Sometimes in gaming, a person’s name can become synonymous with a specific style or genre. Names like Sid Meier, Tim Schafer, and Richard Garriott all give you an immediate insight into the nature of whatever game they’ve been attached to. Another of these names (for me, at least) is Jane Jensen. After making a splash at Sierra Entertainment in the heyday of adventure gaming, Jensen has been responsible for the popular Gabriel Knight series of games as well as the 2010 cult-classic Gray Matter. As a big fan of the latter, as well as of Cognition (one of the first entries from Phoenix Online Studios), I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Moebius: Empire Rising. And I was not disappointed. At least, not entirely.
The story of Moebius centres around Malachi Rector, an antiques dealer and appraiser based in Manhattan who has an almost other-worldly gift for identifying and analyzing items of antiquity. We find out that there is indeed some other-worldly basis to Rector’s gifts and the story focusses on how he finds himself needing to use these gifts and the people that are drawn to him as a result. As is the case in most successful adventure games, the story is the biggest selling point for Moebius. While it has the occasional predictable trope, the premise is such an original one that any use of tried-and-true story elements is somewhat forgivable and almost goes unnoticed. The premise is so original, in fact, that I feel it makes for one of the most creative stories in recent adventure gaming history.
Like Gray Matter and Cognition, Malachi’s “Analysis” gift brings with it its own unique game mechanic. Malachi can analyze any person he comes into contact with, as well as many objects in the environment, and sometimes must do so in order to progress. This sort of mechanic is slowly becoming standard in the point-and-click adventure genre, and while it is well done and not at all out of place here, its inclusion is certainly not remarkable either. Should a sequel get developed then I hope that this aspect of the gameplay evolves and becomes more diverse as the story progresses.
In many ways, Moebius represents a return to some of the established styles of “Old School” point-and-click gaming. Moebius keeps score, which is nothing if not old school in an age where few games have any scoring system. You gain points for successful interactions, including those that go outside the bounds of what is strictly necessary, and you can watch your score tick ever closer to the perfect 672 mark. In another nod to classic adventure gaming, it’s possible to mess up a puzzle and progress lock your game, meaning you've failed and can only attempt the puzzle again or progress the story by reverting to an old save. This happened to me in the penultimate chapter of the game, which caught me off guard because I had been making swimming progress up to that point.
This leads me to two of my big complaints with Moebius. The first complaint is that the puzzles are not as challenging as I’d like. The puzzles in the Gabriel Knight series, for example, are considered to be some of the finest in adventure gaming history and the magic trick mechanic in Gray Matter would sometimes have me scratching my head for hours on end, but in Moebius - with a handful of rare exceptions - the solution to each problem usually just requires some common sense. Even the “Analysis” mechanic that is the showpiece of the whole game can usually be exploited to the point that what should be a 5-10 minute puzzle can be quickly completed in 2-3 minutes once you know how to spot the obvious patterns.
This dovetails in with my second major complaint, which is that the developers have tried to pad out the length of the game by not letting you play like an adventure gamer. Let’s take a random example from classic adventure gaming of Space Quest 6: Roger Wilco in The Spinal Frontier. In a game like SQ6, any time you see an item that you can pick up, you take it. You might have a long way to go before you'll need it and having every item available in your inventory makes your life a lot easier. However, in Moebius, if you encounter an item that you can in theory pick up, you can only do so if you’ve already triggered the relevant story prompt to makes Malachi decide that he needs it.
Imagine that you're in Location A (for the avoidance of spoilers), and that nearby are three Items that you can potentially pick up. If you try to take any of them Malachi will tell you that he doesn’t need them right now. So you decide progress to Location B, where Malachi decides he needs something, perhaps something like Item 1. So now you have to go back to Location A and pick up Item 1, which has finally been made accessible. However, Items 2 and 3 are still off limits. You go back to Location B and you use Item 1, but now Malachi decides that, before he can proceed, he needs something along the lines of Item 2. Had you been able to take all three Items from the start you could have moved on past Location B in about 2 minutes. Instead, due to engineered backtracking, it will take you around 7-8 minutes to clear out all of the puzzles in Location B.
The only other issue I had involved some of the locations having perspective issues. A couple of areas in Moebius use a trick whereby the path will be a straight horizontal line that Malachi walks across but the camera will zoom in and the background will shift to make it appear as though Malachi has turned a corner, even though if you watch carefully you can see that he only walked in a straight line. Beyond that the game looks fabulous (easily on a par with other games from Phoenix Online) and like many of Jensen's games Moebius features a score by her husband Robert Holmes. The score is never distracting, is pulse-pounding when it needs to be, and even features the obligatory cameo from his band "The Scarlet Furies".
Moebius: Empire Rising combines an excellent premise with a fantastic story to deliver a great adventure experience. Even though the puzzles aren’t as challenging as I had hoped for, I was so invested in the story and pretty environments that I didn’t mind not having to wait terribly long to find out where the story was headed. Its current price tag of $29.99 is a shade high, but I would highly recommend checking it out if you've enjoyed any of Jane Jensen’s previous efforts.
This review is based on a digital copy of Moebius: Empire Rising for the PC, provided by the publisher.