Gray Matter

I do not think I am alone in simply buying a product just because of who was involved in its creation, with no real regards to whether it will turn out good or not. In my case, I easily pick up games or even books if Jane Jensen was involved in the making of them. This led me to acquire a title that I wanted to dedicate a review to for the longest time: Gray Matter. It was co-designed and written by Jane Jensen, with Robert Holmes composing the music for it. To be honest, I was shocked it even got released.

Why is that? Well, it was originally announced in 2003 as “Project Jane-J” and was going to be released the very next year. However, the game was put on hold and revived by the German publisher Anaconda in 2006, before the development was moved from the Hungarian team Tonuzaba, to the French studio Wizardbox in 2008. Finally, it got released in late 2010, but only in Germany and Spain. It was not until early the year after that the rest of Europe got it, as well as North America and Australia. This was especially bizarre when the German and Spanish releases included an option for English language. I wonder if this journey to create Gray Matter was just because of troubled development or if the passion for it was truly so big, that it needed seven years in order to be made.


The bridge between science and magic

Through a cold and stormy night, a young woman named Samantha rides on her motorcycle towards London to meet someone. Unfortunately, she takes a wrong turn by a misleading sign and her bike ends up stopping to work. As she pushes on, she spots a mansion nearby and sees an opportunity to spend the night there by impersonating herself as the new assistance looking for work at their establishment, known as The Center of Cognitive Abnormal Research. After a good night’s rest, she figures that she should escape before they catch up to her lies. However, when she notices that it is difficult to do so, she instead takes on work from her new boss, Dr. Styles. The first one being finding six candidates for his research.

As you could probably tell, this story is dealing with supernatural elements. This is very fitting considering Jane Jensen’s most known work is the Gabriel Knight-series, where each title dealt with themes from the horror genre, such as vampires and voodoo. Even more similarly; Gray Matter is set as a mystery novel. You will have to gather clues on the events that are going on, figure out if these fit together somehow, and what your discoveries results in. While these aspects show that this title is clearly a nod to Jensen’s earlier titles, Gray Matter feels like the natural evolution of her work.

There is a constant theming of reality vs superstition, where illusion becomes the bridge between these two aspects. This is a fascinating form of duality and a connection that we can already see from our two protagonists. Samantha is a magician with her feet planted in reality, who only plays tricks on the audiences’ perception. She believes there is no such things as magic, just the illusion of it. Meanwhile, Dr. Styles studies the scientific aspects of the mind in order to get in contact with the supernatural, trying to break the illusion. This is not just a great idea for broadening the take on the supernatural instead of sticking to one part of it, but because of this duality the game presents, you are never truly sure on what is going on. There are solid twists, intriguing questions to be asked, and an uncanny atmosphere around every corner, making it easy to get lost in the story’s plot and setting.

Since the game is set in the real town of Oxford, you will also discover noticeable locations with many holding important historical trivia that can even help you out on your quest, which makes you more involved in the areas you are in. Sadly, one unfortunate take is that some of the optional lore are only shown in the loading screens, which can easily be missed thanks to the strong PCs of today. Dedicated fans of the 360 should still experience loading times in that version of the game, for better and worse. Adding to the charm of this world, are Samantha’s quirky lines from her looking at the environments, objects and people, be they informative or good for a chuckle. This is a tradition point-and-clicks are well known for, and it also helps to make Samantha into a likeable character that has a believable personality.

In three of the eight chapters, you will also play as Dr. Styles, who is quite the contrast to Samantha. While she is whimsical and young at heart, Styles is more direct with his observations and can sound pessimistic, making for another interesting take on highlighting their differences and subtle similarities. It is interesting to study how they act in comparison through every monologue and dialogue, to the point where you will notice a form of Yin and Yang approach between these two characters, which is truly wonderful.

