Moebius: Empire Rising

Date: May 2014

Release Year: 2014, Developer: Pinkerton Road/ Phoenix Online

m1I remember the day I saw Jane Jensen’s fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. As you can tell from the reviews of the Gabriel Knight (GK) trilogy on my blog, I am a huge fan of Jensen’s work. Hence, I pledged a considerable amount without blinking an eye. Everything in the campaign looked so promising, such as Jensen having full control over the design and production, pledgers voting for which game is going to be produced first, and the involvement of Robert Holmes (Jensen’s husband and composer of the music for the GK trilogy). Soon, pledgers (including me) selected the concept of “Moebius” to be the first game that Jensen was going to design in her new studio “Pinkerton Road.” Fast forward to the present time, we finally have the game in our hands. It got mixed reactions from the community so far, and I have to admit that it is not the glorious and legendary comeback from Jensen we were all hoping for. Nevertheless, Moebius is a wonderful thriller and the story alone makes it worth the wait.

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Moebius’ main character is Malahi Rector, an antiques dealer from Manhattan. He is a young, handsome, snobbish and introverted man with an exceptionally good photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of history. His skills are usually hired by upper class people to determine if an antique item is genuine or not. With only one look at the item, Malachi can identify its origins, the material, when it was made and whether it is a fake/replica. One day, a man named Amble Dexter contacts Malachi and hires him for a very strange job. He wants Malachi to investigate the murder of a young Venetian woman. The strange thing is, Dexter is not interested in finding the killer, he wants Malachi to investigate the woman’s life and see if it matches with any historical figure. Malachi reluctantly accepts the assignment without knowing the ultimate goal, and the story takes off from there.

Moebius has one of the most original and intriguing stories I have seen in a long time. While almost every other thriller out there rehashes old ideas in one form or another, Mrs. Jensen once again manages to create a novel and exciting story. Similar to her previous works, you do not learn the main plot until you are a couple of hours into the game. Once the bigger picture is revealed, I couldn’t help saying, “Wow, she did it again!”. Jensen has truly mastered this style of storytelling. It is difficult to talk more about the story without giving spoilers. So I will just say that it follows the path of the Gabriel Knight games and mixes elements from actual history and supernatural phenomena. One may argue that this formula is getting old, but I never felt that old ideas were being recycled.

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The protagonist, Malachi is not a very likable character. He is arrogant and seems to be completely devoid of any emotional attachment. Many gamers were not happy with Malachi, criticizing that they could not relate to him on a personal level. I enjoyed playing him immensely, because it gave me a break from playing likable and emotional heroes/heroines in adventure games. What he lacks in character, he makes up with his excellent deduction skills and impressive knowledge on history/antiques. Hmm, an anti-social character with perfect deduction skills, does that remind you of anyone? I vaguely remember that Jensen saying she is a fan of BBC’s Sherlock so I would not be shocked if Malachi were partially based on Sherlock Holmes.

Malachi also gets a side-kick, an ex-marine named David Walker. Unlike Malachi, Walker is a stereotypical “good” character. He is royal, friendly and helpful. What makes him interesting is the chemistry between him and Malachi. Like I mentioned before, Malachi always keeps himself distanced from other people, but as the story progresses he starts to make exceptions for Walker, and a kind of “bromance” starts to develop between them. I think it works great! Adventure games need more character interactions like that. Also, I find it fascinating that a female author can portray attraction between two males in such a beautiful way. A similar attraction was also present between Gabriel and Von Glower in Gabriel Knight II.

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Moebius is a globetrotting adventure. I do not want to give away all the locations, but it is fair to say that a large part of the story takes place in different parts of Europe. Thus, each chapter ends up having its own feel and atmosphere and you never end up getting bored with a certain setting. On the other hand, this design choice clearly led to a certain degree of shallowness. You travel to all these different locations and meet new people, but you never get to know too much about them. I would much prefer a game taking place in a particular location so that we can get more background on the history regarding the place and characters (yes I am thinking about France and GK III).

Similar to Jensen’s previous work, Moebius has a very cinematic feel to it, which is mostly due to dynamic story development and high-quality voice-overs. Each chapter not only advances the story, but it also adds a new aspect to the plot. With each chapter, you learn more about the enigmatic Moebius theory as well as Malachi’s character. As I paced through the game, I felt like I was watching a professionally written and directed mystery movie rather than playing a computer game. Jensen’s games always has this impact on me and I realized how much I missed that feeling!

