Review: Moebius: Empire Rising – The Latest from Jane Jensen [Now with Addendum]

[Note: I have added an addendum to the end of the original review which takes into account a more critical approach and aspects I should have addressed earlier. I have left the original review intact for transparency.]

Back in July, I did a preview of Moebius: Empire Rising before it had the subtitle. Sarah also did an interview with Jane Jensen shortly thereafter. You probably know Jane Jensen’s name because of Gabriel KnightCognition, and/or Gray MatterMoebius: Empire Rising began as a Kickstarter in April 2012. We’ve been looking forward to Moebius‘s release for a long while here on Nerdy but Flirty, and now it’s finally here!

Check out the most recent trailer:

Plot

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This thrilling new adventure game introduces Malachi Rector, an expert in antiquities whose photographic memory and eye for detail transform people and clues into interactive puzzles. When a secretive government agency enlists him to determine whether a murdered woman in Venice resembles any particular historical figure, Malachi is left with only questions. Why would the U.S. government hire him — a dealer of high-end antiques — to look into a foreign murder? Why does David Walker, a former Special Forces operative he meets in his travels, feel like someone Malachi’s known all his life? And how come every time Malachi lets his guard down, someone tries to kill him?

When the game begins, everything seems fairly standard and grounded in real life. Very quickly, however, things start to get a little weird – then weirder still. Fans of history are going to eat Moebius up, as a lot of the story and puzzles deal with historical events. You’ll even get to analyze antiques as a part of Malachai’s job, which taught me a lot of information I didn’t know. All of this is presented in a fun way, and you’re learning about cool historical facts and people as you go. There are a couple figures (Paramedes) who are made up for the sake of the game, but the vast majority of people you learn about were real. Themes of reincarnation (of a sort) abound, and everything feels real and plausible in the universe of the game. It is difficult to speak too much of the overarching plot without spoiling things, because the twists and turns start quite early on, but I was happy with how everything played out.

The characters are memorable and fleshed out, for the most part, and there are a number of great women supporting characters (with one damsel, unfortunately). Malachai himself is quite snarky, and his bodyguard David is a great complement to him. Some of the characters are stereotypical (like the grizzled police detective), but it’s not too concerning in context, especially due to certain main plot events that become apparent. There are a few aspects of the plot that never get addressed, but the game is left open for a sequel, so I’ll let that slide.

The seventh and last chapter of the game feels very different than the rest of Moebius. Instead of clever, creative puzzles, it devolves into a giant maze. A MAZE. I really dislike mazes in games, especially when your ability to map is limited and most of the screens are the same. It was a let down for me to play the last chapter when everything leading up to it had been so great.

There are some mature themes (murder is a major aspect, there are a few curse words, and rape is briefly mentioned, in a non-detailed way, in the context of a crime scene), which is to be expected from Jane Jensen. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger kids at all.

The fourth wall is broken a couple times with Cognition easter eggs – one is obvious even if you haven’t played the game, while the other is only for players of the series.

Graphics and Sound

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The graphics are excellent for the most part, but some glitchiness remains that was present in the preview and the demo, like Malachai walking backwards, clipping through objects, and taking too long to line himself up with objects. This ultimately did not detract from my enjoyment, but I found it distracting at times. The backgrounds and environments can be quite stunning, with excellent lighting and reflections even on the lowest graphics setting. Searching objects is quite detailed; for example, when you open a backpack to look inside, there is a close-up of the backpack and you see the zippers unzipping. Things like that made me more absorbed into the world of the game. Cutscenes are rendered in the same engine as the game, with the added bonus of panels coming in like a comic book, which I really liked.

The music is excellent, with a different track playing for every room you’re in. It’s quite varied as well, from relaxing pieces to more action-driven music when appropriate. The soundtrack would be worth purchasing on its own. The voice over cast is very talented, especially Malachai, which is good because he’s the one who talks the most. All the accents sound accurate (at least to my ears) too, which can be rare, especially in adventure games. Sometimes dialogue overlapped itself, which was fine for me because I had the captions on, but it could be frustrating to someone who was playing without them.

Gameplay

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Controls are standard for a point-and-click adventure. Left click does basically everything, you never need to right click, and spacebar highlights the hotspots. Your inventory is accessed by mousing over it on the left side of the screen. Your phone is always available for surfing the internet, calling/texting people, analyzing cases, and using the hint system. You can double-click in an area to jump around it quickly. You take control of another character twice in the game, something I always appreciate.

Malachai will not pick things up in the world if he doesn’t need them yet, which can be annoying and leads to backtracking. Thankfully, none of the maps are particularly huge, so it’s not too much of a pain, but I like when I can just stuff the character’s pockets and solve puzzles as they come. Puzzles in Moebius are quite logical, and I never felt lost or confused as to what I was supposed to be doing (except during the maze). There’s also no pixel hunting, especially with the use of the spacebar, but even if you aren’t using the highlighter, nothing is hidden. There are a few mini-games, the most prevalent of which is using Malachai’s analytic skills to observe people. That one can be a little frustrating, since there are no hints if you’re not analyzing correctly, and you often need to do that to continue. For the most part, however, those analyses are pretty fun and give you (and Malachai) more insight into the people you’re meeting.

The game has thirty Steam Achievements and also offers trading cards. It took me 8.4 hours to finish the game.