I will say that the dialogues can be awkward and even if they are in tone with the strange atmosphere the game presents, they can come off as poor in their directions thanks to the voice acting being all over the place. This is important to already note here, as it becomes uncertain if their tone is because of a clear one the developers wanted to convey or just misguided acting. I will come back to this aspect later in this review, but for now, it is sadly an element that makes the already clumsy dialogue more unclear. Some lines are also just silly, like the negative comment on studying art history.

Despite this issue, the cast of characters are interesting and relatable, with all having quirks that makes them memorable. No one feels like they do not fit in this world, and rather can add to an atmosphere that is truly strange, yet welcoming. Gray Matter also contains plenty of clever nods to other titles dealing with the supernatural, duality or surrealism, such as Phantom of the Opera, Alice in Wonderland, and even Harry Potter. I am surprised that none of them felt like a poor implementations, as they are simply here to either add to the story’s theming or to give neat lore you might not know about, such as Alice’s long neck.

While the story has a natural progression and every chapter gets you sucked in, the ending is terribly rushed. It makes sense and I really enjoyed the twist ending, but I wish it could have been better paced to give it a better buildup. However, this does not ruin how greatly Gray Matter explores its themes by presenting the right questions instead of a concrete answer. With plenty of intriguing characters, an engaging plot, an atmosphere that is easy to get indulged in, and lore that is actually important and interesting, I was always on the edge of my seat.

Again, this is why Gray Matter feels like the proper evolution to Gabriel Knight, as it goes beyond what that trilogy presented with an unusual concept, and tries to broaden its approach. Not to mention, when a story makes you ask whether you can explain something using logic or if it is actually something beyond your grasps on the world, you are really making an impressive bridge between two worlds. The concept of illusion has truly never been this fascinating to explore.

Story Score: 8/10


A beginners guide to Gabriel Knight

I wonder if anyone would be surprised that this mystery-title by Jane Jensen, is a point-and-click game. Like others in this genre, you can look at objects and people, pick up to store items in your inventory, hold an item in case you want to use it on someone or something, combine items, and talk to people. However, Gray Matter does a lot of smart and modern attempts to make itself a fantastic starting point for newcomers to this genre.

To begin with, you cannot choose how to interact with an object. Instead, this will be decided automatically for you, with an icon showcasing whether you can use an item on it or if you can interact with it more directly. This helps to make the game more streamlined, instead of forcing you to try out every combination possible. Even better, is the implementation of the hot spot label. By pressing space, you can see every interactable item with names over them, making pixel hunting non-existing here. This is a fantastic idea, especially since everything is made out of pre-rendered graphics that can make it hard to see what you can interact with.

Knowing what you should do is also a thing of the past, as there is now a progression bar that shows objectives you have to accomplish in order to finish the chapter. This helps to clue you in on what you are still missing and should focus on, making it easy to get a small hint on what to do without the game spelling it out to you. This friendly approach extends even to the map that you can access at any time. Here, you will see landmarks that are in different colours to give you a hint on where to look. Gold labels will mean that there are still tasks to be done, silver shows that there are optional tasks to still do, and grey means everything is cleared there for this chapter.

This all might sound like the game is too easy, and while the first chapter might make it seem so too, the game will throughout expect you to pay attention and solve puzzles on your own. In fact, these are some of the most brilliant brainteasers to tackle, without going to the point of moon logic. A favourite of mine, is when you play tricks on people in order to make them go to the experiment, as you have to notice their personality traits and use that knowledge to your advantage.

Because of this, you are never guided within the chapters on how to get further or how to solve a puzzle, just the area where you need to look. You still need to figure out how to progress from subtle hints, which is wonderful. Unfortunately, there is one area where I felt I was handholded to the point of frustration on multiple occasions. You see, while you might be able to spot things in the area, such as a tower that is essential to a puzzle, your characters might not. This is because the characters themselves need a reason to interact with it, be it from the right dialogue or event. This annoyingly halted me on every chapter’s end portion, as I always forgot that my characters needed glasses.

