Review: Moebius: Empire Rising

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At the time of the first Jane Jensen game, my computer didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, so I unfortunately never got to hear Tim Curry perform the voice of Gabriel Knight. Not having the CD version didn’t matter, though, because Gabriel Knight and the rest of the settings in Sins of the Fathers were so rich and interesting and well crafted, that playing the game sans voice work allowed me to interpret Knight on my own. I was hooked. Sierra On-Line pushed the boundaries of point-and-click adventure games with each Gabriel Knight title. Sins of the Fathers included high quality voice work. The Beast Within took things further by doing full motion video performance in what was traditionally a 2D flat animation medium. The third chapter, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, evolved further with the introduction of a full 3D game engine. While watching the tech continue to grow over the course of the series was kind of fun, it was the narrative and characters that made the games worth playing.

Jane Jensen was the creative force behind the characters and deep historic narrative of the three Gabriel Knight games. The same creative spark has returned with the new release of Moebius: Empire Rising, a collaboration between Jensen’s Pinkerton Road studio and Phoenix Online Studios, makers of the excellent adventure thriller Cognition.

Moebius differs slightly from the Gabriel Knight formula. Malachi Rector stars as a dealer of antiquities who has a gift for finding fake or modified items, but does so with a rare and unique gift of remarkable memory and the ability to see patterns where many cannot. His talents have earned him a healthy sum of money as well as a bit of a reputation. Rector is slightly off-putting, but charming in his Sherlock Holmesian manner of deduction and logic. He reminds me of a slightly less socially awkward blend of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock, confident and suave yet gangly and slightly aloof.

The voice work is confident and enjoyable, but there are times when the character model of Rector (and anyone else he comes into contact with) just seems a bit skewed.  Rector almost looks like a bulked-up version of a wavy tube man with a nice suit on, his lanky movements across the screen causing a jarring distraction. The game allows for double clicks on the screen which instantly transports Rector to that location, almost as if to acknowledge that character animation wasn’t the highest priority during development. While this is passable and not offensive, it does seem a bit out of place when looking at the depth of the narrative arc presented in Moebius.

The title Moebius refers to a theory in which certain archetypes repeat throughout history. The same rich, smart, politically minded female appears in different moments, such as Cleopatra, Anne Bolyen, or Livia Drusilla mirroring that of a modern woman somewhere around the globe now. Rector is hired to discover which modern woman meets the same characteristics of the past to stop her from being murdered. The summary sounds a bit far-fetched, but when combined with the references of historically significant figures who also fit the profile of Rector and his bodyguard, David Walker, the coincidences don’t seem like too much of a stretch.

Aside from the oddly lanky character models, there is something else weird with Moebius (and point-and-click adventures in general). Usually the world is static with a hand painted background in which a 3D rendered model of the character will be able to move about. What stands out, is the fact that only objects that can be picked up are identified as interactive when the mouse cursor moves over it and the cursor changes. It seems a bit silly, though, to put a lot of effort into making gorgeous background art but then to only have some of it be interactive. Of course, impatient gamers have a way to speed up the process by simply holding down the space bar to highlight every object that can be interacted with in some form. This takes away a bit of the fun of trying to find what should be clicked on, but also removes the frustration of pixel hunting by moving the mouse over every inch of the screen. All objects that can (or will eventually) be used have some sort of interaction; however, not all objects can be picked up or used until certain events have been triggered.

This leads me to one of the biggest goofs with Moebius. There are times where interacting with one character may require more than one conversational meeting. What’s even more ludicrous is how, for example, a character Rector needs to talk to might be in Washington, D.C., yet key inventory items are only available in New York City. During the course of one conversation in D.C., Rector realizes he needs to procure items from New York in order to progress the encounter and further the story. Rector excuses himself, flies to New York, collects the items and then flies back. One time I flew to New York, got one object, flew back to D.C. and started the conversation up again only to realize that I needed yet another object from the Big Apple, at which point I had to retrace my steps all over again. I don’t know about you, but even if I had a private charter jet, flying back and forth between two major cities simply to continue a conversation seems overly expensive and unnecessarily tedious. The game doesn’t allow objects to be collected prior to the conversation yet clearly teases that an object is needed in the near future simply by being highlighted when the space bar is pressed. This sort of design logic breaks any and all gameplay momentum.

Overall, the puzzles aren’t the typical find Object A to place into Object B like so many other point-and-click adventures, which is great. Instead, Rector’s ability to deduce character traits from a given set of patterns forms the basis of many of the puzzles. Logic deduction puzzles like this are my Kryptonite. I can handle reducing down four or five characteristics from a short list, but having to reduce thirteen historic figures down to three led me to a resource that makes me proud as a father. I had to call upon my 11-year-old to help reduce all of the characteristics in what amounted to one of the most dense and cryptic logic charts I’ve ever encountered. Fortunately, the mind of my daughter is much sharper than that of her old man.

Moebius has a lot of potential, but is stymied by old-school animation and design logic. While I enjoyed the characters and story, the manner in which certain elements unfold made for moments of pure drudgery. I grew to like Rector’s character by the end of the game and I would love to see another adventure take place in this world, with these characters, I just hope that a bit more polish can be applied if there happens to be a next time. It doesn’t measure up to the standard of Gabriel Knight, but fans of Jane Jensen’s work should still find enough point-and-click enjoyment in Moebius to make it worth their while.

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Pros:
+ Fascinating storyline with historic ties to a modern setting
+ Not every puzzle has the same tried and true inventory object-based solution
+ Interesting and well written characters that have depth

Cons:
– Janky character animation
– Puzzle logic and conversations can be overly tedious
– Some objects can’t be collected until certain points of the game trigger them, which leads to tedious backtracking

Game Info:
Platform: PC, Mac
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Developer: Pinkerton Road / Phoenix Online Studios
Release Date: 4/15/2014
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.