[20 May 2014]
A man arrives back at a New York antique shop from a trip to Spain after spending a week in the hospital. While there was quite a bit of bruising as a result of the trauma that hospitalized him, there is no permanent damage. As the shop attendant points out, “A man that evaluates antiques for a living shouldn’t have to worry about being beaten by thugs.” That is of course, unless that man is Malachi Rector. Malachi Rector, is the main protagonist of Moebius: Empire Rising, a point-and-click adventure game produced and written by Jane Jensen, well known for her work on the Gabriel Knight series and the standalone title Grey Matter.
Malachi is a renowned antiques dealer that excels at pushing people’s buttons and getting into trouble. When commissioned to work for a mysterious government agency, FITA, Malachi finds himself caught up in a web of conspiracy all bound to uncovering the secrets of the Moebius theory. The Moebius theory states that time and space are connected and historical figures are destined to reappear throughout history. It’s an interesting premise, but a dubious protagonist, foolproof puzzle-solving, and an underwhelming answer to the nature of the Moebius theory itself, leaves much to be desired.
From the start, Malachi Rector is an unlikeable protagonist. Malachi evokes the antisocial, borderline sociopathic tendencies of the titular character of the BBC’s Sherlock. He is a brilliant savant that relies on his deep intuition to guide his gift of deduction. This trait suits him well in his line of work, making it impossible to purchase a fake antique from him, but it also leads him to anger his clients and put himself in danger. In addition to being brilliant, Malachi is desired by everyone, despite his antisocial behavior, which everyone forgives because he is an accomplished genius. However, unlike Sherlock, Malachi lacks the charm that makes the audience forgive him and want to go on a journey with him.
Nonetheless, Malachi’s powers of deduction do lead to an interesting game mechanic. To gather clues and to evaluate the next suspect (or victim), Malachi must analyze them. Analyzation takes place by observing an individual, antique, or place closely and deciding how to proceed after all of the evidence is gathered. This process also creates a visual allusion to the BBC Sherlock by focusing on close-up snap-shots of the details that an ordinary person would overlook when observing a person. It is an interesting concept, but in practice, it amounts to Malachi making snap judgments about a person’s class, personality, and motivations strictly based on their appearance. This only adds to Malachi’s superior attitude and antagonism with the player, and with no way to misinterpret the clues, leaves the mechanic feeling hollow.
Malachi’s methods are also unethical to say the least. He seems to abide by no moral code, personal or otherwise. He has no qualms with stealing people’s cell phones, breaking into their personal safes, or holding women at knife point. Given no other choice (or illusion of choice) but to carry out Malachi’s corrupt actions creates a great disconnect between the game and the player. This is not to say that Malachi is dealing with completely honorable characters, but a choice in how one conducts business could have enhanced identification with the player.
David Walker, a retired military special agent, is your Watson to Malachi’s Sherlock. Walker mysteriously appears to Malachi in a desert in Cairo, rescuing him from a broken down car. Walker saves Malachi and never ceases to do so until the end. However, aside from an alluded to homosexual attraction to Malachi, Walker has no reason to continue to stand by Malachi’s side. He treats him horribly, distrusts him, and their chemistry feels feigned if not forced. Walker acts as Malachi’s conscious, however one-sided their relationship may be.
The voice acting in Moebius: Empire Rising is convincing and effective. It does a lot of the heavy lifting in carrying the story forward. This is important because the animation is choppy and slow—even by adventure game standards. The stiff character models contrast sharply with the richly painted two-dimensional backdrops. Malachi sounds witty, though apathetic, even when talking to himself, but he does get some interesting lines in that may give you a chuckle. Walker, on the other hand, sounds flat and one-dimensional. Perhaps this was intentional because Walker is a mere mortal and a longtime military recruit. Still, Walker manages to add comic relief with his unending reserve of bad puns.
Fortunately for the game, puzzles make sense in the game’s physical world, which coincides with our physical world. Item collection is sparse and at first feels advantageous, but you later learn that you will need that mp3 player or knife that Malachi so fervently thought he wouldn’t, and that leads to inevitable backtracking.
This may seem par for the course for adventure games but leaving a seduction mid-conversation to fly back from Washington D.C. to New York to pick up earrings and a bottle of alcohol and resume where you left off feels a little far-fetched. The most disappointing part of the adventure game mechanics, whether analyzing suspects or dialogue-tree investigation or item collection, is that there is no way to fail or alter the events. The game system simply tells you that you are wrong and you must try again.
There are compelling story beats within Moebius: Empire Rising, and when the player does get invested, they will want to see the story out. Those that find the historical puzzle solving from the Assassin’s Creed series and the modern sleuth aesthetics of Sherlock interesting will find Moebius enticing. Sadly, many of the game’s elements work against player immersion within the game world. An unlikable protagonist, infallible puzzle solving, and untied plot holes may leave the player not wanting to see to the end of Moebius: Empire Rising. And even after you unravel the secret of the Moebius theory, you may still feel like you are missing a piece of the puzzle.