Moebius: Empire Rising

Saturday 30 July 2016

Moebius: Empire Rising is an adventure point-and-click game, made by Jane Jensen who was the mastermind behind the classic Gabriel Knight series. Moving along similar lines, Moebius however manages to distinguish itself from the Gabriel Knight universe, creating another, unique one which to a high degree succeeds in being original and fascinating.

Malachi Rector, a highly intelligent and skilled antiquities expert, is hired by Amble Dexter, a mysterious gentleman who seems to hold a very high political and social position, to investigate a woman's murder in Venice. Dexter believes that said murder is connected to historical events of the past, which is why Malachi's expertise and contribution are vital. Although there are lots of dark points in the case, Malachi is intrigued enough to accept the job. He travels to Venice, where the thread begins to untangle, but it looks like there's a lot more to investigate and discover, and all this requires thorough research in several parts of the world. His next stop is Cairo, where he meets a young man named David Walker, ex-Special Forces member and Captain, whom he subsequently helps when he witnesses a violent attack against him by masked men. Aknowledging the dangers he may come across himself, Malachi decides to hire David as a bodyguard, a decision which will prove to be wise later on.  Malachi suffers from seizures, during which several clues are revealed to him through visions, but which also put him in a very painful state; having someone who cares about him to help him out during such situations, only good can do to him.

While in Venice, Malachi helps a local colleague to identify an artifact

While Malachi is digging deeper and deeper into the case, he starts gathering even more interesting information about it. It tunrs out that it all revolves around a metaphysical theory, developed centuries ago by a French monk, Benedict de Mont Froi. It is the Moebius Theory, according to which history has defined patterns which repeat themselves over and over. There is no linear Space - Time connection in the 4th dimension, therefore energy patterns which play out in one moment of time ripple or echo out across the 4th dimension, reoccuring in other periods of time. Practically, this means that there are certain archetypes defined by history, and in each era these archetypes revive via representatives whose life patterns are similar.

This means that in the contemporary world there are counterparts of certain historical or mythological figures of the past. All of them correspond to the archetypes the characteristics of whom are examined and compared thoroughly so that the counterparts can be idientified. The life pattern of those figures/archetypes is bound to be the same with that of their counterparts, and this affects the destiny of the latters completely. There are several people who believe in this theory, taking it into account in politics and social life. While some of them want to take advantage of it for the benefit of the world, others have particularly obscure intentions and resort to all sorts of means, including murder, for their own personal gain.

Malachi is informed that Benedict de Mont Froi corresponded to one of the archetypes, the Savant, and that himself is his modern counterpart. David Walker is the counterpart of Saint Armand, the monk's protector, who represents another archetype, the Warrior. The Savant and the Warrior are destined to get connected, as they are unable to fulifill their destinies on their own.

Malachi envisions David as Saint Armand in the Catacombs

A rather complicated basis for a scenario to begin with, but it is masterfully woven into a very interesting and mulit-levelled plot. Malachi on his own at first and with David from a point and on, travels around the world, visiting several places so as to meet and interrogate people that will hopefully lead him to the truth. The murder in Venice was an 'accident'; the victim was mistaken for another archetype, yet the real counterpart is someone else. Malachi, an expert in 'reading' human behaviour and analyzing traits and habits, is able to draw the psychological portraits of all the people he comes across. This is a vital part of his research, as it's one of the first elements that he takes into consideration while analyzing the candidates so as to find who corresponds to which archetype, and it is also a major plot axis, as the game relies heavily on the player making the correct assumptions about the people in question and dealing with them accordingly, so as to have the best possible outcome.

Malachi discusses with Dante Cardolo (left), the widower of the murdered lady in Venice

All the main characters in the game, as well as those whose contributions are decisive, are very well thought of; from their physical traits to their choice of words and general attitude. Malachi, being the main protagonist, succeeds in being quite convincing as a stiff, misanthropic guy who, however, has a thoroughly hidden sensitive side. His relationship (better: bromance) with David is quite thrilling; a karmic bond that was destined to happen, as defined by the Moebius theory.

The rough, down-to-earth and practical David is openly attracted to Malachi and clearly sees him as something more than a friend. Similarly, the sarcastic, elitist and somewhat snobbish Malachi seems to be strangely fond of his bodyguard, to the extent that he literally kicks his secretary out of his office, so as to be alone with him. But as more details come to the surface, Malachi begins to have his own doubts and worries. Did David really appear that day in Cairo by chance, or he was sent by someone else on purporse? Maybe someone knew about the Warrior/Savant connection and that they were both the counterparts of those archetypes, and for some reason wanted them to cross paths? And if it was that way, the intentions were good, or there was malice involved? And how much of this supposed plot was David aware of? This is one more thing to clarify, and of course it won't be an easy thing to do. Malachi realises that he is not as cold and distant as he was proud to declare, and when he has all the necessary clues, he takes action personally so as to save both the woman who was the real target of the Venice murderers, and that other someone else he deeply cares about.

