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Zen Review: Gray Matter

GrayMatter1Gray Matter, Jane Jensen’s newest Point-And-Click adventure brings back the memories of the golden age of adventure games. The way Gray Matter plays, it is almost identical to Gabriel Knight 1 and 2 with some new but subtle enhancement, so fans of the GK series would welcome it with the warm feeling of nostalgia; as for the new players to the genre, the interface is simple enough just like the Telltale games — you click on hot-spots and the protagonist will interact with the environment as needed, without having the player to switch their icons into different verbs or actions. As for enhancements, borrowed from more recent adventure games is the feature to highlight all the hot-spots you could potentially interact with in-game, which helps to eliminate the trial-and-error clicking that plagued the genre in the past. Technologically the game looks at least a decade old, like the first Siberia, the Longest Journey and Still Life; due to changing hands between German, Hungarian and French developers and getting put on hold for a few years; Artistically Gray Matter shines just enough so the antiquity of the technology doesn’t really get in the way. If you wanted to play Gabriel Knight 1 with the graphics of the Longest Journey, that is what Gray Matter is — and comes with it the artistically directed, appropriately voice-acted, brilliantly written story by Jane Jensen, the genius behind one of the most beloved adventure  series of all time.

Samantha Everett is the central protagonist of Gray matter, a young ambitious fledgling street magician in search of her potential big debut and her acceptance into the secret society of magicians in London, by sheer chance or fate, happens upon the house of Dr. David Styles, a recluse disfigured neural-scientist of recent tragic car accident running strange experiments trying to resurrect the memories of his diseased wife. Sam posses as the new assistant and infiltrates the Oxford student body as she works on her quest to get into the secret society, as Styles work towards uncovering the truth behind the strange events happening on campus caused by his experiments and the manifestation of his dead wife. Fans of the GK series would appreciate how well researched Jane Jensen’s projects are and that hasn’t change here, as in the veins of novels like Da Vinci Code (which was a blatant indirect rip-off of GK 3), Oxford’s rich history and locale comes to life, like the origins of Alice in Wonderland, and even references to the filming location of recent Harry Potter films. Science also plays a big part in the story, as well as the supernatural,and conspiracy…  very much like the Gabriel Knight series, Gray Matter is a mystery with a supernatural undertone. As events unfold players would have to take a stance — whether they stand with Sam believing the strange occurrences as the ploy of a master magician staging the grand illusion, or Dr. Styles’ belief of some neurological experiment gone awry mixed with  spiritual haunting events unfolding.

Gray Matter’s story is broken into 8 chapters, switching between the 2 protagonist just like Gabriel Knight 2,  it is always told with the right pace to keep the player on edge as the mystery unfold. While Gray Matter isn’t a particularly difficult game, it may be a tad bit more challenging than recent adventures without a built-in hint system and straight forward game-play;  hot-spots and quests progress reports  help players a lot, and just like in Gabriel Knight 2, locales that still have crucial quests to be done are highlighted gold, while optional actions  are white, and the finished ones have their names faded — that helps the players a lot to eliminate places they are done with so they can concentrate on areas that they have not fully explored. Puzzles-wise the game is a true successor to the GK series — there’s none of those leap-of-faith item combination puzzles found in the Maniac Mansion Day of the Tentacle, it is purely investigation and conversation and opening up new areas on the world map and visiting that and re-investigating old locales until the event that would end the day kicks in, while it sounds uninspiring coming from me, the game couldn’t be structured better — combined with its masterfully told story, I couldn’t think of a better mystery adventure game I have played for the last decade — Still Live and Sherlock Holmes and Heavy Rain please step aside.

GrayMatter2GM isn’t a perfect game of course — the highlight objects key wasn’t always responsive — while we zoomed in on objects we would have to press it again and there’s always a long delay. The magic tricks Sam having to choose to perform is a great plot-advancement device, but knowing which trick to pick is simple trial and error; and working out the correct steps to carry out the performance is as simple as following a walk-through to play this game if one were to exist and it feels like the game could have been better off with that section eliminated, or maybe replaced by some kind of Heavy Rain quick time events which would force the player to repeat their actions if mistakes were made. The final showdown felt less epic than it should have been and the pacing felt a little rushed, as if 2 chapters were skipped so that the developers can rush the game out, and the ending felt a bit more open-ended than desired. Some plot threads were just not resolved and left too much to the player’s interpretation — and I admit  they are kind of a double-edged blade, in some ways it keeps you thinking, but in this case the bad slightly outweighed the good, and could be seen as lazy storytelling. Also if I had a choice I would have preferred the fully acted cut-scenes of Gabriel Knight 2 instead of the comic-book like-stills of Gray Matter, though it doesn’t detract too much from the experience, if cut-scenes should even exist in this day and age anymore.

Gray Matter is a great game in every way — it isn’t going to replace our fond memories of the Gabriel Knight. While it does pale in comparison to what was one of the pinnacle of adventure gaming, for being such a refined product of well-told story and carefully crafted multimedia experience, it has been well worth the decade-long wait for the fans of Jensen’s work. The new protagonists are  strong,  interesting and deep in their own way to carry on a series, if a sequel does come out (it was hinted at the Epilogue) depending on the success of this game, hopefully we don’t have to wait another 10 years for Jensen’s next game — at least I am glad that she is sticking to doing what she is good at, unlike other industry veterans who sacrifices their artistic vision in order to appeal to the next generation of gamers (Yes talking about you Specter and Schaeffer) .

Note: Played Through The German PC version of Gray Matter (with full English track). Eagerly waiting for the Xbox 360 version.

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1 comment to Zen Review: Gray Matter

  • kostas palaiologos

    I’ve started using computers since 1997. Gabriel Knight The beast within was a game I really enjoyed for many weeks. Next the Sacred blood Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was by far the best game I ever played. I started playing in an illegal copy but soon afterwards I bought it. Until now I have the original box and CDs placed at my bookshelf. It was just excellent in all aspects.

    Now with gray matter I’m a little disappointed. I admit that the story line is excellent however the general appearance of the game is bellow average.
    I was waiting for this game since its announcement in 2005. Every Gabriel Knight had technical achievements for their time. What a pity for the gray matter. Jane Jensen is a computer programmer and she could at least, point something at the general development. I have the sense that she lost her willing after so many delays. Nevertheless the game story is good and worth to be played.
    I hope after 10 years of waiting to see another game from Jane Jensen that will be as good as her talent.

    My dream is a game for Jane just for Playstation with great graphics. It would be less pirated and more enjoyable.

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