Gray Matter is a point and click game that I’ve had my eyes on ever since my experience with The Longest Journey made me realize how much I love the genre, so when the opportunity arose to pick it up on sale, I immediately jumped. There have been (and will doubtlessly continue to be) many occasions where I’ve felt that I’ve overpaid for certain games, but Gray Matter may be the first time I’ve ever felt as though I underpaid.
Another great point and click
One of the things I’ve come to enjoy about point and click games in particular is how well the stories can come together; while a first-person shooter might be limited in the ways you can move the story forward (hint: usually by shooting things or walking forward), effectively forcing its story to cast you as some kind of hero who fights people so evil that it’s justifiable to shoot them in the face, point and clicks allow for a kind of subtlety that can make their stories much deeper and more memorable. Rather than sending you to gun down legions of unquestionably evil things like most games do, Gray Matter develops its characters and slowly builds up a mystery that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of.
Pulling a rabbit out of your hat
In Gray Matter, you play as Samantha, a magician looking to make it big. After a twist of fate sends her headed in the wrong direction and her motorcycle breaks down, she seizes an opportunity to masquerade as a nearby scientist’s new assistant in order to get out of the rain and have a warm place to sleep for the night. As strange events begin to unfold locally, however, she becomes more involved and, convinced that it’s all an elaborate magic trick, takes it upon herself to figure out what’s going on.
You also play as the scientist David Styles in a couple chapters. While Samantha believes that everything is an elaborate illusion, David is convinced that his dead wife is actually communicating with him, and he pursues that possibility with single-minded devotion. The game’s strength is making you believe that either is possible, making even the most elaborate magic appear feasible during Sam’s chapters while bombarding you with near-irrefutable evidence of David’s wife communicating with him in his chapters. Being torn between these different viewpoints and theories makes the story uniquely gripping, and I found myself glued to the screen as I tried to power through to the end, desperate to see what was actually happening.
It’s pretty painless for the genre
Point and click games can tend to be awkward at times, with incoherent puzzles that seem to require ESP rather than common sense. The underwater puzzle in the Longest Journey is a great example of this, being so completely random and unintuitive that a walkthrough is all but necessary. There’s little of that in Gray Matter, though there are a few places where things get a bit confusing. For example, there’s an Alice in Wonderland puzzle that speaks of a “mage.” This was the only puzzle that I actually had trouble with, though the strange way things trigger in chapter 6 made progressing toward the end of that chapter feel like an awkward puzzle. Still, the story had me so intrigued that I overlooked both of these problems.
Another problem of some point and click games is pixel hunting, where you’re madly scanning the screen to find an interactive zone you missed. Gray Matter, on the other hand, allows you to turn markers on and off that show you everything that can be interacted with, completely removing that frustration from the equation.
Walking at a snail’s pace
Movement speed was something that I thought would be a huge problem when I started the game. Sam seems to walk slowly everywhere she goes, and watching her casually stroll wherever I clicked was actually kind of painful at first. That’s when I realized that not only does double-clicking cause her to run (which is still kind of slow, but far better than walking), but double-clicking on an area transition automatically loads that transition, saving you the trouble of actually having to watch her run there. After I realized this, moving around areas was a much faster, smoother experience.
Of course there are items
What’s a point and click without items? While a few of them can be combined, the way they combine always makes perfect sense, and the way you accumulate items feels natural. I never reached a point where I was running around with a bunch of random items without having some idea of what they could be used for.
What’s a magician without magic?
Keeping in mind the fact that Samantha is pretending to be an assistant (and by extension, a local college student) without actually being one, she faces certain troubles when investigating people and places on campus. Helping you get around that is her magic, which can be used in certain situations when the story calls for it. Sam carries a magic book around with her that outlines some simple tricks, and adapting those tricks to serve your needs is the key to progressing. Once you’re ready to perform the trick, you’re taken to a screen where you can line up a series of events (such as taking an item and vanishing it up your sleeve) to make the trick work. It probably sounds trickier than it is, especially since failing to get the series of moves right erases all of the moves up to the last correct one. You can guess to your heart’s content until you get it right, basically.
Sadly, there are a few instances where such guessing is necessary. For some strange reason, the magic book will say to take something with one hand when the only way to progress is to take it with the other hand. This only happened to me once or twice that I can recall, and it wasn’t long before I realized that I needed to invert the instructions (even though it made more sense the original way), but it’s still incredibly annoying. Again, however, I overlooked these problems because of my investment in the story.
It’s pretty, but not always
Gray Matter’s art design is great; the locations that should look moody and depressing are exactly that, while other areas tend to look significantly more upbeat and cheery. The actual graphics can be hit-and-miss, however. The character models are good enough (though not great), but when characters talk, their faces appear next to the dialogue and their lips move with the words. Not only is this completely unnecessary, but the faces stare straight ahead and aren’t lighted well, making them look universally strange and ugly. Just look at the screenshots for an example of this.
The music is really good, but repetitive
A lot of the music in Gray Matter is atmospheric and great. However, I couldn’t help but think that there wasn’t nearly enough variance in the “feel” of the tracks toward the beginning, making it seem kind of same-y. This isn’t that big of an issue (because the music really is great and seemed to vary more toward the end), but I would have liked some different instruments early on. That being said, I found a lot of the music to be very memorable.
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