Gray Matter

 

 

Genre:   Adventure

Developer:  Wizarbox

Publisher:    dtp entertainment, Lace Mamba, Viva Media (US)

Released:  November 2010

PC Requirements:   Windows XP/Vista with .Net Framework 2.0, Pentium 4 1.4 GHz or 100% compatible CPU, 512 MB RAM (XP) or 1 GB RAM (Vista/7), 6.5 GB available hard disk space , 128 MB DirectX 9 compatible video card, 16 bit Direct X compatible sound card

Additional Screenshots

Walkthrough

 

 

 

 

by Becky

 

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 stretch.

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 expectations.

Background Graphics

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 generic.

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.

Sound

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 themes.

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 frustrating halt.

Interface

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 continue.

Navigation, map and inventory features live up to expectations. I encountered one annoying glitch. The number of saved game slots is inadequate.

Conclusion

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 scenes.

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-

What I played it on: 

Dell Studio XPS 8000

Windows 7 Home Premium

Intel Core i5-750 processor

6GB DDR3 SDRAM

1024MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 220

Soundblaster X-Fi

 

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December, 2010

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