent, with the rest of the soundtrack frequently utilizing them as leitmotifs in a number of arrangements and situational themes. I really can't say enough about how effective the music is at setting a mood, so all I can suggest is that players try the game out and hear it for themselves.
However, much like the graphics, the audio has a small blemish on it. The voices are mostly good, and occasionally even exceptional for key characters, but are at times laughably bad for bit players. A number of the actors come across as faking British, Irish, or other European accents quite poorly, and at times they sound bored or as though they were completely unaware of their context. Fortunately, as I stated earlier, the voices you hear most often are done well.
Overall, this is an exceptional game that will grab hold of your senses while you play and put you in a state of immersion that few games can match, much like the very best of its spiritual predecessors. A few audio/visual foibles and a slow, methodical pace might drive some players away, but for anyone who is interested in quality adventure titles or relaxing, contemplative gameplay experiences, I couldn't recommend this game more.