Recent weeks have seen my game playing pretty well dictated for me. First there was Football Manager 2014, a game that’s not so much a pastime as a fully-fledged second career. This was sandwiched between sessions on the gaming behemoth that is GTAV, itself not an insignificant time sink.
While I’m certainly not complaining, coming up to last weekend I found myself with a severe case of AAA franchise burnout. Football Manager I’d picked up because, hell, after over 1000 hours of my life already spent in the statty embrace of its various editions, I could hardly pass up this year’s version could I? As for GTAV, while it had already been expertly covered by our own Oliver Smith, I felt obliged to pick it up. I mean, it’s only the last major game exclusive to this generation of consoles right? No big deal. Not to mention the whole stratospheric sales stats thing… (Oh and for the record, my take on it: fun, but missing that bit of magic to really ruffle my petticoat, so to speak)
So, in the midst of this prescribed gaming run, a series of events involving radio studio technical issues, cancellation of a radio show for the week and a hastily arranged coffee meet up with that week’s guests resulted in my finding myself in the middle of a game store. After putting down my pre-order for my Xbox One, I started to feel an urge I hadn’t felt in a while. I’ve spoken before of a quirk I have with gaming, where I will take a trip to a games store and will pick up some random game to give it a crack. The only requisite is that it can’t be a game I’ve heard of before. Basically, I browse the shelves until I find a title or a box-cover that peaks my interest. Then I buy it and play it.
It’s led me to some of my favourite games of all time (and a fair few clunkers too!) but it always takes me back to the heady days of my gaming youth when that’s how I bought all my games.
And so we come to the subject of today’s writing, Jane Jensen’s Grey Matter (by Jane Jensen). Developed by Wizarbox (and Jane Jensen) and published by DTB Entertainment (and Jane Jensen) Grey Matter is a console point & click adventure game written by… you guessed it… Jane Jensen. Turns out, someone called Jane Jensen was involved somewhere, but you have to dig pretty deep to figure that out… (She was involved in the acclaimed Gabriel Knight series of games and as a member of the legendary Sierra studios apparently has enough cache to be prominently featured on the box).
I was very unsure what to expect from Grey Matter. On one hand it’s a point & click so good times, but on the other hand, it’s a point & click on a console; a genre/platform combination about as auspicious as a cat and a pet fish… on the plus side, its set in good old England for bloody once. On the down side, Wizarbox are a French studio, which for many xenophobic and stereotypically English ways I find a touch worrying.
What I ended up picking up on a whim was actually a charming, engaging and surprisingly fun experience which manages to overcome its flaws.
The story is a fairly unusual one, with the set up being that an American female magician’s motorbike breaks down outside a creepy house in a storm and, using her wits, becomes the lab technician for a famous, but mysterious, neurobiologist…. What? Sounds plausible to me? Admittedly I play a lot of JRPGs so my benchmark for plausibility is being able to pickpocket grenades from fish, but hey…
If nothing else, the niche for stories involving parlour tricks and neurobiology is now well and truly covered and tell me that isn’t a good thing right?….. Just me then?
The game focusses heavily on magic tricks and the real-life mechanics of misdirection and stage-management. It’s obvious that the developers are big fans of the magic industry and their love for the subject shines through in all aspects of the game, especially in the magic shop which details all the paraphernalia of the trade and in the repeating trick-building mechanic. I’ve dabbled in a fair bit of magic trickery and card tricks in my time, so perhaps that’s part of what appeals to me.
The game mechanics are the standard point & click fare. You have a goal to achieve and you set about it by picking up everything not nailed down and rubbing it on everything else in the world until progress is achieved. The whole experience is obviously designed with console controllers in mind. You can highlight all interactible items on screen by hitting the back button and then you choose what item to select from a radial menu opened by the triggers. It’s a system that in theory works well, once adjusted to, though in practice has a few design niggles. These are mainly down to the fact that the radial menu obscures the background, making it hard to identify what is being selected to investigate, a problem further exacerbated by the fact that the items don’t seem to be placed on the dial in a logical order. I lost count of the number to times I selected the wrong item because for some reason it came up before an item that was nearer to the character.
The overall presentation of the game is excellent, however. The graphics are a touch dated now and were not exactly cutting edge even back in 2010 at release, but point & clicks were never about graphics. The cut scenes are presented in hand-drawn style that works well with the narrative style presented and the musical score, which is spot on.
And oh the voice acting, that was a surprise. Normally in these sorts of games the voice acting is just terrible. I mean, all the signs were there: a relatively small developer, a low-budget game, a niche appeal game and fully voiced characters, all putting on regional accents. It was going to be awful right? Well actually no. While the speech does get a bit ‘cor blimey guvner, fish and chips eh what?’ at times, the actual quality and investment evident in the performances puts some major titles to shame.
All in all, Grey Matter is something of a gem. Not quite a diamond in the rough, but possibly a rhinestone in the dust. While rough and ready in many areas, as a package the game punches above its weight.
If you can look past its flaws and appreciate it for what it is; a fun little graphic adventure focussed on telling a mysterious story. It’s not going to knock your socks off and it’s not going to be a game that you rush out and tell your friends about, but if you’re into adventure games and can actually track it down, you should pick it up, if only so you can say you’ve played a game involving neurobiologists and magicians. (Look; how often am I going to be able to write neurobiologists in my articles, work with me!)
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org