Creepy, kooky, selectively spooky, Gray Matter confronts the player with the most terrifying thing a gamer can imagine: an adventure game interface. In a game of action, racing, fighting, or sports, you can swiftly build up a bank of muscle memory that lets you play by instinct. But an adventure game, by its very nature, is designed to confound. Each screen presents new unique objects to interact with, new dialogue trees to muddle through, and a hundred new ways for the tiniest bug to bring it all crashing down.
The good news is that Jane Jensen has learned a lot since the days when her Gabriel Knight games had nerdy goths tearing their hair out. The puzzles in Gray Matter are often difficult, but never wilfully obtuse, and the game includes a battery of features to keep any potential trauma to a minimum.
The bad news is that there are many glitches and niggling little flaws. They don't break the game, but they often break the illusion – which is a tad ironic, considering how much of the game revolves around magic tricks.
Play alternates between two righteous, yet misunderstood characters: wandering street performer Samantha Everett, and reclusive brain scientist Dr. David Styles. Sam seeks to join an elite secret society of magicians known as the Daedalus club, and Dave hopes that his cutting-edge neuro-research will somehow allow him to communicate with his dead wife. An improbable, possibly supernatural sequence of events has brought the two together, and over the course of 10 to 15 hours of play time they come to learn that their universe holds more secrets than meets the eye...
The interface is functional, if a tad glitchy. There's no need to roll the pointer all over the screen on the off chance you'll hit the one pixel of a given object you're allowed to interact with; a tap of the space bar summons descriptive headings to hover in front of all the persons and objects that are worth clicking on. The map-screen highlights each area you can visit with a colour-coded nimbus, indicating which areas you still need to do things in to complete the next chapter of your quest. Backtracking in old-school adventures was an absolute nightmare; Gray Matter keeps this frustrating practice to a minimum.
Another novel feature is Sam's magic system; her mastery of sleight-of-hand illusion techniques allows her to deceive and persuade gullible NPCs. After talking to someone for long enough to learn their weaknesses, you then simply browse through her magic manual, click on pages until you find the one trick that will work, and then queue up a chain of actions (misdirecting the mark, hiding items up your sleeves, etc). It's mostly trial and error; you only know for certain you got the trick right when the next block of dialogue is triggered. The upshot is that these segments put you in the mindset of a magician; a lesser game would resolve such challenges via quick-time events.
There is spoken dialogue to accompany all the text, and the voice acting of the main characters is of the highest standard. The cut-scenes are unusual; instead of flashy pre-rendered CGI, they're assembled from slow-moving, hand-painted images, and look more like high-quality animatics than actual animation. The effect is actually quite striking, even if the quality of the art often feels a little off. The background music is understated and effective, and the occasional song from goth/folk outfit The Scarlet Furies is a nice touch.
The game as a whole is not entirely unlike Nier, in that that it delivers a great story via a flawed implementation. And like Nier, it is destined to be divisive. Some will be put off by the goofy character animations and obtuse puzzle logic, while others will find themselves drawn to the characters, and will press on out of a burning desire to find out what happens next. Jane Jensen fans will definitely want to check it out.