Final Thoughts

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This game is a mostly wonderful addition to Jane Jensen’s body of work and an excellent adventure game overall. I took off a letter grade for technical issues and a final chapter that felt uncreative compared to the rest of the game. Pick it up if you love adventure games, snark, and/or history!

[Addendum, 4/24/2014 – Spoilers – I began a Let’s Play of Moebius with Stream Friends recently, and through playing it with other people, I’ve noticed more flaws and issues with the game. I still enjoyed playing it, but it’s easier to see that it’s problematic and offensive in a lot of areas now, and I wish I had thought more critically about these issues while playing. Malachai is snarky, yes, but he’s also judgmental and sexist. I excused this by thinking that he was just an asshole/misanthrope in general, but on this second playthrough, I found myself a lot more bothered and uncomfortable.

When playing the analysis mini-game, his assessments of women are particularly harsh, and his judgements of everyone rely solely on their physical appearances. There’s a puzzle that involves bribing an underage girl to show her body off to a man to distract him. The worst “puzzle” in Moebius is when the game leaves you no alternative to threatening a woman with scissors or a knife in order to get information. It’s a very intense, possibly triggering scene, especially because you have no in-game choice to proceed except for doing this. I was upset while that I couldn’t get a peaceful solution out of it. None of the men in the game are treated in the horrible way women are. I do like the hints of a gay romance, and I hope that thread might continue in any future Moebius games and that Malachai will become a better, far less misogynistic character, but I’m skeptical about this. I say in the original review that the women characters are strong, and while Malachai may not see them as such, I did – they are all ambitious and powerful. But the game doesn’t want us to see them as strong.

I apologize for not including any of this in my original review. There is not a good reason for this beyond me blocking out the things that made me feel uncomfortable.]

Original Score: B+
Score with Addendum: D

You can get Moebius: Empire Rising on Steam and GOG for $29.99. There is a demo available on Steam if you want to try before you buy. Check out the official site, like Pinkerton Road on Facebook, subscribe on YouTube, and follow Jane Jensen on Twitter and Facebook.

[Disclaimer: A review code was provided for me to review this game.]

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11 thoughts on “Review: Moebius: Empire Rising – The Latest from Jane Jensen [Now with Addendum]

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  4. I appreciate your explanation! Of course it’s fair to reflect your feelings with a grade, and I can’t question that. I see some of where you’re coming from, but I also think a lot of that is more about the character (and, after playing the game twice, I don’t think he or the game does particularly single out women over men for Malachi’s misanthropy.) As for queer baiting–it bugged me less because it felt like a planned first part to their relationship, but I do think they should have pushed it a bit further (Hell, Gabriel Knight 2 seemed to push that element further and that was the mid 90s.)

    Anyway, I do appreciate you taking the time to reply.

  5. A B+ to a D? Seriously?? I would rate it a solid B. My main complaint with it was, as Joe Blow said, the game felt like a setting off point–not a full story. I see some of the issues you raise, and maybe as a gay guy who loves Jane’s games, I appreciated that she *kinda* finally gave some guy on guy fanservice and that colours my perspective. But… Play Gabriel Knight 1 again (before Grace was a playable character in the sequels.) Any perceived misogyny in Moebius is much worse there–including a situation where you are given no choice but to threaten a woman.

    I enjoyed the game a lot. I wish I liked it more–I agree that ending with a horrible maze sequence was an incredibly wrong-headed move–didn’t Jensen and crew have a ton of fans helping with quality assistance? I thought the Malachi/David relationship was sexy and fun for a video game, but I could have seen it going a *bit* further, without putting (straight gamers) off. I felt Malachi related to most women and men in his world the same way, actually (and I have played it twice.)

    • I cannot in good conscience recommend the game to the audience of Nerdy but Flirty due to the multiple problematic elements in the game. I haven’t played GK1 yet, but I will be soon and I’m sure I’ll have the same problem.

      If there had been a gay relationship while also treating women with respect, it would have stayed a B+. (This game also has issues with queerbaiting, I would probably add now). I’m not a perfect feminist; I’m still learning to not brush things off. I left the original score there for transparency and to show that I’m not infallible.

      Thank you for your comments and for reading!

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  9. If I were to grade this game, I would give it an “I” for “incomplete.” What the game is missing is a third act. It has clearly defined act one and act two, then a maze, then an ending cutscene where Rector sends an angry text message. It has no climax; no denouement that would be required to fulfill the dictates of a concluding act. Essentially, this game has a beginning and a middle but no conclusion.

    I can ignore technical glitches. I can ignore poor graphics. I can live with a misanthropic protagonist if the story requires it (and Moebius does). None of those qualities are important to enjoying an adventure. First and foremost, adventure games are STORY-driven vehicles and “Moebius” is not a story yet. It is the beginning of a story with no resolution to the plot points that drive it. This is it’s biggest failing.

    We know from Jensen’s previous games that she understands the three-act structure because her past games all possess it. And they are wonderfully creative stories and each has a satisfactory conclusion. So, either Jensen was against the wall and rushed “Moebius” out before it was fully realised or she has gotten too old and senile to remember the rules of narrative.

    • I believe the game was conceived as a trilogy, but I agree that the ending was pretty terrible regardless.

      Malachai does not treat women the same way he treats men; it’s not mere misanthropy, but misogyny. I don’t see how the story absolutely required sexualizing an underage girl or threatening to cut off a woman’s face.

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