"...it's a simple feel-good tale that fails to touch on the huge existential potential of its premise."
As a growing name in the point-and-click genre, Jane Jensen has garnered much fanfare for Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter. Moebius: Empire Rising, a Kickstarter game that raised almost 50% over its $300,000 goal, promised to be a spiritual successor to the Gabriel Knight series. Does the game live up to fan expectations?
A prequel comic introduces us to Malachi Rector, a highly intelligent but generally apathetic appraiser whose penchant for running his mouth tends to get him into "security trouble." Upon recuperation from his latest beating, a wealthy Amble Dexter hires him for an assignment unlike his usual job — instead of appraising antiques, his mission is to gather details on a murdered woman and to determine if her biography matches that of any famous woman in history. Not one to turn down money, Malachi accepts the job in spite of his curiosity regarding the classified reason for his assignment and the obscurity of F.I.T.A., the government agency behind this orchestration.
Though Malachi comes across as self-absorbed and cold, he is surprisingly fascinating due to his no-nonsense demeanor, extensive encyclopedic knowledge, and calculative, distrusting nature. The prequel comic reveals a rather traumatic childhood as well, which preps the player's empathy towards a character that may seem insufferable otherwise. As someone who values logic over emotions, I find Malachi rather relateable, but I can see some players being frustrated by his dismissive tone. Aside from Malachi and perhaps a couple of others, the characters are rather one-dimensional but serve their roles well in moving the plot forward.
With a refreshing premise and a realistic environment, the story provides satisfying answers yet still makes the player wonder. Unfortunately, its innovation doesn't go much further, as the plot quickly becomes predictable. None of the "twists" caught me by surprise, and Malachi expectedly learns to trust others and show affection. That's not to say the story is bad, but it's a simple feel-good tale that fails to touch on the huge existential potential of its premise. The presence of pseudo options in conversations and actions only serves to accent the linear progress, failing to make even the tiniest illusion of choice. If you don't make the decision required of you, well, you either don't progress or you die. Though many point-and-click games run the same way, the restrictions seem painfully obvious in Moebius.
Interacting with objects in Moebius is much like in any other point-and-click. After selecting an object or person, up to six options are shown: talk, psychoanalyze, operate, look at, pick up, or use with the active inventory item. These give the player an idea of what might be useful in the future (some red herrings exist), as Malachi is loathe to pick up items unless he realizes he needs them. While I understand the logical reasoning behind such an inventory system, the rest of the game does not follow the same rationale. For example, after discovering I needed an item to progress, I had to travel by train to Malachi's apartment and back, but in reality, the person I'm looking for would likely have moved from or even left his initial location. Though this inventory concept is sensible, the execution doesn't live up to its expectation and results in much unnecessary backtracking.
Malachi walks to a spot with a single click or teleports with a double click. Few locations are larger than what's displayed, making it hard to tell which boundaries can be explored. The first time I realized I could venture beyond the visible background, I had accidentally double clicked out of frustration as I realized I had to do more but could see no useful options on my screen. Certain cutscenes and conversations can be skipped by clicking. When trying to skip text regarding an item or object, however, even though the text and voice acting disappears, Malachi often ends up freezing for at least as long as the speech would have taken, rendering the skip useless. The game also crashed twice while I was playing, and, with no substantial autosave function, I had to replay a significant amount the first time it happened as save prompts only appear between chapters. Considering that each save is at least a five-click investment and the game provides a "retry" option for failed quick-time events or poor decisions that bring the player to the exact moment before everything goes to hell, I wonder why the developers didn't just provide a more frequent autosave like most games do. Instead, I found myself compulsively saving between scenes after the second crash only to have it never crash again.
The puzzles are generally tame, with simple combinations unlocked by mostly logical reasoning. A couple unique puzzles are introduced, such as one in which Malachi needs to connect details from his assignment to people in history and narrow down a possible match. Almost like a spreadsheet, the player checks off mismatches before choosing the best of three. Malachi can also "psychoanalyze" people he meets, which means checking off a list of possible reasons for their physical appearances and behaviors. With the right combination, he gains insight into their psyche and uses the information to get what he needs. For some reason, the game includes one real-time puzzle that springs out of nowhere and is entirely disorienting, particularly for me as I have acrophobia and didn't expect a first-person experience of falling off a penthouse unit in a third-person point-and-click ... I must admit, I debated putting down the game. Lamentably, the last "puzzle" is tedious and anti-climactic. There is no "ah-ha" moment of brilliance, but simple monotony instead.
Sound-wise, the engaging voice acting works well enough with the different accents as Malachi globe trots, giving enough personality to the one-dimensional cast. Malachi's voice work definitely stands out amongst the rest. The music is forgettable at best, while the sound effects are mostly appropriate. Nothing special here, but the speeches make the animations far more bearable than they should be.
At first glance, the game looks polished with vibrant models and backdrops. Then, someone tries to speak or move, and you realize with dawning horror that everything
is an abomination of nature. When speaking, characters' lips mouth a garbled unholy tongue that matches absolutely nothing they say. To retain sanity, I quickly learned to avoid looking at the faces when they talk. Stilted movements and jerky gestures almost pass for a Qwop video in slow motion at times. Things move sluggishly in the game: changing scenes, characters moving, combining items, pulling up menus — everything feels almost suspended in time, taking just a little too long to accomplish its purpose. Granted, cut scenes are less horrifying, with smoother animations and zoomed out screens, but they're no less mediocre. For a game that roots its environment in reality, the devil's possessed the details.
Moebius: Empire Rising represents a decent game filled with wasted, bubbling potential. Given stronger development and a deeper dive into the existential repercussions of the premise, it could easily break new ground. For now, it is simply another re-occurrence in the history of point-and-click games.