Gray Matter Review
Written : Thursday, March 17, 2011
By: Lee Abrahams (GT: jackanape)
If you take a second to step away from the latest in-your-face FPS game and feel like something involving a bit more brain power, then step this way. What do you mean you're not interested? How about if I said it involved a hot goth street magician, a reclusive scientist with a penchant for the dramatic, a Phantom of the Opera style mask and a dead wife that seems a bit too keen on sticking around? Got your attention? Good, now we can let the terror unfold – via pointing and clicking on things of course.
"Dread Hill House – terrifying locals since 1754."
Classic adventure games are a thing of beauty when done right, and Gray Matter harks back to a time when games were not all about massive explosions and stupendous set-pieces. Instead, the important thing here is a tightly paced story and gripping characters. From the second that American wannabe magician, Sam Everett, takes a wrong turn to end up at Dread Hill House, you know that mysterious events have been set in motion. Pretending to be the new assistant for the reclusive Dr Styles, Sam is soon drawn into his world and his morbid fascination with his dead wife.
Gray Matter offers the opportunity to play through as both characters over the course of the game, which allows you to experience the more fantastical nature of events from the point of view of Sam, while the good doctor has a more pragmatic and scientific approach to handling matters. Either way, you'll be required to solve puzzles in order to solve the mystery of Dread Hill and it's here that the game has its most awkward moments.
Set in and around Oxford, the atmosphere is nothing short of superb, thanks in part to some vivid backdrops and impressive vocal work. However, despite the wonderful lush canvas that's on show and the impressive blending of magic and science throughout, the puzzles tend to be less than spectacular. Most of them are simple fetch and carry tasks or can be solved by just following some instructions that can handily be found nearby. Very few of the game's offerings will actually tax you too much, though by the same token, that does mean the story never gets frustrating and you can enjoy the ride.
"Time to stock up on a few magic tricks, shazam!"
A neat touch is the ability to use Sam’s magic to get your way, as she regular bluffs people into doing what she wants them to do via the medium of magic. This leads to a few interesting mini-games, though again, they're rather more prosaic than you would anticipate. Thankfully the humdrum puzzling is actually backed up by some impressive dialogue and a real sense of adventure. The still painted cutscenes help matters immensely, as do the superb ballads that pop up now and again in perfect accompaniment to the situation at hand. Sam’s quest to join the illusive Daedalus Club also serves as a helpful counterpoint to the mystery, as well as helping highlight the differences in perception between magic and reality.
While the plot is fun, you can't help but notice some rather obvious bits of fluff that get in the way. Quite why a noted scientist would wear a face mask is one of them, as are the fact he has a nosy house keeper and that all of the gang that make up his test subjects seem to be from every corner of the globe. You'd think that Oxford University was made up entirely of exchange students. Matters are not exactly helped by the controls either, as the trigger is used to highlight objects and select them, which can be overly fiddly. It would have been better if they could have found a way to implement a simple point-and-click system onto consoles, as the control scheme can be frustrating at times. Saying that though, kudos must be given for the helpful hot spot system, used to highlight objects of interest, and a neat set of progress bars to show how well you're actually doing on each task.
"I thought games were a means of avoiding study?"
The linear nature of the game means that the achievements pop up steadily enough, and only one or two can actually be ‘missed’ in any way, assuming you don't perform certain tasks or botch a trick. The only tasks that will really require any effort are performing over 1,000 dialogue options and completing the game in under five hours – as the two are pretty much incompatible in the same playthrough, so it'll probably require you to choose one or the other. A very straightforward list. but one distinctly lacking in magic.
Gray Matter is your classic point-and-click game, only without the same easy to use interface, but it's definitely one that can easily get you hooked. The story and characters are superbly well written, though sometimes do stray down the path of clichés a tad too much, while the music is a superb compliment and the cutscenes are intriguing and subtly haunting. The real gripes are the unwieldy control scheme and sub par animations, not to mention the fact that there are far too many fetch-and-carry tasks and far too few innovative or taxing puzzles. Gray Matter though, despite all its foibles, is certainly well worth a jaunt. but it's hardly likely to displace classics of the genre.
Some haunting music and well timed songs help to steer the atmosphere in the right direction. The fact that the voice work is exceptionally well done throughout is a very nice bonus too.
Beautiful backgrounds and still painted cutscenes jar terribly with the poor character animations. The PC version looks much better, which is odd considering the fact that the 360 is not being asked to do that much.
Frustrating controls and bland puzzles can spoil things at times, but once you master using the triggers and abusing the hot spot feature, then it's smooth sailing from there on out - although that's a bit of a cop out.
Probably the most important part of any adventure game of this nature is the story, and this is top drawer offering characters you can truly empathise with and a plot that keeps you gripped throughout.
A linear list for a linear game. Encouraging gamers to complete your game as quickly as possible though is a sure way to ensure they miss all of the subtle elements that make it so worthwhile.
Gray Matter is a game that is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish bar a few niggles, but well worth the time of anyone with even the slightest interest in the genre. It's not perfect, but it's certainly a step in the right direction and a few more of these point-and-click adventure titles would be more than welcome on the Xbox 360.