The best adventure games find the perfect balance between mechanic and narrative, making sure that the game never gets in the way of the story and vice versa. In order to achieve this, all the puzzles you engage with, all the twists in the story and all the characters you meet, have to fit comfortably into the same, believable world. If they don’t, then you’re pulled out of the experience and for an adventure game, that’s a massive failure.
Gray Matter is the new adventure title from the mind of Jane Jensen, creator of the much lauded Gabriel Knight series, and whilst it makes a valiant attempt, it can’t live up to its illustrious forebear. Set in Oxford, it tells the story of Samantha Beckett, an American street magician with an interest in mysteries and a dark and tragic past. At the start of the game, she snares herself a job as an assistant to a scientist at the ominously named ‘Dread Hill House’.
That scientist is Dr. David Styles, the second playable character, a disfigured neuro-biologist who wears a Phantom of the Opera style face mask and has a dark and tragic past. The story focuses on two main strands – Sam’s attempts to become a member of the infamous Daedalus club and David’s obsession with his dead wife.
You control your character with a radial menu, brought up with the right trigger. This highlights the objects that you can interact with. In larger areas, you have to move Sam or David around with the right stick to make sure you’re not missing anything important. Pushing the back button puts labels on the interactive parts of the screen, helping you in some of the more crowded areas of the game.
To progress, you solve puzzles ranging from simple item combination to fiendishly infuriating, intricately layered brain benders that will see you screaming at the screen in rage and desperation. Gray Matter is not a simple game, nor does it mollycoddle you with tutorials or constantly flashing hints.
What it does do is adhere to simple, logical progression. If you’ve been paying attention and you’ve picked up the right objects, then working out the problems and puzzles is a question of putting two and two together. In fact, if there was a criticism to be made of the puzzling, it’d be that sometimes the answers are a little bit too obvious.
Gray Matter is exceptionally traditional fare, apart from one rather charming addition – magic tricks. At certain points in the game, in order to garner information or objects, Sam has to perform a trick. You choose the appropriate trick, then, using the magic screen, set up the trick in accordance with what your little book of magic tells you to do.
It’s a nice diversion, but does highlight one of the main flaws of the game – tracking back. Whilst the game world isn’t particularly large – no more than a few dozen screens, each of which you’ll visit on numerous occasions – you’ll often find yourself traipsing away from the problem you’re trying to figure out to go and pick up an object or a product that’s only become available now you’ve started the puzzle.
It feels like artificial padding, extending the game through meandering instead of extra gameplay or narrative. It’s not the only problem that Gray Matter suffers from either. Whilst the story is entertaining, mixing science and magic into an intriguing thriller, the world that it creates for the player is cringe-worthy.
Oxford is populated with bizarrely accented caricatures, and there only appears to be about eleven people living in the whole city. The whole place is shrouded in clouds, the street lamps are always on and all of the buildings look like castles. There are cobbled streets, phone boxes and warm beer – all that’s missing is a double-decker bus and an appearance by the queen.
On top of that, the game is spectacularly ugly. The backgrounds are beautiful, full of detail and a real treat for the eyes, but the character models are clunky, with facial animations that give all the characters a strange, frog-like visage. The chief offender is an American student, called Harvey, who looks like the offspring of a giant toad and a cartoon of a Wall Street banker.
If that wasn’t enough, the game often makes you feel like you’re missing out on something important. It plays like a sequel, even though it’s not, making in-jokes and references to things that have gone before as though you’re in the company of an old friend, not a complete stranger. Plot points are mentioned, but it’s never explained why you, or your character, should care.
When you can’t figure out your character’s motivation for performing an action, then performing that action loses all of its meaning. Sure, you solved that puzzle and you solved it well, but you’ve done it because the game put it in front of you, not because you’re invested enough in your character to find out what’s going on.
That’s Gray Matter’s stumbling block, and it’s one the game never quite manages to get past. There’s a great story here, but it’s lost underneath bad writing and poorly built characters. If you can deal with the frustration of being out of the loop, then there’s a lot of fun to extract from Gray Matter. Most people though, are going to find that the negatives far outweigh the positives.
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