Produced by Viva Media
Written by Jane Jensen
When it comes to video games, I don’t care much about the mechanics. Jumping around in my living room, waving a giant electronic doodad holds little appeal for me. Give me a good story, a rich universe to explore, and characters I can get behind. In short, I like to lose myself in games the same way I do movies and books instead of mashing buttons till my thumbs bleed. For this reason alone, I’ve been mourning the death of the adventure game for the better part of a decade, remembering the glory days of those Sierra and Lucasarts PC classics. Thankfully, recent titles like Heavy Rain and developers like Telltale Games have helped reignite the subgenre and paved the way for one of the most exciting titles to come along for old-school gamers: Gray Matter, which marks the long-awaited return of legendary game designer Jane Jensen.
Jensen famously produced the Gabriel Knight franchise for Sierra, which, for my money, is the best genre-based game series of all time. Her ability to blend mythology and history into fully immersive supernatural detective stories is nothing short of staggering, and Gray Matter fits perfectly into that mold. It’s a throwback game in every sense of the word, utilizing a point and click interface to navigate players through an atmospheric world of ghosts, magic, secret societies, and science run amok.
The story revolves around stage magician Sam Everett, whose motorcycle breaks down while traveling through the European countryside. Taking shelter from the storm, she comes across the stately manor of Dread Hill House, home to famous neurobiologist David Styles, and poses as his new lab assistant to get a room for the night. The doctor is a young widower, sporting a Phantom of the Opera mask after surviving the tragic incident that claimed his wife, and spends his days conducting new research experiments. Before long, Sam becomes entangled in several mysteries involving David’s mysterious past, an underground club of magicians, and an experiment gone horribly wrong.
Gray Matter is a handsomely produced title that never goes where you quite expect it to. If you’ve played games of this type, you know the drill: Explore your environments, talk to characters, and use your wits to uncover clues. This isn’t a conventional mystery though: Chapters alternate between playing Sam and Dr. Styles, and several different threads and subplots merge into a surprisingly complex page-turner (or in this case, point-clicker). And like the very best adventure games, nothing is facetious; every action you do is in service to the plot. Beautifully rendered environments, solid voice acting and a haunting score help deepen the mystery as you move through various events in and around Oxford. As you progress, you’ll also have to dig into Sam’s magician’s handbook and pull off classic stage techniques to confuse and manipulate people into giving up information or getting past obstacles. It’s a cool little twist on the traditional logic puzzle (although a tad unchallenging for more experienced adventure gamers).
That said, Gray Matter’s main flaw stems from the same thing that has plagued similar titles over the past decade: the budget. While it boasts impressive production values throughout, the cut-scenes unfold through unanimated hand-drawings that cheapen an otherwise great game. They’re few and far between, but they also rob some moments of their emotional impact, particularly when it comes to the rushed climactic ending which feels like the developers simply ran out of money.
Still, like most adventure games, Gray Matter is about the journey and not the destination. It may not break new ground, but when it comes to gaming, sometimes the classical approach is the best. Hats off to Jane Jensen for crafting another gripping experience that echoes all the great PC games I grew up with and, for the first time in many years, made me excited to reach for my mouse-pad again.
4 1/2 out of 5
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