Drawing on stage magic, grand illusions, ghosts, parapsychology, and clinical necromancy for ideas, Gray Matter's inspirations are greedily eclectic. Its story, a paranormal mystery-cum-melodrama, is absorbing, delivered with an ingenuous sincerity that makes even its clichés likable. It's got great looks and a decent pedigree, too, with Gabriel Knight author Jane Jensen as designer. But for an adventure game that sets the table, thematically speaking, with a spread this rich, Gray Matter's puzzles suffer a lack of ambition. Though the plot is underserved by some mundane puzzling, there is still a worthwhile adventure to be had, but this isn't a point-and-click game to raise the bar for the genre.
As the game begins, goth heroine and aspiring stage magician Sam Everett takes a wrong turn on the road to London and breaks down outside stately Dread Hill House. To get a bed for the night, she poses as the new assistant for Dr Styles, the house's reclusive, Byronic master: a formerly brilliant neuroscientist obsessed with the memory of his dead wife. Soon Sam is helping the doctor recruit students from nearby Oxford for an experiment in the mansion's gloomy underground lab, while also solving riddles from the Daedalus Club, the secret society of magicians that was her original destination. The story spans eight chapters, switching between Sam and Dr Styles, as her magical ambitions and his macabre research intertwine. The plot builds steadily into a mystery around Styles' wife's death and apparent haunting of Dread Hill House; it's a slow-burning story, but will keep you clicking from chapter to chapter.
For Sam, the puzzles are a mixture of Daedalus Club riddles--scavenger hunts with cryptic clues--and magic tricks used to pilfer items and coerce recruits for Styles' experiment. The latter is a neat idea, asking you to work from Sam's recipe book of magic tricks to find the right combination of palming items, planting items, misdirection, and so on, but less impressive in the execution: a trick rehearsal window in which you queue the sequence of magical moves, then hit play. For Dr Styles, puzzles involve collecting items associated with memories of his dead wife. Though these are some of the simplest puzzles, mostly solvable by clicking everything you find, they at least add weight to the character's single-minded, grief-stricken obsession. Until near the end of the game, though, no puzzle is really taxing or intricate--it feels like it hits its stride too late and all at once, when Sam is caught up in a kind of florid Alice in Wonderland funhouse.
The control scheme doesn't meddle with the traditional point-and-click formula, assigning movement and interaction to mouse clicks. The inventory menu is also smoothly hailed by hovering at the top of the screen, and your character's gaze follows the position of your cursor. Hot spot labels can be flicked on and off, so you can see what your options are at a glance; there's no pixel hunting here. There are useful progress bars to show percentage completion of a chapter and of puzzle sets within a chapter, too, and the quick-travel map highlights locations at which you still have work to do. The lack of a hint system may slow you down on the few occasions when you lose the trail of a puzzle solution and need to backtrack.
There are plenty of quirks in Gray Matter's vision of England. Sam loses her way to London when the wooden signpost on the lonesome road apparently connecting that city, Oxford, and Liverpool, gets comically spun around in a storm. The various local accents encountered at an Oxford pub are anything but. What it lacks in authenticity, though, it makes up for in enthusiasm; the static, prerendered Oxford environments are meticulously done, crisp, and richly coloured. The historic Oxford colleges and stately Dread Hill House make for handsome pseudo-3D backdrops for the 3D character models. The character designs are similarly crisp and detailed, with Sam being the particular standout. Understated music--piano and strings--adds to the atmosphere, though it verges on repetitive. Cutscenes, meanwhile, are done in painted still images to mostly good effect.
Gray Matter plays the paranormal mystery of its plot with full, straight-faced commitment, and it works. This kind of made-for-TV melodrama needs nothing less. There are cliché pitfalls left and right (Dr Styles wears a Phantom of the Opera-style mask to hide his scars, incidentally), but with its slow-burning plot and engaging main characters, the game hits enough of the right emotional notes to pull it off. Though the puzzles could stand some more flair and imagination, the story and visuals have quality enough to carry the day.