The most obvious reason anyone would like to try this 2014 supernatural adventure is the alliterating pen name of Jane Jensen. "Mrs. Mystery" originally got into writing and designing games at Sierra with Police Quest III and EcoQuest, then birthing the household character of Gabriel Knight, later unable to ride the bucking bull that is the games industry to quite the same amount of recognition. Whenever anything has been holding her back, it certainly hasn't been the stories or characters, but rather some problems in the technical realization and testing that you can never take for granted – a side effect, no doubt, of the changing times with considerably less lavish budgets for the adventure genre. $390k was the effective yield from Jensen's 2012 Kickstarter campaign that was purported to fund Moebius, one of three choices her fans got to vote for. For reference, Gabriel Knight 2, itself shrunk several chapters from the planning stages, cost somewhere around $4.000.000. Notwithstanding further injections from within Jane and composer husband Robert Holmes' new two-man studio, Pinkerton House, and the external contractees having agreed to receive less up-front in favor of a slice from the proceeds, there definitely wasn't going to be talk of a proud massively polished megadventure from the Golden 90's – nor of marketing befitting one.
That's why I'm gonna be playing devil's advocate here and try to emphasize everything that's good about Moebius: Empire Rising. The narrative, whilst of unusually Americocentric colors, enters a new and intriguing wing of the grand Jensen library of the supernatural, while at the same time heavily soused in non-fictional historical detail. The music instantly gave me Gabe Knightsey vibes (Holmes did indeed score those classics as well); starting from an absolute killer main theme that leaves nobody guessing whether or not they are, in fact, being invited onto an exhilarating journey. Then there's the brilliantly original main character called Malachi Rector (an antiquities appraiser!) with an almost supernatural knack for rapid analysis – which is visualized on the screen during cutscenes. Similar to Gabriel Knight, there's an atmospheric pre-game comic strip for establishing who he is. Rector's identity is reinforced in-game by fitting, and at least to me, novel archetypes of puzzles.
Speaking of, these are probably the stand-out bit: solving most of them requires actual reasoning skills that supercede any cheap "use-key-on-lock" style inventory puzzles easily... at least if you refrain from brute-forcing them. There's two main varieties: firstly, a quick analysis on an object, person, or whatever it is in the environment that's caught Rector's eye. This means you're presented with little observations about them and must choose from the alternatives the right, most coherent set of interpretations. The other kind revolves around recognizing the origins of an object or finding a historical counterpart to a modern-day character. Sounds a bit odd to apply this kind of analysis on people, and it's a mystery to Rector himself too at first. Any passing interest in history, artists, architecture, antiquities etc. will surely enhance the experience as you'll be spending time combing through the provided descriptions and biographies. It really really works, too, and makes you BE Rector even more so than you could ever have felt a Schattenjäger in Gabriel Knight. After you've completed an elaborate investigation, the payoff is captivating plot development... and more of the kick-ass main theme!
I think on the max settings, the game looks okay. It's got a semi-realistic-semi-cartoonized quality that's quite interesting to look at: photographs you're right about ready to forget were photographs. The storyboards for the cutscenes are all stylish. The voice acting doesn't disappoint either. The font they chose makes K's and H's almost identical though which is annoying when you're playing in a foreign language! I'm one of the few who doesn't seem to have taken offense at (or really even note of) possible defects in character animations or lipsyncing, but if visual quirkiness is wont to ruin your day, you've been warned! I'm not particularly hard to please in this regard as you can probably tell. I think we can all get behind the pro-grade intro movie that arose as a tentative stretch goal.
The real minuses for me lie in things like the interface. It's more of a point-and-click-AND-click adventure because the designers didn't have the presence of mind to make right-clicking do absolutely anything in any context that I could discern. Nor has the team managed to convenience the player with keyboard hotkeys for enough things (or inform you about some of the ones that do exist). Just to illustrate how extreme the clunk is, the opening logos can't be skipped by hitting ESC or SPACE like you'd imagine, only by clicking on it, at which point you're given a separate prompt for whether or not you want to proceed with skipping those five seconds or not. I understand this behaviour, it's the same for the longer cutscenes throughout, it's just an instance of a recurring symptom. For some reason, you're not prevented from accessing your phone and inventory during intermission screens, creating a sensation like your character is in some intangible non-physical location. There's often a long pause before the game gives you your cursor back if you repeat an action a second time or try to skip a line of dialogue. At least you can double-click to get Rector to move between places instantly, in case that's not just a ambient norm nowadays.
A part of the game's modus operandi is to only make new options available as they become relevant, not based on whether the item of interest was already accessible in principle. In many cases this makes sense: why would Rector want to lug around random paraphernalia without a particular design in mind? You just try to keep tabs on what you've seen that you couldn't collect or operate yet so you're not left clueless, but most of the time there aren't so many things to keep track of and so I could usually figure out what I needed with some thought. There IS a built-in hints functionality so you're unlikely to be left high and dry in any case. Sadly, that won't stop you from getting softlocked if you happen upon one of multiple ways this could happen. Always save in a new slot, and don't wait too long to do it either. The lack of decent testing shows in various little bugs, and some even reported crashing (which may have been patched out by the time I was playing it).
There's also unfortunate times when you're being teased with the prospect of branching storylines, alternative solutions, what have you, but in reality you don't necessarily have much choice after all (not that you usually do in adventure games), and so you might as well play it nice. I did find a second way to rescue someone with the exact same consequences down the line, which may or may not be enough to suggest real replayability, but I don't suppose that's what adventure games are famous for. There's the odd sudden [semi-]action sequence curveball that's meant to mix things up but comes off jarring because you've not been eased into the idea you could fail. The other curveball is sudden eggshells in dialogues you've grown used to clicking through rather sheepishly with no averse consequences.
So despite its hitches, I really think you can mostly overlook the downsides just to enjoy an original premise, memorable protagonist and excellent thematic soundtrack. I should also mention the puzzle design has a good deal of variation without getting monotonous. Personally, I was playing it with German subtitles and so I may have found more mundane things in the environment more exciting just because I was learning a language. For some, they seemed to have been boring, but it is a mostly realistic game where offices, ordinary apartments and lounges form the setting. Not quite a top dog but it makes me very happy to try other Jensen adventure games like Cognition or Grey Matter somewhere down the line.
TIWIKs = Things I Wish I'd Known
The game doesn't autosave! F5 and F7 to access the save and load menus. Save often, and in a new slot each time.
- SPACE displays hotspots.
- P for accessing the phone.
- K takes a screenshot, I think.
- Z displays your FPS.
- M takes you straight to the map screen.
Reviewed by: LotBlind