Designed by Jane
Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame, Gray Matter's
development has taken almost a decade and the involvement of multiple
developers and publishers to reach the gaming world. Wizarbox/dtp
entertainment/Lace Mamba is the combination that came through in the home
The game hasn't actually released in English yet; the
official English version is not due out until February 2011. (Editor's Note: Gray Matter is now available in stores in the U.S. and the U.K.) But for those
who cannot wait, it's possible to purchase the English version from German
suppliers because the German version includes an English language option.
I purchased the download version from Gamer Unlimited. (Doing this means
going through the purchasing process in German, which can be a bit tricky
-- it helps to keep a page with Google Translate open as you proceed).
My expectations for the whole experience, naturally,
were high. Did Gray Matter live up to expectations?
First, the Story
Samantha Everett is an American street magician with
a troubled past, a good deal of moxie, and a "goth" sensibility. She's
traveling to London, but when her motorcycle breaks down, she finds
herself stranded in Oxford during a drenching rainstorm. She has just five
pounds in her pocket -- not nearly enough to get to London by other means.
Sam takes advantage of an amazing piece of good luck.
As she leans her motorcycle against a stone wall outside Dread Hill House,
she overhears a conversation indicating that the resident is a professor
looking for a research assistant. She passes herself off as a student and
is hired, which solves one problem -- she now has a place to stay for the
night. But it creates other problems. Can she maintain the pretense and
stay employed long enough to earn the money to get to London?
Dr. David Styles is an Oxford neurobiologist who has
never recovered from the death of his wife in a car accident years
earlier. Badly burned in the accident, he wears a mask over part of his
face. He has a well-equipped lab in the basement, where he runs
experiments on the human brain.
Before the accident, Dr. Styles possessed wealth,
intellect, and the respect of his peers. The accident destroyed his
personal life and his perspective. He is haunted by the memory of his wife
and pained by his physical disfigurement. Caught up in his own
neuropsychological research, he seldom leaves Dread Hill House, and seems
oblivious to his diminished stature as a scientist.
With an experiment imminent, Dr. Styles needs
research subjects, and it's Sam's job to find them. Since Dr. Styles'
reputation at Oxford has devolved to "eccentric in the extreme," Sam must
use persuasive tactics to convince students to participate. Sam needs all
her wiles, including tricks she's picked up while training to become a
magician, to get a handful of students to agree.
The story unfolds through several chapters. For the
first two chapters you play as Sam. After that you switch back and forth,
playing as Dr. Styles in one chapter, and as Sam in the next. Changing
roles provides insight into each character, his/her background, ways of
perceiving events and psychological quirks.
The story of these odd yet compelling personalities
grows deeper as the gameplay unfolds. There are minor characters who are
also memorable, but these two carry the game.
I expected plot intricacy and character growth,
and I was not disappointed. The story and characters live up to
Oxford in the autumn is beautiful, and the game takes
full advantage, with detailed surroundings and a rich, storied atmosphere.
The game weaves historical references into the settings and some of the
puzzles as well. Environments include a medieval tower, a museum, a garden
in full bloom framed by autumn leaves, and a lake bordered by parklands.
Even some of the faculty offices are jaw-dropping.
Dread Hill House accentuates the game's sometime
creepy tone, with a tower, gargoyles, and gothic statues. High tech
research equipment, skulls and bottled brains festoon the basement.
Swirling storm clouds are ever-present above the mansion. (Nature
apparently reflects Dr. Style's mindset.)
An underground maze-like location reached late in the
game contains visual themes and challenges decidedly different from those
at Oxford, and provides a fitting endgame setting.
Oxford in October is almost paradise. The
background graphics live up to expectations.
Animation and Cut Scenes
The animation is a mixed bag. As player characters,
Sam Everett and David Styles move smoothly. Minor characters don't move
much, but when they do (especially in the rare instances where they appear
as a group) movements are somewhat awkward. During each character's
dialogs, his face appears in a portrait near the bottom of the screen.
These close-ups were enjoyable; Sam's portrait, however, is surprisingly
Gray Matter has many cut scenes. A few seem to
use the game engine and are almost indistinguishable from the gameplay.
Others employ still or partly animated panels with a graphic-novel-like
esthetic. Much cut scene content has a surreal quality, influenced by the
weird stuff going on in the game and the perceptions of the characters --
some who seek a certain manifestation and others who wouldn't believe it
if it smacked them in the face.
The stylized nature of the cut scene panels pulled me
out of the story and reduced game immersion. Still, I found myself going
back and triggering some of them over and over, trying to decipher their
meanings and implications.
Certain animations and cut scenes detract from,
rather than add to, the game's atmosphere.
The game features a significant amount of character
interaction. Voiceovers are of high quality and accents from characters of
different nationalities sound genuine. Dialogs can be clicked through;
they contain occasional vulgarities. The game menu has a vocal ensemble
melody that changes when you switch between Sam and Dr. Styles. Both
played in my head for days. Background music in the rest of the game
mostly consists of contemplative orchestral variations on these two
Sound added significantly to the overall
atmosphere and to individual characterizations.
