The long-awaited Gray Matter marks the return of the critically acclaimed writer Jane Jensen to the videogames industry. Having made her name in the early 90’s as part of Sierra’s domination of the Point-N’-Click adventure game genre during the height of it’s popularity, Jensen’s influence on Gray Matter is plain to see, and for some that will be enough. For those not familiar with her work however, a question may arise as to just how well adapted the game has been for the console audience.
Casting the player as Samantha Everett, a young street performer and magician, Gray Matter takes place in Oxford. Following the death of his wife, Dr. David Styles buried himself into his work, taking refuge in his laboratory ay Dread Hill House. As Samantha finds herself without transport, she takes shelter at the house by pretending to be an Oxford student responding to Styles’ request for a research assistant. Eventually, Sam is ordered to recruit six students as test subjects for David’s research. However, his research is not what it seems, and as paranormal activities begin Samantha begins to question the situation she’s gotten herself into. With curiosity getting the better of her, she strives to learn more about the Styles’ past and the prestigious Daedalus magic club.
Unlike many games in the modern industry, the story isn’t merely superfluous bluster to provide some kind of backdrop for the on-screen action. It’s intrinsically tied to every aspect of the game, from the various locales players will visit to their interaction with other characters and the puzzles they will be tasked with solving. The puzzles themselves take on a variety of forms, from simple object-based tasks to riddles, word games, mazes and much more besides, with the traditional reliance on logic puzzles becoming marginalised with the sheer quantity of different activities presented. The magic tricks are perhaps the most unique element, with Samantha being able to use her magician’s handbook to improvise gimmicks for the situation at hand, be it misdirection or sleight of hand. In order to conduct these tricks the player must progress through a number of different stages, and failure will offer but one retry.
The basic interface for the game has been adapted well for play with the control pad as opposed to a keyboard and mouse. The player does not need to take direct control of Samantha, but does have the option to do so instead of movement in the way traditionally expected of Point-N’-Click games. Instead, holding the Left Trigger to bring up a radial dial which highlights each point of interest in the current location, and pressing the A button will command Samantha to engage with it. The inventory is situated on the Y button, and the B button backs out of menus and cancels commands. It’s a system that’s well implemented and takes only minutes to get to grips with, allowing the player to concentrate on some of the more mentally taxing puzzles than any unnecessarily complicated dexterity challenges.
Gray Matter is a feast for the eyes, with hundreds of pre-rendered scenes offering the kind of attention to detail that most games can only dream of. Of course, its lack of a requirement for camera control helps no-end, but the effect remains impressive throughout. The environments are wholly believable, and thanks to some commendable voice acting, so are most of the characters. The score is also remarkable, with an original theme setting the scene and a suitably calm orchestral score for the most part of the game.
The popularity of Point-N’-Click Adventure games may never be what it once was, but it is undergoing something of a revival at present. The likes of Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures and the more recent Back to the Future titles may be playing to the casual audience, but there are those who are still trying to push the genre into new territory. Much like last year’s Alchemia, Gray Matter is one such title. Proving that a genre founded on a single mechanic more than twenty years old can innovate just as well as any big budget First-Person Shooter or Action game, Gray Matter is certainly worth investing in for anyone who likes to explore the farther stretches of what the industry can offer, and for Xbox 360 gamers looking for a brain-tingling adventure, there really is no better alternative.