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Moebius: Empire Rising review: Elementary, oh dear


Moebius: Empire Rising is a game about history repeating itself, asking the player to investigate a string of people whose lives mirror those of famous, important figures throughout history. It's fitting that the story itself plays like a knock-off of previously written characters and storylines – most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.

The Holmes role is played by Malachi Rector, a highly intelligent antiques dealer-turned-investigator who makes it clear he doesn't want anyone to care about him; Dr. John Watson is filled in by David Walker, an ex-military man who puts up with Rector's snark in order to protect him; and Mrs. Hudson is Gretchen Stern, Rector's long-suffering assistant.

Moebius plays out like bad fanfiction – the action sequences are dramatized to the point of absurdity, the characters are caricatures rather than believable human beings, and the story is predictable. Given the involvement of adventure game guru Jane Jensen, I expected Moebius to have sophisticated characters uncovering a mystery complete with adventure, thrills and, most of all, surprises.

As it turns out, I've read better fanfiction.

Gallery: Moebius: Empire Rising (2/24/14) | 23 Photos

Moebius feels cheap on multiple levels, including its uninspired relationships. The character animation is on par with NMA's parody news videos: Characters are stiff, blocky 3D renders, and their lips move in opposition of whatever they say. The point-and-click gameplay is padded with pointless movements and backtracking, while the mechanics that pop up during moments of clue analysis are in need of editing.

At its heart, Moebius is a point-and-click adventure, so let's start there. The settings are generally pretty, done in an airy, hand-drawn art style with plenty of detail. Rooms are filled with paintings, knickknacks, flowers and rugs, and most of these things are clickable. Unfortunately, most of them are also unimportant. In one sitting room, I clicked on several vases and paintings that are "nothing interesting," before looking for some clues on the sofa. Upon clicking it, the pop-up says, "It's a sofa."

There's nothing wrong with adding irrelevant details to a mystery game, things to throw off the player or lead the character to incorrect conclusions before revealing the final, brilliant master plan. The items scattered around the antique shops and fancy mansions in Moebius, however, are devoid of anything useful in a mystery. Instead, the game is bloated with boring, unnecessary objects that the game itself repeatedly calls uninteresting. The repetition of mundane items only lessens the mystery by making the truly useful things stand out more. When you notice some florist putty protruding from a basket of flowers, it's obvious you'll need that for a coming puzzle – if only because it's not a sofa.

But I couldn't pick up that florist putty, at least not at first, when I knew I would need it later. Another of Moebius' padding mechanisms is a rash of illogical backtracking across cities and states for each mission. Malachi sees the florist putty but can't touch it until he's visited all of the correct locations around Italy, and the story finally says he needs something sticky to solve this puzzle. Then it's out of the canal, back to the mansion, into the flower pot, and back to the canal.

In a point-and-click, I don't want to know that I'll need a particular item until I figure out the puzzle myself. Conversely, if I know an item will be useful, I want to pick it up right away. Moebius' approach to puzzles doesn't make you feel smarter – it makes the game feel dumb.

It's not all point-and-click in Moebius, though. The main character, Malachi, is a shrewd detective, which is one reason he's recruited to investigate the historical backgrounds of people around the world. He lives in Manhattan, has a British accent, wears a suit every day, has a photographic memory and thinks he's the most intelligent person in every room. To his credit, he usually is. He's also an ass. His cold aloofness reaches a point where you don't feel empowered by playing as him; you just feel like a jerk.

Malachi's impressive memory and observational skills set up some of Moebius' additional mechanics: analyzing body language and comparing a person's life with that of a historical figure. The body language mechanic is simple – the screen shows a picture of the person with a few markers next to specific body parts. If a man has calloused fingers, you have the option of assuming he plays guitar, lifts weights or is a gunman. The player selects one of three options for each marker; the correct answer is usually fairly obvious, or it's the one that is repeated throughout the other markers. This gives Malachi an idea of what makes a character tick: If a particular woman is vain and obsessed with status, he plays into her beauty in conversation.

The history-comparison mechanic is trickier, and it belies the most intriguing aspect of Moebius: the paranormal storyline. Malachi is hired by a secret government organization to find people whose lives mirror those of important historical figures. Without spoiling things, suffice it to say that the US government has taken an interest in these individuals and the curious phenomenon of their parallel lives, and it aims to protect them from malicious outside entities.

Each fact that Malachi learns about a person is tested against a range of similar people who had a role in shaping history, from Cleopatra to Charles Darwin. If one character was married at a young age, that fact is compared with the age at which Princess Victoria was married, for example. Malachi collects roughly a dozen fact points about each person of interest, and compares those to a lineup of likely matches – the player eliminates historical figures if a fact doesn't correspond to their lives.

This is where it gets tricky: There are consistently more than 10 historical figures in these lineups, and they don't all show up under every fact point. One fact will have three people, and another will have six, and all of their data points are already eerily similar to the person under investigation. Eliminating the correct candidates is more luck than deduction, since keeping track of all these shifting variables is messy. If you end up with three wrong choices at the end, the screen resets and you go through the elimination process again. It's tedious.

Moebius has some good ideas. The basic plot is fascinating, combining history, paranormal theory and destiny into one action-adventure narrative, but the execution is cheap. The puzzles play more like mundane tasks than thought-provoking riddles, and no amount of modern historical revision can save poor gameplay. The dialogue and storytelling mechanics are amateurish. In some cutscenes, Malachi's thoughts overlay the action in white text – again, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, this time the BBC's modern series, and again it's unsophisticated. Malachi "thinks" things that are obvious, such as "trouble" when a gang of assassins is about to execute his ally, Dr. John Watson ... er, David Walker. (It's an easy mistake to make.)

Ultimately, Moebius feels like an early version of a full game, something that needs playtesting and a keen critical eye before it's ready for public consumption. Even fanfiction authors have editors.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Moebius: Empire Rising, provided by Phoenix Online Studios. Images: Phoenix Online Studios.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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