Story and Gameplay Integration
Gray Matter is a nonlinear game and its design
creatively merges story and gameplay. Each chapter contains multiple
missions for the current player character, and each mission advances the
story while challenging the gamer. Sam's expertise as a street magician
comes into play in two ways. First, there are challenges where you
"program" a set of steps to mimic Sam's sleight of hand movements while
using specific inventory items. In additional, Sam has her heart set on
finding out more about the Daedalus Club, a group of legendary magicians
whose location can only be discovered by solving a set of riddles.
The Daedalus Club quest weaves in and out of Sam's
other responsibilities and the additional challenges of maintaining a
false identity. Sam befriends a group of students, investigates a series
of strange events on campus, and tries to learn as much as she can about
Dr. Styles' accident.
Dr. Styles' missions include preparation for the
isolation tank, setting up a device for recording "psi" effects, and
trying to recall suppressed memories.
Gray Matter's masterly design has a major
downside: it contains many invisible triggers, with several hotspots
changing their function partway through the game. Sometimes events
indicate that it's probable that a hotspot has changed; other times
(particularly if you've become engrossed while working on a different
mission for that chapter) the change comes as a surprise. Nearly all of
the triggers make sense in hindsight, but I wasn't always foresightful
enough to figure out the likely change.
If you are stuck in Gray Matter (and I'll
wager that at times, you will be), I advise returning to basics. Revisit
every hotspot to see if it has become available for use with an inventory
item or as part of a magic trick. Retry every item in inventory with every
other item in inventory (these can be subject to invisible triggers too).
Call everyone on the cell phone contact list. And last (but definitely not
least) look at the map to see if a new location has become available.
Gray Matter contains a nascent in-game hint
system: pressing the space bar reveals all hotspots. Hotspot labels
display continuously until you press the space bar again (so you don't
have to enable the feature in each location -- a nice touch). The game
also contains a "Progress Bar" that names each mission in a chapter and
shows you what percentage you have completed. These devices did ease the
frustration factor. However, a more developed hint system, perhaps
including a way to identify which trigger has just been "tripped," would
have been appreciated.
The expert merging of story and gameplay exceeds
expectations. But invisible triggers can bring specific missions to a
This game uses a point-and-click interface and third
person perspective. The inventory is easy to use. Navigation is smooth.
Double-clicking causes the player character to run. Double-clicking on an
exit results in immediate access or access after a quick loading screen.
Minor quibbles: once they've gone into inventory,
some of the text documents are difficult to read. Occasionally, closely
grouped hotspots are finicky. There are twenty save game slots -- I could
have used double that number. (Editor:
the documents in inventory can be read by using the mouse scroll wheel to
zoom in or out.)
The hotlinked map can be accessed at any time.
Thankfully, you don't have to exit buildings before you can use it.
In terms of negative expectations: past experience
prompts me, when playing a game of this ambition and complexity, to expect
lots of glitches. I was actually surprised to find only one glitch in
Gray Matter. Near the end of the fourth chapter, a cut scene crashed
to the main menu, and I needed a saved game from another gamer to
Navigation, map and inventory features live up to
expectations. I encountered one annoying glitch. The number of saved game
slots is inadequate.
Gray Matter contains a dramatic, satisfying
finale. A few secrets still lurk, though, leaving the gamer both satisfied
after finishing a remarkable game -- yet fervently hoping for a sequel.
Quick List for Gray Matter
An intricate story, tinged with darkness, set mostly
in Oxford, England. The game introduces Samantha Everett, a young American
street magician who radiates pluck and flair. An intriguing cast of
characters, detailed naturalistic environments. Graphic-novel-like cut
Third person perspective and a point-and-click
interface. Smooth navigation. Quick loading screens. A helpful map with
hotlinks. Pressing the space bar reveals all hotspots.
Excellent writing and voiceovers. Lots of character
interaction. An unusually effective ending. Occasional vulgarities during
the dialogs. Dialogs can be clicked through. Intense psychological themes
and implied violence make the game appropriate for late teens and up.
I completed the game in 22 hours. No problems with
installation. One glitch that necessitated using a saved game from another
gamer. 20 save slots.
Inventory puzzles, magic tricks, assembling and using
mechanical devices and computers. An unusually good story and clever
gameplay integration. Many invisible triggers. No timed puzzles, no
sliders, no sound or color based puzzles. One maze-like location with a
further internal maze. You can't die. Two difficult challenges: the
"funhouse" sequence and the brain scan sequence.
Aimed at gamers who enjoy servings of darkness and
psychological depth with their gaming. Also aimed at the fans of designer
Jane Jensen and the Gabriel Knight adventure series. A must play
for those who crave a good story.
Final Grade: A-
played it on:
Dell Studio XPS 8000
Core i5-750 processor
NVIDIA GeForce GT 220
GameBoomers Review Guidelines