Interestingly, Gray Matter carries over a couple of mechanics from Gabriel Knight, such as the newspaper to review events that are going on in the area, and a diary for rereading dialogue- and monologue sequences. These are welcoming additions however small they are, as while no quest became too grand or unfocused, reviewing what you should check out is always helpful (in case the map and the progression bar were not enough).

However, the new mechanics are severely hit and miss. Samantha is a magician and thus, can use tricks in order to lure her victims. This is a neat idea, but sadly becomes incredibly tedious. Whenever you can play a trick on someone, you will need to review your magic book and find the appropriate trick, as well as the items required in order to perform it. This is completely fine, but then the game asks you to set up the trick step by step. This is just annoying, as the book tells you directly how to perform every trick and with plenty of options like palm, vanish, manipulate, misdirect and more being required to do, this aspect becomes a strange form of padding for an otherwise fun concept.

Dr. Styles’ gimmick is far more intriguing, thankfully. His experiments with the mind require examining notes to see developments, where he needs to highlight memories of his own by using familiar and connected senses in the form of visuals, audio, scent, taste and touch. Because of this, it is easy to be invested to find the right puzzle pieces that fit each other, making for intriguing exploration. These were some of my favourite chapters because the pieces he needs for his experiments are so subtle, and it is a shame that he is only playable for three of the eight chapters. I will also say that the first chapter is severely slow and functions as a heavy tutorial, but it is still serviceable. 

It is a shame that the annoyances are severely progression halting, as all the puzzles are great with fun exploration, intriguing hints on what to do, and the game only expects you to pay attention and use your noggin to get further. Only one card game was poorly implemented due to it being rudimentary, and while the magic tricks are tedious as well, those could have been minor issues. If your characters would not need to be spoon-fed every hint in order to progress through the story, Gray Matter would have been one of the best within its genre.

Sadly, it handholds the playable characters too much in order to reach its heights and it is hard to ignore this when it is a constant problem. Still, with its progression bar and helpful hints, it will definitely be a point-and-click that newcomers will be intrigued by, and veterans will certainly enjoy the puzzles. Just do not be discouraged when you notice that you simply forgot to look at one object in order to get further, as the characters are definitely not as smart as you are.

Gameplay Score: 6/10 


Mysterious atmosphere

Gray Matter contains an interesting choice for art style, going for pre-rendered backgrounds and using multiple images with subtle animations for cutscenes. It all adds up to actually make this into a beautiful game visually, with an interesting and uncomfortable vibe accompanying it. I think the best way this is showcased, is through its take on the environments. Be it the streets of Oxford, the University of St. Edmund, or just the simple park, all areas contain strong autumn colours to them that are utilised differently. For example, areas can be filled with orange and bright colours for a peaceful and uplifting setting or a dark weather with old buildings that creates a sense of horror. Through this, we get many gorgeous takes on this season that all compliment each other.

All locations are sights to behold, and the subtle animations, such as the moving clouds, critters flying by, and the trees waving in the wind, are all impressive animations that gives actual life to the pre-rendered backgrounds. The same attention to detail goes for the characters’ designs, as all are distinctly memorable. Samantha and Dr. Styles are clearly highlighted by their unique looks, but have believable attires to not make them out of place. The characters’ models are also solid with nice details, with only the lip syncing being off.

That being said, whenever a character talks, they will have their portraits accompanied in the dialogue box where they stare right at you, and it is as uncomfortable as it is ugly. The lip syncing here is impressive, but the eyes and emotions are as still as the dead themselves. If the developers would have made them just look either slightly towards the left or right to make them resemble talking to someone without their eyes widely open, it would have been much more comforting. As it is, this is a terrifying attempt at showcasing their technical capabilities.

The cutscenes are just as strong as the pre-rendered graphics, with subtle animations and tons of diverse pictures that are intriguing, making this a lovely artistic choice instead of a cheap direction. There are even subtle effects that exceeds the solid lighting; the use of colours. In every cutscene, the colours are used for depicting the characters’ emotions subtly. One lovely example to this, is when blue is used for depicting a character feeling calm, before it gets gradually brighter stage by stage to simulate stress. Such subtlety is a magnificent way of letting the visuals tell what is going on.

