Moebius: Empire Rising PC Review

Malachi Rector has a knack for pegging the origin of antiques, but it’s a skill that extends beyond that. He also has an uncanny ability to analyse people and deduce who they truly are. This talent catches the eye of a secretive organisation that hires him to track down and assess certain individuals – an assignment that quickly embroils him in shady assassination plots and global conspiracy. Jane Jensen, most known for the Gabriel Knight series back in the Sierra Online days, penned this latest adventure game developed by Cognition’s Phoenix Online Studios. As a huge fan of her previous work, and of Gabriel Knight in particular (I spent 90% of my Cognition review yapping about it), I was thrilled to throw myself into this game.

First things first. Moebius: Empire Rising plays like a mostly-typical adventure game. You point and click on objects to pop up a menu with icons for various interactions. Sometimes you add things to your inventory, where they may be combined, inspected,¬†or used on other elements in the environment. You sometimes have the option to analyse items and people further by clicking a little brain icon in the pop up menu. You’re asked to look at different aspects of it and select from a few likely deductions. When you get all of them right you have a finished analysis, which comes into different degrees of play in the game. When you are on special assignments, there is an overarching element of this where you gather information about a person, and chapters usually end with a conclusion in regards to that specific character.

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There’s very little in the way of traditional adventure game puzzles. The typical gameplay loop consists of the following: You reach a new area that establishes different items in your surroundings. You identify which ones you can pick up, and Malachi even says “I don’t have a use for that yet” in many cases. Then you go about talking to people and what have you, and as situations present themselves where you can’t proceed for one reason or another, it becomes a rather simple exercise in remembering which of the aforementioned items are likely to help you, and running after those. It’s all a bit of a fetch quest, quite frankly, and there’s barely ever a true eureka moment in here. The strongest illusion of achieving something comes from successfully analysing people, which usually takes a little bit of thinking before you figure out what the different traits of a person point towards. That aside, it isn’t a hugely stimulating game, mechanically.

The writing is pretty much impeccable, however. It’s telling when you can’t quite say when the main character goes from being a prick to somehow carving out a snug little place in your heart. Malachi Rector very much inhabits the role of the eccentric a-hole, popularised by the likes of Gregory House, Cal Lightman and BBC’s Sherlock. The influences are fairly obvious from the start, but Malachi’s discerning between art pieces of worth and those without is a clever, novel way of setting the character up as an off-puttingly intelligent and elitist know-it-all. It’s not arbitrary, though. As you learn more about him, the various aspects of his personality and behaviour seem better informed than a lot of his TV brethren, even.

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The story, which I don’t want to go too much into, is also quite clever. Everything from the basic premise to the way it unravels and becomes bigger than it initially seems, is very elegant. It doesn’t feel like it wraps something larger around itself to suddenly up the scope and stakes — instead, each larger component makes perfect sense when you uncover it. It’s genuinely intriguing, and although the end to some of its plot threads come out of nowhere, the way the game wraps up is still fairly satisfying.

It is frustrating, then, that it is compromised by what continues to be a bewildering choice of tech for this type of endeavour. Like Cognition before it, Moebius‘ character animation is governed by some variant of “inverse kinematics”, meaning that if the character moves across elevated or uneven terrain, he’ll place his feet accordingly. The application of such a system is extremely limited in an adventure game that almost exclusively plays out on a flat plane, and making matters worse it’s not even an especially convincing version of it. The result is simply that characters barely take a single, natural looking step. Especially the first stride when starting to move tends to evoke John Cleese’ famous Monty Python sketch.

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Sometimes when you click somewhere, the character simply refuses to move for a while, and then suddenly snaps out of his static state. Whether this is related to the animation system, or if it’s some kind of path finding problem, I don’t know, but along with the jerky, unpredictable animation it creates the ever-present feeling that the game is on the brink of collapsing.

The model work itself is just as simplistic as Cognition‘s, but without that game’s painterly, pseudo-cartoonish finish it suffers even more. Anatomy is all over the place, and although it’s difficult to say what is “animation” and what is merely animation glitches, characters bend and contract in odd ways that no human should. The hand drawn backgrounds seem sporadically rushed, and it’s not uncommon for proportions and perspective to simply not line up with the polygonal elements of the game. (The world’s tiniest beer pictured below) Sometimes the world is portrayed with thick, dark outlines and bold colours, and other times the aim seems to be for photo realism. Where Cognition had a cohesive vision overall, Moebius doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to look like.

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Also, Moebius employs fully animated cutscenes rendered with in-game assets, but output to blurry pre-rendered sequences. Even here, the animation is so crude that you often have a difficult time interpreting the emotions facial expressions and body language are meant to convey. Cognition used motion comic cutscenes to sidestep this exact problem, but Moebius displays no such good judgement, and – combined with all the other problems with its presentation – plummets to what almost amounts to narrative death. These issues significantly undermine the plot, and scenes of pivotal, character defining drama end up almost comical when played out by stilted, awkward puppets. When the mechanics are seemingly kept straightforward to make way for the storytelling, it’s crippling to the entire experience that this is the unflattering lens we have to view it through.

Moebius: Empire Rising was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, giving it, I imagine, a modest budget. I understand that we’re talking about a small team, and I realise that the assets may be developed with an eventual iPad and Android version in mind – keeping polygon models somewhat simple, justifying the low resolution cut scenes and perhaps even explaining the sparse detail in some of the backgrounds. Sadly, there’s little comfort to be found in any of those reasons.

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The premise nicely informs the sturdy-if-unspectacular gameplay framework, Malachi Rector is a well realised and fascinating character and the story is smart, but those sound fundamentals are in constant battle against jittery Sims-esque character models, wildly inconsistent art and a slew of mild technical issues.

5 out of 10