It’s been quite some time since Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen returned to the adventure game genre. With the help of Kickstarter and Cognition publisher Phoenix Online Studios, is the classic point-and-clicker Moebius: Empire Rising a true return to form and a chance for Pinkerton Road Studio to bring more mature themes to the genre?
Antiques hunter Malachi Rector with a keen, deductive eye for small details, is hired by secret Government agency FITA to investigate people who bear a strange resemblance to historical figures.
A new Sherlock is born…sort of
Storytelling has always been the most important part in Jane Jensen’s games, as they usually delivered on interesting characters and mature themes. Moebius is no different, as it combines history with conspiracy thriller elements while having a main protagonist with human flaws and qualities. This becomes evident when Malachi has to take pills and even chain himself to the floor of his apartment after severe headaches due to his unique perception. Despite his often arrogant way of talking to people, one can relate more the further the game progresses. When he finally meets his side kick, the former army captain David Walker, there is even a sense of homo eroticism, something very few games are brave enough to touch upon. Fortunately, this is handled with care, so that their growing friendship only hints at this without being too intrusive.
However, despite some well-written characters and an interesting and mature story involving the freedom of choice, political and social manipulation, the plot itself comes across a bit too convoluted and only progresses slowly at first. This isn’t helped by a rushed ending, characters appearing and disappearing from the main action, unnecessary jokes and some pretty horrible fighting scenes. These don’t have to be fought out, but watching them in cutscenes makes the outdated engine even uglier than it already is. Technical hiccups and presentation aside, there’s something even more problematic: gameplay and puzzle design.
Of deduction skills, minor and major flaws and falls
For avid readers of Sherlock Holmes novels, there’s a certain familiarity about the way Malachi goes about getting to know the people he meets: looking at body language, clothes, etc. reveals more about the person than the things they say. The same method of deduction can be applied to Rector’s analyzing rare artifacts of their value. It’s often a painstakingly scrutinous gameplay mechanic, but it’s pretty fun the first, second or third time. There’s also an interesting and essential tool for comparing present-day characters with historical ones by dissecting their background stories. This is cool to play around with in the first chapters, as it makes talking to people and connecting the dots between them part of the puzzle design.
Unfortunately, it’s here where the game gets very repetitive. Except for a few inventory-combination puzzles and a short but welcome return to books researching reminiscent of Jane Jensen’s past games (including a rewarding point system), it’s rinse and repeat in almost every single chapter: talk to people and find sufficient information to do the deduction/historical comparison thing. This doesn’t only lead to grating, tiresome and often unfair guessing gameplay (as each box of characteristics has to be checked correctly with few hints of what went wrong), but also turns the well-written NPCs into nothing more than checklists. It isn’t helped by the story taking so long to kick in and only becoming interesting when it’s already too late. A real shame considering that Jensen knows enough about engaging, varied gameplay and storytelling techniques. The few genuine puzzles are either too easy (with few items to select from) or downright silly when the old Runaway syndrome rears its ugly head in the form of items only being picked up or interacted with when they’re needed. Again a missed opportunity, because travelling from one place in the world to another could have made for a much more interesting experience.
This looks…not really that interesting to interact with
In addition to repetitive gameplay and questionable storytelling, another problem are the graphics which vary between okay and quite beautiful in the hand-drawn backgrounds (although the locations are often unpopulated and feel like empty stages), but simply terrible in cutscenes and laughably bad in character animations. Cognition from Phoenix Online Studios had the same problems, and it looks extremely ugly here with Rector walking as if he has trouble coordinating his legs, arms and torso. It’s sad to see that the engine also makes more dramatic scenes lose their impact, while action sequences in which fights are shown would even look dated in the beginning of 3D technology.
Fortunately, great music and very good voice acting save certain scenes somewhat and bring the atmosphere back on track despite slow progression. It’s telling that the hand-drawn stills in the prelude comic are stylistically more interesting and vibrant to read than watching the game in action.
No instant classic, but an interesting effort nonetheless
Moebius: Empire Rising is a welcome return by Jane Jensen, but not the return to form one would like it to be. Plot and characters show interesting writing which touches important themes, but they develop too slowly, also hindered by cumbersome puzzle and game design. Despite the fun application of the main protagonist’s investigative and deductive skills, the game is too repetitive to hold the player’s attention for the whole playtime. It’s also disappointing that the graphics are so bad that they have a very negative impact on the dramatic elements of the story.
All in all, Pinkerton Road Studio delivers a slightly above average game with some interesting storytelling ideas, but wrapped up in an outdated technology. Hopefully, Jensen’s next project(s) will improve on the gameplay and engine, as her abilities as a writer are still good enough the draw her audience in, despite some convoluted conspiracy theories and less than perfect design decisions.
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