Gray Matter has been in the cooker for some time. Originally announced in 2003, the game has been put on hold, revived, and has switched developers before its 2010 release in Europe, and 2011 release here. That's getting close to Duke Nukem Forever territory, but the reason gamers have been patiently waiting for its release has to do with its designer, Jane Jensen. Renowned for creating and writing the Gabriel Knight series, which is something of a legend in adventure game circles, Gray Matter marks her return to the genre. Does it hold up to those adventure game heavyweights of the 90's?
Gray Matter follows aspiring magician Sam Everett, who gets turned around on her way to London and ends up in Oxford, on the doorstep of neurobiologist Professor David Styles. Posing as a requested live-in assistant from Oxford University, Sam takes advantage of Styles' hospitality as she explores the town and assists him with his mysterious experiments involving group hypnosis. However, the supernatural seems to be following Professor Styles, as inexplicable events begin occurring around campus, and the spectre of his dead wife appears to be haunting his home's hallways. Sam figures she can solve this mystery, as well as attempting to join the Daedalus Club for magicians in London.
At times, Gray Matter plays out a like it should be a saucy romance novel, with the young, mysterious and handsome Professor Styles brooding in his extravagant country house, longing for his wife who suffered a tragic death. He even has that Phantom of the Opera half-mask thing going on. That aside, the game's story, while setting up intriguing mysteries, is a little bit all over the place. The game tries to incorporate the world of illusion and magic with the world of science and the world of the supernatural, and doesn't entirely pull it all off. We get the feeling a lot of it is meant as misdirection for the player in an attempt to pull off a twist at the end of the tale, but the problem is the story remains predictable, and unfortunately we saw every turn coming.
While characters are well drawn and given plenty of depth, the game doesn't capitalise on them enough. Side characters like Harvey, a film buff studying law, and Charles, a huge nerd who's only recently become extremely attractive, are developed in such a way that they should be utilised, but are essentially useless to the plot. In addition, the opening of the game is unclear, the last chapter of the game is mostly spent on puzzles unrelated to the larger story, and it all feels a bit short overall. While the emotional core of the game is surprisingly mature, concerning how we deal with death and longing, it's not really resolved satisfactorily by the end.
If there's one thing that hasn't changed, it's that Jane Jensen does her research, and her recreation of Oxford in Gray Matter is incredible. The Oxford you explore is inviting, detailed and intriguing, with interesting landmarks and historical details pointed out and the town's best architecture on display. Just as Jensen did for New Orleans and Munich in Gabriel Knight, she makes you actually want to visit the real Oxford. In addition, the neurobiology discussed is interesting and in-depth, even if the supernatural implications are played up for the narrative.
Gray Matter plays just like a standard point-and-click adventure game, as you take control of Sam and lead her around Oxford, collecting items and talking to the locals. The game controls exactly as you'd expect it would, and if you find yourself getting lost in the scenery, a tap of the space bar reveals the names of all interactive hotspots on screen. This is a really helpful feature, as it relieves pixel hunting for objects and allows you to focus more on how to use the objects in question. Certain chapters of the game also see you control Professor Styles. These are interesting for the sake of gaining a different perspective on the story, although the multiple character mechanic never really pays off.
The puzzles you encounter throughout the game, while generally fine, can get annoying. A lot of them require clicking on an object, or person, several times to provoke the desired response, or being in the right place at the right time to click on a certain object (even if you previously have and saw no result). However, there is a steep learning curve towards the end, and the last chapter is designed pretty much as an Esher-esque surrealist nightmare that provides the sternest challenges of the game.
In addition to the regular 'use object A on object B' solutions you'd expect from an adventure game, Sam is also capable of performing magic tricks. These are accessed via a magic handbook she carries with her at all times, which contains several magic tricks that can be performed (given that you have the correct objects and are in the appropriate situation). They are a good idea, but rather pointless in execution. You'll always be prompted by Sam with a comment like 'NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO USE A MAGIC TRICK HINT HINT', and all you have to do then is literally follow the instructions word for word in the handbook. There's no real thinking involved. To top it all off, some of the tricks are just variations on Marty McFly's venerable 'What the hell is that?!' distraction, and aren't really necessary at all.
There is a pleasant kind of non-linearity to the game, as you always have multiple objectives to complete within each of the game's eight chapters. You can normally choose which objective you see to first, although others are only activated after you've completed certain conditions. You can see all of this using the progress screen, which shows how close you are to completing these objectives, and the chapter overall. There's also a bonus bar which fills as you meet special conditions, but figuring these out is basically up to chance, as unless you click everything in every location, you're unlikely to fill it in every chapter without the use of a walkthrough.
The game's presentation, while overall strong, can be a little hit and miss. Backgrounds are beautiful, making it actually kind of hard to tell whether they're photographs, CGI, paintings, or a combination of any of those, their style being reminiscent of Gabriel Knight. Character models look great, but this only serves to highlight the terrible animation, as characters rarely interact with the backgrounds properly. Waving your hands around a table apparently constitutes eating breakfast, while waving your hands around a set of drawers apparently opens a different draw than the one your hands were in front of.
The game's story is also conveyed through barely animated cutscenes. The stylised drawings (similar to concept art) are a fine idea, but they can make it difficult to work out what's going on. In the introduction especially, where Sam replaces Styles' assistant, it's incredibly confusing as to what exactly is going on because the artwork is not clear. On the other hand, the voice acting is very good, and the music is quite enticing, with really beautiful and haunting compositions, especially evident in the main theme.
Overall, Grey Matter certainly has a lot of things going for it, and we did enjoy it for the most part. Jane Jensen spins an interesting, if unfocused, narrative that pulls you into its environment. Adventure game enthusiasts will enjoy the puzzles, especially the mind-trap that is the last chapter, and the objective system is a nice way of visualising your progress each day, feeling like an evolution of Gabriel Knight's multiple day system. However, magic tricks that don't really work with the gameplay, narrative elements that aren't fully developed and a bit of a shaky presentation hold the title back from living up to the hype it's long development cycle has generated. Go into it with lowered expectations, and you'll enjoy a perfectly fine point-and-click adventure game, that reminds you of the heights of the Gabriel Knight series, even if it doesn't attain them.