Video Game Review: Moebius: Empire Rising

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Moebius: Empire Rising is the new adventure game from Jane Jensen, the woman behind the incredible Gabriel Knight games.  I’m a rabid fan of hers, so naturally when she launched a Kickstarter to fund her own game studio I was all over it.  

So I’m in the position of having been a beta tester on this game for the last year.  I’ve had a blast doing it.  Getting each new chapter was so exciting.  So I haven’t actually played the final version of the game yet.  I’ve played parts of it several times, in different versions, and I’ve played the whole game in pieces.  But there are little bits I haven’t seen and there was some roughness in the versions I played (though a lot less than you’d think.)   I’ve downloaded my copy of the final game and played about the first 20 minutes of it, just to see what the final version looked like.  

So, the first thing to keep in mind about this game is that despite the fact that it’s made by one of the big names in adventure games, it’s an indie game developed on a small budget.  The game uses the 3D engine of Phoenix Online Studios, another indie studio.  It’s an ok engine, but it’s not going to win any awards for being state of the art.  The graphics of Mobius, therefore, leave a little something to be desired, IMO.  The backgrounds are gorgeously painted.  They’re realistic, but more colorful, prettier than photorealism.  My problem with the graphics is with the 3D character models.  They just are awkward and always a little off.  The arms and legs are too thin, the shoulders and totally weird…they kinda squick me in an uncanny valley way. Graphics, in my opinion, are one of the least important aspects of any game when it comes to quality, so I’ll shut up about them.  But like I said, there’s a tendency to forget this is a small budget game, but there are still little imperfections that will remind you.

So what is the game about?  The main character is a man named Malachi Rector (yes, really) who appraises antiques.  He’s basically the Sherlock Holmes of the antiquities world, using his massive intellect and observational skills to spot forgeries at a glance.  He’s also a total misanthrope and pretty much a total bastard.  It was entertaining during the beta process to see people become annoyed with the character for being too unlikable.  I think it’s a brave storytelling choice to have your main character be, essentially, a total ass at the beginning of the story.  It’s a starting point with the potential for real character growth and discovery.  

Malachi gets hired for a job by the mysterious pseudo-government agency FITA.  His job is to investigate modern day people and determine if they match any important figures from history.  The main idea behind the plot being that history repeats itself and people essentially match certain archetypes across different times in human history.  It’s obviously a difficult to explain premise, but one that has the advantage of being totally unique.  The entire situation is only slowly revealed over the course of the game, so I don’t want to spoil anything here.  

In the course of his investigations Malachi meets a man named David Walker and ends up hiring him as security.  Much of the character and emotional content of this game revolves around the developing relationship between these two men as they get to know one another and better understand what the hell is going on around them.  

The gameplay is pretty standard for a classic point and click adventure, although it’s fairly light on inventory puzzles compared to the classics of the golden age.  Instead there are two different unique puzzle interfaces (oh, actually make that three by the end of the game) that recur throughout the game.  The first is the way in which Malachi observes people (and sometimes objects) when he encounters them.  You’re give an image with several highlighted areas.  You have to select the area and then choose the conclusion that is correct.  For example “Her clothes are worn” and you select “she has low income.”   Sometimes these choices are really obvious, other times they are more obscure.  There’s no penalty for being wrong except you have to try again and you’re not told which selection is incorrect.  This interface underwent several revamps during development and I think it works really well now.

I’m not as happy with the other analysis interface.  When Malachi has to compare his subject to historical figure to determine if there is a match, there is a complex interface that compares the people across several data points.  The problem is that it’s very simple to see who the correct answer is very quickly so there’s no real challenge to these analyses.  I’m pretty disappointed that this issue was never solved, although some things were tweaked to slightly improve it.  But since this task is so plot centric it’s kinda a let-down that it’s so easy.

I think that will be a main complaint of adventure gamers about this game: it doesn’t offer enough challenge.  There’s a difficult middle ground between too easy and too frustrating and what you think of this game will probably depend on your gaming experience.  Personally, I’m here for the story, so I don’t care all that much.

As for the story, there are some really interesting things in this game.  The characters as they are slowly revealed and the developing friendship and trust between Malachi and David are really fascinating.  The mysteries of the plot are also revealed on a slow time-table.  That’s kinda the feel of the whole game.  It’s a leisurely introduction to these characters and this world and these ideas.  I like the pacing and that it doesn’t feel rushed.  Unfortunately it means that this game just feels like an introductory chapter, the first in a long series.  I was left desperately wanting more.  Some may consider this fairly unsatisfying if they expect a complete and finished story.   

It very much reminded me of the first book in an intended lengthy urban fantasy type series.  It does make me a little nervous, though, since it’s a lot more difficult to get game sequels and series made than novels.  I feel like I NEED more of these characters in my life, because I’ve just gotten good and attached to them.  Hopefully Jane can make that happen.  It was pretty obvious that she intended to make more Moebius games when the subtitle “Empire Rising” was added to this one late in the process.

Also, I have a code to share with you for 20% off this game for the next two weeks at the Phoenix Online Store.  Use code CSGMOEB20OFF to get your discount.  The game is also available through Steam and GOG, but without the discount.

 

 

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