By all rights, Moebius: Empire Rising shoudn’t provide as much incredibly dumb fun as it does. Designed by Jane Jenson, Phoenix Online Studios’s sophomore outing in the point-and-click adventure game genre once again contains all the pulpy trash of an airport thriller novel. Described as the spiritual successor to Gabriel Knight, it takes its inspiration from Dan Brown rather than James Patterson this time around, though.
You play as antiquities appraiser Malachi Rector and later will switch over to his cohort and bodyguard David Walker. Their relationship suggests a homoerotic subtext to the game. (At first, I thought this homoeroticism was unintentional, but the tension between these two reaches a state of self aware hilarity on one too many occasions.). However, the main plot concerns a mystery of a more criminal nature. As someone well versed in antiquities, Malachi is asked to investigate the similarity between a murdered woman in Venice and a famous historical personage, and strings are pulled to get him a meeting with the chief investigator of the murder investigation and an audience with the murdered woman’s husband, a local politician.
From there, the game is just one ridiculous situation after another, leading to a mind boggling revelation about exactly what is going on. I wont spoil it because the mystery’s solution is something that has to be heard in the proper context to be believed. I think my brain shut down around that point, and I was just along for the ride because I was perfectly okay with it, depite its absurdity. Once you accept the inanity of the game’s premise, it frees you to just enjoy the ridiculousness on display. Moebius: Empire Rising never reaches The Room’s eye bulging levels of “what the hell am I looking at,” but it is in the same echelon.
And while the story, the voice acting, the animations, the motivations, and the characters are all hokey as hell, there are some changes in the point-and-click formula present in the game that are a breath of fresh air in the genre and are legitimately some of the best parts of the game. While there are a few item-based puzzles that need solved in order to get past certain arbitrary barriers in the game (as is the norm for the genre), a lot of the game is based instead on information gathering. You will have to size up people and artifacts by checking out different points of interests and determine what these observations signify. The artifacts are more interesting to analyze than the people in the game because the game provides pictures of them and a small Wikipedia-like summary of the real world history that surrounds them, which aids in determining the correct conclusions to match up with the item in front of you.
It takes this idea a little further at the end of each assignment when you have gathered all the data about the person and are asked to match up their qualities with different historical facts. In some way, it feels like solving a middle school logic puzzle, but this activity works brilliantly as something new to the genre and in terms of how it actually fits into the overall narrative. It feels like you are investigating by matching up known facts to the clues gathered. It is implemented well enough that you forget that the ultimate goal of the investigation to determine if the dead woman is an archetypical reincarnation of a historical figure. (This premise sounds even dumber the more I say it.).
But it is the game’s sincerity that gets to me. For all the failures of its premise and its execution of the various elements, the game believes in itself. It thinks it can provide good drama, and in the case of the global economic crisis, articulate a message through its art to its audience. I don’t know about drama, but it was damn entertaining. And if the game has a message, it isn’t what it thinks it is. It propagates the great man myth of history where history is shaped by the choices of individual “great men” towards some end instead of the large complex interactions of millions of minor choices and random occurrences resulting in societal shifts. But Moebius isn’t really competent enough to push this narrative forward.
As for Malachi’s and David’s “relationship,” I was never laughing at them. If they were real actors, I would be sympathizing with them over the script that they had to read. I’m not sure where Phoenix Studios and Jane Jenson wanted to go with their relationship. No, scratch that. I know where they wanted to go with it. They wanted it to show Malachi’s evolution from a wannabe Sherlock Holmes into an empathetic human being. David is a six-foot-something blond ex-special-forces hunk, an all American angel of a human being. Malachi is a lanky, ruggedly good looking loner with a British accent and healthy dose of inner turmoil. The slash fiction practically writes itself and in some cases does on screen.
I do feel I should warn all of you, though, that near the end of the game there is one puzzle whose sole solution is to lock the door of a woman you were warming up to and then to put a knife to her throat in order to extract information. For all the ridiculous nature of the rest of the game, this is big shift in tone. It’s supposed to show that things have gotten serious, but it is where the entertainment ends. In fact, the representation of women throughout this game is a little troubling. Maybe it is just the class of people that Malachi associates with, but maybe the game is just a bit too reliant on tropes.
I can’t call Moebius a good game by any real measure. Its problems are numerous, both big and small. But I enjoyed myself nearly the whole way through. For as much as I was let down by it, there is something that compelled me to get to the end. It didn’t display a “future adventures of Malachi Rector coming soon” tagline, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had. If you can take it for what it is and get into the right mind set, then you too can have a “What the hell am I looking at?” entertainment experience.