Moebius: Empire Rising is a point and click adventure game by Jane Jensen and published by Phoenix Online Studios. If you aren’t familiar with the name Jane Jensen, she is one of the big names in adventure games from back when adventure games were the showcase genre of the PC who are still working primarily in that genre. I don’t want to go all auteur theory, but Jensen’s is important because Moebius is recognizably the kind of game she’s been making for the last couple decades. There’s a pulpy, melodramatic concept and story. There are some continually repeated minigames that are too simplistic but seem like they could be great with a little more work. There’s an annoying maze area that should have been cut entirely from the game. Basically, fans of Gray Matter will probably like this. For those who haven’t played Gray Matter, some more explanation is probably needed.
Moebius is traditional in design, to the point of being predictable. You pick up objects, and use them on other objects in a, hopefully, logical way to advance the plot. The only change to the standard gameplay is that Moebius only lets you pick things up when the puzzle requiring them has been reached. So you can’t just pick up a boat pole and carry it around for no reason, unlike the kleptomaniacs who starred in the adventure games of old. Occasionally you need to guess passwords, but this is usually done by selecting the password from a drop-down menu, there is one that you enter manually, so the passwords aren’t fundamentally different from finding and using items. The passwords also provided the best example of how the game is too eager to keep thing moving for the puzzles to be really engaging, Late in the game there is a password that involves using cryptography to decode the password hint. You’re provided with various keys and three methods of encryption and decryption to figure out the password. It could have been an interesting exercise in figuring out how to use the different methods. Instead you’re brought to an interface that applies the encryption for you. All that the player is left to do is apply the cipher and copying down the decrypted message. A shorter way to put it, this is one of maybe three that I’ve managed to complete without a walkthrough.
The game isn’t all item puzzles and passwords, though. There are two minigames intended to emulate the classic “Sherlock scan” and the comparison of modern and historical people respectively. In the Sherlock Holmes minigame you’re given different qualities of a person, like “shifty eyes,” and then select one of three options for what it tells you about that person. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but these options always break down the same way. One is an obvious joke option, one is relevant but doesn’t actually relate to a character trait, and one just flat-out tells you some character trait of the person you’re analyzing. Comparing people to historical figures is probably the biggest disappointment of the game. You are given a list of traits and next to each of these traits are the historical figures who had those traits, then you need to figure out which of the historical figures shares the most traits. So if someone has seven traits in common with Eli Whitney and one in common with Chuang Zi, you need to sigh deeply and imagine what could have been. It really should have been an exercise in comparing and contrasting information is instead a test of whether you can count.
The story is very much in line with the goofy-but-sincere gothic melodrama that Jane Jensen usually does. Malachi Rector (keep in mind that Jensen’s Gray Matter featured a character who wore a literal Phantom of the Opera mask without a trace of irony) is asked by a mysterious quasi-governmental organization named FITA (which was sadly changed from the far more appropriate FIST) to determine if the life of a recently murdered woman resembles any historical figures. After carrying out his mission, he is attacked by ninjas, who photograph his passport, and finds out that he is the center of various conspiracies and so it goes. I don’t want to expand on the plot too much, because people hate spoilers. I will say that if you’re a fan of Jorge Louis-Borges, you might be disappointed, as it’s nothing as clever as that. It is a very entertaining pulp sci-fi story that has a lot of genuinely well done moments, and runs with its central conceit fairly well. I really thought the story was a strong point of the game, except for one problem.
The problem with the story is Malachi Rector. He is a whiny, entitled, self-righteous, narcissistic, judgmental ♥♥♥♥♥. They were obviously trying to emulate the BBC Sherlock, with Malachi as the insufferable genius who everyone needs despite his grating personality. They even tried to emulate the look of the BBC Sherlock in many of the cutscenes, with floating text to represent Malachi’s analysis of the situation. The BBC Sherlock has a couple of advantages, however. First, that has Watson around to look at the camera and sympathize with the viewer, and, second, Sherlock is not the viewpoint character and you get an occasional break from him. The Watson in Moebius is so bland I’ve entirely forgotten his name and Malachi is the viewpoint character for most of the game, which means almost everything the game tells you is passed along by him; this is a problem when most people will want to punch Malachi in the face every time he speaks. I don’t think it kills the story completely. If you keep in mind that he’s supposed to be unlikeable, it’s actually hilarious what a ♥♥♥♥♥ he is.
Graphically, it’s exactly what you see on the screenshots and video above. It’s got a nice stylized design intended to conceal the low quality of the models, the animation is a little off at times. Overall, I think it works well, when it works. The engine for Moebius, like Cognition, the previous game from this Phoenix Online, has a tendency to suddenly pitch a fit every so often and the character models starts flopping around, an absent character remains a hot spot in the level, or the game just locks up. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much, I had four or five noticeable issues in the nine hours I spent playing the game. Three were cosmetic and only one, when the game locked up, required me to restart the game from an earlier save. I’d advise you to save often, though, in case the game does suddenly freeze on you.
To sum up, I may have accentuated the negative a little too much here. Moebius is a nicely traditional, if overly easy, point and click adventure game with an interesting plot that is partly kneecapped by unlikeable characters, oversimplified puzzles, and the occasional bugs. That sounds bad when you put them all together like that, but I really do recommend it if you like the genre. If you’re not a fan of point and click adventure games, this probably isn’t the best place to start. Maybe try the Blackwell games or Gemini Rue or something first.