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 clichÃ©s 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.