Malachi and David (right) become attached to each other quite early in the game

Like in all purely Adventure games, you have to do lots of research, talk to people, carry out sub-missions, combine info and reach conclusions. You also have to collect important items and use them when necessary so as to move on. All this is very well-organized, although some of the dialogues, especially with people that do not play crucial part of the plot, may feel sometimes like they drag on too long. You may feel tempted to ignore parts of the dialogues but, unless you know what you are doing, this is not recommended as these parts may include important info or may be necessary so as to unlock something later on. Also it's wise to read the options carefully, as one wrong choice may bring an unwanted result, like causing the other character to ger angry or scared and refuse to talk further.

Of course the maze, a trademark of Jane Jensen's games, is present here as well, traditionally at the end to frustrate the hell out of you. Although, to be fair, you are given enough clues to make it out; it's just that all those underground tunnels look identical and you can easily take a wrong turn and mess it up.

The graphics are excellent, the colorful environments are pure joy to watch. Both interior and exterior settings are designed in great detail, creating the atmosphere and feel of a fairy tale. You get to visit different parts of the world (Venice, Paris, Zurich, Qatar, to name a few) and in each the choice of settings and colors is just to the point to create a matching artmosphere. The music is beautiful and accompanies the scenes in the most effective way, although one of the best pieces has to be the one that plays during the main menu and sometimes during the intro screens between chapters.

Malachi spies on a forbidden date in a beautiful garden

While the game is mainly exploration and research, there are a few action scenes where you need to be very careful, otherwise the character will die. Thankfully, you are offered the option to retry that specific part, even if you haven't saved your game anywhere close. That said, the savegame system is the good old one, where you can save manually whenever and wherever you want. And this is something you should do, as there are a few buggy spots in the game where you may get stuck with no chance of recovering.

Naturally there are many puzzles in the game, and most of them are well-organized, although sometimes you have to resort to trial and error or simply random guessing as the clues either too vague or practically non-existent or they require that you go back to check something you spotted ages ago but then it was not triggered yet to work as a clue.

The most frustrating part, however, has to be one specific puzzle, based on cryptology. This puzzle wants you to figure out the various options, rule out those that do not fit and solve it with the one option that is suitable. All this is fine when you play the game for the first time, but what about when you want to replay it? You have to go through the whole chore again, even though you already know which is the correct option and answer. You have to search again, find all the options, rule them out and stick with the correct one. And OK, nothing seriously wrong with this; it's an adventure game after all, which means you are expected to do lots and lots of searching, no matter if it's your first or twentieth playthrough of it. The problem is however that if you try to use directly the correct option without having found all the other possible answers, the game locks the puzzle and you can neither reset it nor cancel it. The only solution is to use a previous save, assuming you have one. Personally I found this issue extremely serious for a game of this class. A game designer should always keep in mind that their game may have replay value for a player; and if a player goes through a game for a second or third time, they already know what to do and they should be given the option to do just that.

David helps Malachi during an extremely strong seizure

Some other time, I had to search a sleeping character. I searched him and exited the activity screen. It turned out then I hadn't searched him enough so I was missing an item. I tried to search him again, but it was impossible. Again the puzzle was locked and I had to reload. I don't know if this was an actual technical glitch or if it was designed that way on purpose so as to frustrate the player, but if it was the latter, it succeeded.

There are also a couple of other issues, that are beyond any logic and realism. Yes, it's a game; it is not expected to be a documentary in terms of realism, but some things are way over the top. At some point, you are in Washington, visiting a woman in her apartment, and you have to take some info from her. To make her talk, you have to flirt with her in various ways, and part of the process is bring her whiskey as gift. And what do you have to do? Fly back to Manhattan, because Washington obviously has no bars, liquor stores or even super markets, buy a bottle from the bar opposite Malachi's office, then take the plane and return to Washington. Oh, and if you try to buy the whiskey beforehand (ie, before flying to Washington in the first place), you are unable to.

On another occasion, you have to go down in the Catacombs of Paris, and to do this you need to have a light source. Because obviously there is no way to find something as common as a lighter in Paris, and because obviously Malachi's super trendy smartphone mysteriously lacks a flashlight, you have to go get a lantern from the garden of a luxurious countryside tower. You have been there before, to interrogate someone; the lantern was standing nearby, and apparently you were supposed to take it, but why would you have thought it was something you needed to steal and carry with you?

On the technical side, the characters seem to have a bit of awkward and unnatural movement. Malachi in particular walks like his limbs have been cut apart then glued back together in all the wrong joints. This is a shame because his face is pretty much a feast for the eyes - he looks like a young Kyle McLachlan, of the 'Blue Velvet' era (even his dressing style is similar) - which is something that doesn't pass unnoticed from several characters of the game, both female and male.

Malachi has a gorgeous face, and several characters in the game compliment him for that

The movement of the other characters is significantly better although not as natural as it could have been. In the revamped Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, which is older than Moebius, the movement is almost perfect. Personally I didn't mind this much because it didn't affect the gameplay, but it was a bit distracting watching Malachi doing his funny walking routine during an intense scene.

Despite all this, I did enjoy the game and liked it a lot; and this is coming from a person who generally gets impatient if the characters of a game are not running with at least a knife in their hand. There is enough mystery and intrigue to keep you interested, and quite a few pretty intense situations that you will surely remember for a long time.

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