There’s something satisfyingly fitting about the fact that Jane Jensen’s first point-and-click adventure since the regularly delayed Gray Matter is Moebius, because in a lot of ways, it’s a call back to her own beginnings. Her first headline game was Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers – coincidentally, one of my favourite adventures of all time – which featured a storeowner getting involved in a paranormal investigation. Moebius: Empire Rising, while entirely different in style and tone, also features a storeowner getting involved in a paranormal investigation. With Robert Holmes composing the music. And a female assistant running the store. And various other parallels.
There, of course, it was the charming-but-sleazy Gabriel Knight, unsuccessful writer and unsuccesful bookstore owner. Here, it’s Malachi Rector, the brilliant-but-arrogant antiques dealer with a photographic memory. He’s rather more upscale than Knight, and if I’m honest, I’m a pretty big fan of the way most of his “Examine” responses are him talking about how shit everyone’s furnishings are. It’s like having (a significantly less annoying) Simon Cowell running a house makeover show in which he appraises their antiques while deriding their taste.
Rector’s photographic memory, excessive knowledge of history, and uncanny ability to size objects and people up at a glance are called on by a mysterious government agency who want him to travel to Venice and determine whether or not a young murdered woman reminds him of anyone in history. Then, while he’s trying to make historical connections, people start trying to kill him and he’s going to have to figure out very quickly what’s going on.
Alas, there’s a surprising amount to dislike about Moebius… but very little of it actually matters because the core bits of the game – the writing, the story, the puzzle-solving – are all rather strong. So, before I get onto the good stuff, let’s quickly go over the rubbish.
Animations are janky, particularly some of Malachi’s walking animations (although the developers have told me that some of this might be down to my refresh rate). The lip-synching is so bad it’s distracting. There are occasional pauses between ordering Malachi to do something, and him actually doing it. One or two of the backgrounds are horrendously low-resolution, possibly because they were all drawn to similar size but a few of them are for significantly wider areas. One puzzle – which is, honestly, barely a puzzle – has a solution so boneheadedly specific that I actually thought the game had bugged, because the next location I needed to visit hadn’t been added to my map.
That list of flaws has probably scared off a few of you, and that’s a shame, because pretty much everything else about Moebius: Empire Rising is pretty damn good.
Let’s start with Malachi Rector, because most of your time is spent in his company. If you don’t like flawed, sarcastic, snarky characters who offend pretty much every single person they meet, you’re going to hate him. He doesn’t like people, he doesn’t play nice, and he has absolutely no qualms about being rude and spiteful. I thoroughly enjoyed playing as him, and actually felt quite sad when I realised I’d missed an opportunity to squeeze more dialogue out of him by moving on before I’d examined everything. He’s superbly written and excellently voiced, and he’s not the only one in the game.
Malachi’s a bit Sherlock Holmes in a lot of ways, and his abrasive personality is only one of those ways. He matches Holmes in terms of insight and ability to read people; in terms of gameplay mechanics, you can analyse both objects and people to get more information on them. Malachi highlights particular points of interest, and you decide what they mean. Is the sweat on this man’s brow because he’s nervous about something, or because he just ate something spicy?
Happily – because this, honestly, is one of the more entertaining mechanics – you can have Malachi cast his withering, cynical eye on a whole lot of people and objects throughout the game. Sometimes it’s antiques you’re analysing, and sometimes you’re just trying to get a read on people. It’s often optional and only occasionally difficult, but it’s a lovely little touch that adds a bit more personality to just about everything, while giving you a really nice way to be involved in Rector’s Holmesian deductions.
While definitely a point-and-click adventure, Moebius is more about investigation than raw puzzle-solving. You’re normally trying to look for facts and find historical connections rather than using a rubber duck on a pair of pliers, and when puzzles do crop up, they tend to be fairly logical. Experienced adventure gamers are unlikely to get stuck – barring one or two occasions when the game expects a very specific solution, though these are unlikely to hold you for long – and even newcomers to the genre shouldn’t have too much trouble thanks to an optional hint system and a hotspot highlighter. About the only complaint I have is that Rector often refuses to pick up objects until they’re of use, which – while logical – means that there’s more backtracking than is really necessary. Lots more. It gets a bit annoying.
It’s likely to prove a bit divisive, but I rather like the focus on investigation and simple, logical puzzles. It keeps everything relatively grounded, and keeps the interesting plot moving along. Alas, there are a few points where budget limitations come into play: one “puzzle” requires you to get a bottle of alcohol for someone, and the only place you can get this is the only bar in the game. Which is a plane flight away. So yes, you have to hop back there to pick it up, because Washington apparently doesn’t have anywhere that sells booze. This mostly made me laugh, but if it’s the sort of thing that’d massively break your immersion, be warned.
There’s also one moment which is at best cringe-inducing, and at worst incredibly offensive. Around the same time as the aforementioned puzzle, you need to pry information from a woman, which requires you to court her, lead her on, and lie. And then, when you get her alone… you have to viciously threaten her with a knife. Malachi’s life is in danger at this point, but – crucially – this isn’t made clear. Doing almost anything else results in death, but doing things “correctly” means that you never know he was in danger, and his sudden violent streak comes out of absolutely nowhere. Doing things “correctly”, then, relies on Malachi pulling a knife and assaulting a woman who appears to be entirely harmless. I find it hard to believe nobody raised an objection to this scene during development, and I genuinely hope I missed some sort of alternate solution.
Still: the plot is interesting. There’s a lot I want to say about it but, frankly, it’s too enjoyable to be spoiled. Yes, you’ll likely see most of the twists coming, and yes, the game’s final chapter is – to be blunt – a very weak climax when compared to what came before. The plot is all but wrapped up at that point, and things go a bit Classic Sierra with a maze that will likely kill you a few times before you make it through. Nonetheless, the interesting theories that provide the basis for the game’s story and the discoveries you make along the way are more than enough to keep you going.
All of this makes Moebius pretty easy to recommend. There are points when it falls a bit flat, but unlike a lot of adventures I’ve played over the last few years, there were no real points where I felt bored or annoyed. I was invested in the story and the characters pretty much the entire way through, and puzzling out the historical connections is a genuinely entertaining experience that’s integrated rather cleverly into the gameplay thanks to the analysis function.
While Moebius wraps up its plot cleanly (and without being episodic, which makes a wonderful change) it’s also made very clear that a lot more can be done with this game world, and there are still a number of mysteries that could easily provide the basis for future games. I’m happy for this, because I’d love to see a sequel. Moebius isn’t as clever, in-depth, or vast as Gabriel Knight – but then, with its budget, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be – but it draws from the classic in all the right ways, and shows that Jane Jensen still has a certain magic touch.