Jane Jensen, brilliant creator of the Gabriel Knight series, spent the 2000s making smaller-scale casual mysteries but these days she's back doing what she does best. With brand new point-and-click, Moebius: Empire Rising, Jensen hopes to draw in a new generation of adventure gamers; the likelihood of this though is uncertain, due to the game's numerous graphics and mechanical issues.
Moebius starts strong with another memorable Jensen hero. In direct opposition to the rakish Southern novelist Gabriel Knight, the star of Moebius is a refined genius named Malachi Rector. Lacking Gabriel's easy charm, Malachi impresses people with his photographic memory and limitless capacity to mentally catalog historical information. For Gabriel die-hards, he might come off as a bit of cold fish, but his antisocial arrogance is frequently amusing.
Where Gabriel takes the prize in terms of likeability, Malachi's the easy winner when it comes to business acumen. Malachi (or as he prefers to be called, “Mr. Rector”) runs a Manhattan antique shop that's a must-see for the silver spoon set when they want to buy real historic artifacts or have their existing ones authenticated. Rector's reputation has made him rich, but it also draws the attention of Amble Dexter, the formidable head of a shady government organization. Dexter asks Rector to investigate the death of a young woman in Venice, Italy. Rector's puzzled by the request, but reluctantly agrees. Once there, he discovers the murdered girl is more than just another socialite, and that her death is part of an international conspiracy.
All of this should have Gabriel Knight fans frothing at the mouth since it's in keeping with Jensen's signature mysticism and historical intrigue. The term “mobius” refers to a theory that time, rather than linear, is a loop wherein events happen again and again; in the context of Moebius, it refers to the idea that important historical figures are repeatedly reborn. Moebius' gameplay revolves around this concept and involves collecting bits of information about modern people and comparing them to historic ones. It's a fresh, compelling notion, but the comparisons themselves can be difficult when it comes down to actual mechanics.
The main issues are that facts can often be taken as both similarities and differences, and the only negative feedback you get upon getting comparisons wrong omits to point out where. As a result, what should be fun quickly becomes a chore. Item use is also often tedious. In several instances, Moebius forces you to backtrack to retrieve items, a bothersome thing that's magnified by how far you're asked to go for them. For example, at one point Rector flies all the way back to New York from Washington D.C. to buy a bottle of wine. Would anyone really do this?
Aside from these missteps, Moebius further trips itself up by failing to fully realize a couple of interesting gameplay ideas. Early on, it's suggested that dialog choices affect the way events play out, but roughly two hours in, all sense of choice falls by the wayside. Similarly, Rector's Sherlock Holmes-like ability to deduce information about people and things by observing them feels unfinished. Although we're given the opportunity to gather this insider information throughout the game, having it neither affects Rector's interactions with people, nor adds anything to the investigation.
Despite these disappointments, Moebius does a good number of things well. Jensen loves an odd couple (see the Gabriel/Grace, Samantha/David pairings of the Gabe Knight series and Gray Matter) and this go-round the dubious duo is Rector and his bodyguard, David Walker. Walker, an ex-military man, could be boring if he was played as a typical macho man, but his warm, nurturing personality and penchant for corny jokes make him an interesting foil for the snarky, uptight Rector.
As in Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, Jensen hints at an attraction between two powerful men, and what makes the relationship here so compelling is Jensen's well-realized dialog and (Phoenix Online's?) quality voice casting. Sadly, Jensen doesn't do more than hint at Rector and Walker's possible feelings for one another, but this could be attributed to a lack of confidence in the game industry's (and/or public's) maturity level.
If Moebius' interpersonal relationships are held back a bit, its sound design is not. Supporting the strong vocal performances is a great score by Jensen's husband and frequent collaborator, Robert Holmes. Characterized by James Bond-like spy motifs and moody piano compositions that hearken back to Gabriel Knight, the music gives the game an exotic, often melancholy feel. (The musical standout is the intro song “The Wheel” performed by Holmes' beatifically-voiced daughter Raleigh, lead singer of The Scarlet Furies.)
While the aural aspects do much to bolster Moebius, its graphics often drag it down. Backgrounds and character models aren't bad, but the walk animations are horrendous. Characters jitter and slide across the screen like they've tossed back a few triple espressos, then slathered butter all over their shoes. There's also a problem with responsiveness.
Frequently, characters hang after you've clicked, and you can almost hear the code chugging in the background before they take action. Moreover, if you click to speed up lengthy dialog sequences, characters either fast-forward weirdly or move at normal speed, their mouths moving without sound. Finally, characters are often seen distorting or clipping into their surroundings.
Jensen took a risk by collaborating with the enthusiastic, but relatively inexperienced Phoenix Online Studios, and the gamble's only partially paid off. Phoenix's Cognition series, though narratively strong, was plagued by substandard graphics, and the team's developmental deficiencies are still too pronounced to ignore.
Even so, Jensen and Phoenix Online should be proud of the good things Moebius: Empire Rising has going for it: a fascinating concept, interesting characters, great music, strong writing and quality voice acting. And though its gameplay and presentation problems unquestionably detract from it, Jane Jensen fans might well be willing to forgive these issues and consider Moebius a flawed, but promising step on the road to a new generation of classic adventures games.