Review: Moebius: Empire Rising

 

Originally posted on indie-love.com

Moebius: Empire Rising is a new point and click adventure game produced by Phoenix Online and Pinkerton Road Studios. It’s written by Jane Jensen, best known for the Gabriel Knight series and Gray Matter. The game follows Malachi Rector, a brilliant antiques dealer with a talent for spotting patterns, as he tries to unravel the paranormal mystery behind a possible conspiracy of global proportions.

After reading the e-comic for backstory, the game launches into  promising opening credits, full of images from history, famous art work, and just enough supernatural feeling imagery (like what initially looks like some sort of tarot cards) to make the nerd in me gleeful. Once in the game, you find yourself in an antiques shop that the main character, Malachi Rector, owns. I was intrigued by this. How many protagonists of a video game are into art history?

After some dialogue, you eventually find yourself in the office of a secret government agency called FITA. You’re asked to look at the bio of a man and match him up to someone in history. To do so, you read data points about the man then compare them to data points about historical figures. This is pretty cool because it gives you the chance to relearn trivia that you might have forgotten since history class. After you successfully do so, Malachi is asked to go to Venice and draw similar connections to a woman who was recently murdered there. The story progresses from there, and you get caught in a world of unraveling mysteries and conspiracies that are closely connected to Malachi’s own life.

Malachi is not the most conventional of video game heroes and that was what initially drew me into the game. It’s a different feeling from the start. Malachi is successful and completely aware of his talents, to the point of arrogance. Plus he’s a history nerd with a photographic memory. It’s certainly different from being a small town peasant who overtakes an entire evil empire with just the help of a magical sword and a few friends or something.

I rather liked that aspect of it. I’ve studied a bit of art history myself, so opening the game with determining the authenticity of some relic from the past was an interesting hook for me. And Malachi, while coming off as a jerk, has a dry wit that made me smile. You see more of this when you begin to analyze people using Malachi’s rather uncanny ability to read people.  You can tell right away that some of Malachi’s gifts are deeper than just being very intelligent, and it makes for a good mystery. Combined with some fun puzzles designed to help spot and unlock historical patterns, this should have been the kind of game that I couldn’t stop playing.

As Malachi, you travel all over the world, trying to piece together clues relating to the mysterious Moebius theory, an idea that the future can be predicted by looking at patterns in the past and the key players in it.  Along the way, you meet people who tie into that theory and your life as well. Without spoiling too much, the premise of that theory and the relationships it hints at is what makes this game compelling. It’s an interesting idea, and one that I think has a lot of potential.

Potential isn’t enough to make a great game though. The game has its immediate flaws. The graphics aren’t anything special and look dated. The proportions on the bodies are off. Why are their armpits so high? It’s the kind of thing that once you notice, you can never unsee. And the animations aren’t really that great either. Walking looks strange, fighting looks clumsy, and people tend to look like they’re sneering when they talk. With freaky teeth.

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This man is not actually being possessed.

There are weird clipping issues. The backgrounds, while better than the characters themselves, really don’t look that wonderful either. They’re fairly low resolution, and there’s nothing special about them, no “wow” moments when you feel compelled to take a screenshot just because something is pretty. The music is okay, but not particularly memorable, and it gets repetitive.

Graphics, however, aren’t a make or break factor for me. I can play games with lackluster graphics, as long as the story is good and the gameplay is more or less enjoyable. As a point and click adventure game, I wasn’t expecting Moebius to offer anything terribly compelling in the form of gameplay. It was a little slow, but I could deal with that. However, there’s far too much back and forth. Every time I was in a new setting, I would explore it thoroughly, find all sorts of goodies that displayed the “take this with you” icon and then be told that I had no reason to take it with me. Which made sense, but when I would discover I needed that very thing in the next setting, go back to get that thing, return to the second setting, then figure out that I needed another goodie from the original setting, it got redundant. Fast.

Still, I kept slugging through because of the promise of a good story. Eventually, I got to the point where I was just on the cusp of making a great discovery and…I completely stalled. I thought I’d learned all the clues to move forward with the game, and technically, I had. But because I didn’t take something into my inventory after learning about it, I never “discovered” the data point for it. And so I was stuck, aimlessly wandering around a mansion, listening to the elevator music that the game provided for that particular scene, and wondering what I was missing. I checked walkthroughs. I checked for bugs. I turned off the game and went back to it. I decided I didn’t actually care that much about Malachi or the Moebius theory.

Eventually, I figured out my mistake, but this wasn’t a particularly good kind of frustration, like dying over and over to a difficult boss or being unable to solve a rewarding puzzle. It was a tedious frustration, and that is my main issue with the entire game. It feels tedious, as if the gameplay isn’t quite supporting the interesting story that they want to tell. I would have almost rather read this as a graphic novel, to be honest. Maybe some sort of interactive graphic novel where you have to solve puzzles before you’re allowed to read the next chapter…
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I’m torn on whether not I could recommend playing this game. I think I would, with some important caveats. I think if you can look past the slow gameplay and dated graphics, you can have fun with this. The plot is unique enough that it feels more like being in some sort of paranormal caper than in a traditional game, and that’s a breath of fresh air. It’s not particularly deep, more like the game equivalent to a beach read novel, but that’s okay.  And I actually enjoy Malachi, even with his arrogance. I see potential for interesting character development with him, development that asks a lot of questions about destiny and what the implications of it might mean.

If future installments of the game (because it’s clearly set up for them) can improve on the gameplay issues to make it more engaging, I would be willing to give them a chance. I’m curious about the characters and the Moebius theory, and so the game was a success of that level. If they can clean up the other aspects of it, the sequels might be as compelling as their story promises.

Moebius: Empire Rising is available for $29.99 directly from Phoenix Online or on Steam.

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