All of this is complemented by the stellar soundtrack of Robert Holmes. It is no wonder he joins in on Jensen’s projects on a professional level, as he always produces scores that contain varied notes, are diverse to set clear moods, and are memorable. His skills with the piano and guitar shines in this title, with the performance of the songs by The Scarlet Furies being a lovely addition to this calm setting of autumn. There is one song that is a constant main theme throughout the entire adventure, and it is impressive how gentle it is and never gets old, with the rest of the soundtrack acting as highlighting the events in this adventure. While the music is worth listening to on its own, it should be experienced through the game since it works wonders to simply enhance its atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the voice acting, as it is all over the place. As mentioned earlier in this review, I am uncertain if this is because of the uncanny setting or not. However, seeing as the quality and direction are all over the place, it is hard to call this an artistic choice due to its inconsistency. The best example of this, comes from our two main-protagonists: Samantha voiced by Phillipa Alexander, and Dr. Styles voiced by Steven Pacey.

Both are definitely solid actors, with Phillipa having acted in several titles like Xenoblade 2, Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, and even the original Mirrors Edge. Meanwhile, Steven Pacey might be best known as the Narrator for the Legion expansion to World of Warcraft, as well as the Rat King from Dark Souls 2. Steven provides a fantastic voice to Dr. Styles, signifying his direct approach with perfect tones to his monologues and dialogues.

On the other hand, Phillipa is all over the place with her overacting, awkward pauses, and moments that could use more emotions. It could honestly be misguided direction, since the voice she provides is solid. However, I cannot say it is well implemented, as it can be all over the place with no clear rhyme or reason. The same can be said for the general audio, since they are either appropriate or hilariously over the top. You will also dread whenever Sam needs food, because she is not a silent eater.

These are luckily faults that do not hinder the overall atmosphere this title provides, as I was always immersed with this unusual world. There are issues both in the visuals and audio, be they minor like the stamped newspaper, or big like the inconsistent voice actors. Yet, it was never enough to take me out of the experience, because of lovely locations, impressive attention to details, and a gorgeous atmosphere thanks to the beautiful combination of music and colours. Autumn is a season I believe can symbolise both calmness and horror, which Gray Matter definitely capturing it.

Presentation Score: 7/10


I think they had a point here

There are plenty of optional elements to find and see within every chapter, which fills up a bonus bar for your own personal delight. It is certainly fun to explore and see more parts this world has to offer, especially since it might lead to some subtle puzzles. Unfortunately, you are not getting any reward for your effort, which is a shame. Still, the journey for gathering more info is fun and looking around for more trivia is simply an engaging distraction. However, the best part is that you can play Snake on your borrowed phone. This is such a silly inclusion, that I cannot help but to love. Honestly though, who does not love Snake?

Extra Score: 7/10


Verdict

I am surprised that this title is not canon to Gabriel Knight, despite how much similarities they share in both mechanics and theming. While Gabriel Knight 2 and 3 both dealt with the supernatural, neither were strong titles due to lacklustre gameplay, awkward presentation, tedious puzzles, and dealing with rather traditional creatures. The original Gabriel Knight was a great title that took a more unusual focus on the supernatural with voodoo, and Gray matter takes this a step further by actually crossing between the reality and supernatural.

Not to mention, this is simply a good game. The puzzles are strong with clear brainteasers, exploring for more points is intriguing, and the mystery is always engaging and unnerving. This is enhanced by lovely presentation that comes with a strange atmosphere that makes this uncomfortable setup memorable. While it does stumble with noticeable issues in its acting and padding, this is probably the true spiritual sequel to Gabriel Knight, and it really matters to anyone looking for a good mystery-title.

70/100

Published by slionr

A guy who likes to talk about video games and loves tabletop gaming. Writer for corruptsavefile.com, you can always follow me on twitter @GSlionr if you ever want the latest article from me :)

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