By Marty Mulrooney
Moebius: Empire Rising is a point-and-click mystery thriller developed by Phoenix Online Studios in collaboration with legendary adventure game designer Jane Jensen’s Pinkerton Road Studio. The story-driven experience focuses on Malachi Rector, ‘a brilliant antiques dealer and historian whose photographic memory and eye for deduction transforms locations and clues into interactive puzzle pieces and historical patterns.’ When Malachi is hired by a secretive government agency to investigate the murder of a woman in Venice, he discovers a powerful paranormal theory that delves far into the past and could well hold the key to the future – Moebius.
Moebius: Empire Rising pairs a phenomenal storyteller (Jane Jensen, Gray Matter) with an up-and-coming indie adventure game studio (Phoenix Online Studios, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller) to deliver an experience that harks back to the classic Gabriel Knight titles of the 90s while delivering a fresh story for modern times. Malachi Rector is an enigmatic protagonist – fiercely intelligent, reclusive, detached and constantly popping pills due to excruciating headaches and panic attacks. He may also be the first antiques dealer to carry brass knuckles and a gun.
The game does a great job establishing Malachi and his life from the outset – he lives in Manhattan and is the owner of Rector Antiques. Due to his unique ability to verify the authenticity of a piece by simply looking at it, he is in constant high demand and enjoys receiving large amounts of cash for both his time and trouble. It turns out revealing a fake can often be dangerous work and his shop manager Gretchen Stern urges him to hire security, to no avail. Then a new client asks for a meeting: Amble Dexter of the mysterious government agency FITA.
Malachi isn’t just shown to be highly intelligent. The player must tap into his abilities to analyse people and solve various puzzles and this gives a wonderful insight into the way his mind works. For example, clicking on Dexter reveals a ‘brain’ icon which can then be selected to deduce various things about him based on his sharp gaze, steady hands and the fact he’s in a wheelchair.
Dexter isn’t exactly forthcoming about FITA and their mission, so Malachi has to weigh up the situation and decide whether to accept the job accordingly. He is offered $50,000 to travel to Venice and investigate the murder of a young woman named Bianca Cardolo. He isn’t necessarily trying to find out who killed her or why. Rather, he must find out more about who she was and if she has any connection to a known historical person. Hesitantly, he accepts the job.
What follows next is a series of investigations that will slowly reveal the intentions of FITA and why certain people in the present have their lives match so closely with historical figures from the past. Alongside traditional adventure gaming fare such as inventory puzzles and dialogue trees, Malachi must also collect information about certain individuals before comparing them with people long dead and confined to the history books to find a match. It’s intriguing, a little bit silly but never anything less than engaging. History can often be a dry subject matter but in Moebius, uncovering the past is a constant joy due to strong writing and brisk pacing.
During Malachi’s travels he is attacked several times by unknown assailants. He eventually crosses paths with David Walker, a former Special Forces operative, when his car breaks down in the desert. Despite being uncertain whether he can trust David at first, he soon begins to warm to him and eventually hires him as a personal bodyguard. From this point onwards the game truly comes to life, with the budding ‘bromance’ between the uptight Malachi and joke-cracking David giving the dense subject matter some much-needed breathing room. Malachi’s dourness could have easily grated if he had been required to carry the whole game, but with David by his side a satisfying balance is struck and he begins to slowly mellow.
Although the supporting characters can often feel a little generic (both in design and personality), the voice acting of Malachi (Owen Thomas) and David (Colin Benoit) is absolutely top-notch. The interplay between these two very different characters certainly helps to move the game past some of its frustrations. The graphics are colourful and full of character but can sometimes lack in detail, especially during the final stages of the game. There are also some small technical blips and the animation is quite stiff throughout. Furthermore, the cutscenes are low in resolution, which is a shame as they somewhat jar with the main game as a result.
Elsewhere, the puzzles are enjoyable until you hit a brick wall but Malachi’s phone does offer hints to point players in the right direction without spelling everything out. The solutions are mostly logical and the game does vary the challenges presented throughout so they never feel stale or repetitive. Exploring different locations dotted around the world is a lot of fun, it’s just a shame that the characters you will meet on your travels aren’t more memorable. The story does verge on the fantastical as it progresses but everything is presented with such sincerity that you’ll be willing to go along for the ride. The low-budget can sometimes hamper the large-scale ambitions of the plot (especially towards the end) but it’s still a well told tale full of intriguing twists and turns.
Moebius: Empire Rising is the perfect example of what can be achieved by a passionate team working with a small budget. Jane Jensen always gives 100% when it comes to storytelling and the central premise here is fascinating. The execution by Phoenix Online Studios and Pinkerton Road Studio is strong despite the handful of small missteps previously mentioned.
Malachi (Owen Thomas) and David (Colin Benoit) drive the entire game and help to smooth out any bumps along the way. The soundtrack by composer Robert Holmes is beautiful and really helps to add a touch of class to the proceedings – the cinematic opening credits featuring the incredible vocal talents of his daughter Raleigh Holmes would be perfectly at home kicking off a major Hollywood film. In short, it isn’t perfect but much like Malachi, it delivers where it counts. The proof of its success is in the ending – touching, emotional, perfect. With so much potential and such a great leading duo, let’s hope this is the start of a brand new adventure series.
8 OUT OF 10
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Game Designer, Gabriel Knight Trilogy/Gray Matter)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Pinkerton Road Studio)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers – 20th Anniversary Edition)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Robert Holmes (Composer, Gray Matter Soundtrack/Gabriel Knight Series)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Raleigh Holmes (Erica Reed, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)
GAME REVIEW – Gray Matter (PC)