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Visually, Moebius is a mixed-bag. I liked the general art direction and how the scenes looked. I certainly liked the rich colour palette. Since our main guy is an antiques dealer, some extra attention has been given to the interior scenes and decoration, which looks fantastic. However, animation quality of characters vary significantly throughout the game. In the first chapter, Malachi’s walking and limb movements look so unrealistic that I began to suspect whether he was suffering from a physical illness. It gets better later in the game (or maybe I got used to it). This inconsistency applies to the texture quality, as well. In the first chapter, everything looked good, in the second chapter as soon as I stepped out of the hotel room I was shocked by the roughness of the textures. I guess this is a budget issue. Even though Pinkerton Road collected a remarkable amount of money from KickStarter, apparently it is not enough to produce a game with consistent texture and animation quality.

I already praised the voice-overs, now let’ talk about the music. I was expecting nothing but perfection from Robert Holmes, and he did not fail. A catchy main menu track, location dependent ambient pieces, peaceful piano melodies and of course a spine chilling credits music .. you name it, Moebius has it! I totally enjoyed the soundtrack and I was impressed with the diversity. Some of the tunes reminded me of the music from Gabriel Knight series (especially the piano tracks), but that is not a bad thing, it just reflects Holmes’s composition style.

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Okay, the good stuff is out of the way, now let me tell you about why I am partially disappointed by the game. It is the puzzle design… It saddens me to say that, the most (if not all) of Moebius’s puzzles are trivial. I never got stuck, the whole eight hours gameplay was a smooth ride from the beginning to end. There aren’t many items you can collect and it is always super obvious where to use them. There is no real challenge, no out-of-the-box thinking process, nothing. There are some logical puzzles, but they are sparse and clues are too obvious. There is one code-breaking puzzle later in the game that starts promising, but the game holds your hand throughout the process and kills the overall potential enjoyment you would get from the puzzle.

I believe one of the most important elements of an adventure game is the puzzle design, and I think the current scene lacks games with solid puzzles. Since Jane herself put out some legendary puzzles (she gave us the “Le Serpent Rouge” for God’s sake!) in the past, I was not expecting Moebius to be this easy. Her previous game Gray Matter was not very challenging either but at least it had a very exciting scavenger hunt and some challenging logic puzzles. I remember that when Moebius got announced first, Jane told us that there will be two difficulty settings; an easy mode for the casual players and a more challenging mode for the seasoned players. Not only this difficulty option did not make into the final product, I believe the game we have is in “casual” difficulty and they did not bother with designing challenging puzzles for advanced players at all.

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Moebius tries to make up for the lack of inventory and logic puzzles with a number of analysis puzzles. They match very nicely with Malachi’s deduction skills. You examine people and you can deduce information regarding their personality. You also do the same thing to antiques and try to identify the origins of the item by comparing it to other items you have seen before. Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games also implemented similar game mechanics, and in my opinion it did not really work. Unfortunately, Moebius does not do any better. The problem is, all this process is in the form of selecting the right answer from a bunch of multiple selections and sometimes the clues and answers do not make sense at all. Thus, you end up guessing the answer through brute search. Overall, these puzzles end up being frustrating and they slow down the gameplay, rather than adding to it.

I guess that it is a marketing decision rather than a design decision. I believe that Jane could have designed far more interesting puzzles if she wanted to. The question is, would people play it? Although Pinkerton Road started as if they were targeting hardcore adventure gamers, it seems like they are actually aiming for a wider audience. It is no secret that the most mainstream gamers are not particularly interested in solving complex and multi-layered puzzles. Hence, I am suspecting that the game was deliberately made easy for the sake of not scaring away the younger audience. Well, I guess I should not complain too much then, because if this game sells well, we are more likely to see a new Gabriel Knight title.

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Well, despite all my complaints, I liked Moebius. It has something magical that only designers like Jane Jensen can give it to us. A thrilling story, fusion of science fiction with actual history, interesting characters, solid writing… The list goes on. I am so happy that she is back in the business and I am looking forward to playing more games from Pinkerton Road in the future.

The Good: Absorbing and well-written story that lives up to Jane Jensen’s standards. Amazing soundtrack and voice-overs. Malachi is a welcome break from stereotypical protagonists.

The Bad: Graphics quality is inconsistent. Lack of challenging puzzles. Analysis puzzles are prone to brute force.

The Ugly: Malachi’s animation

Score: 8.0/10

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