Inside Pulse 12

Review: Moebius: Empire Rising (PC)

Moebius: Empire Rising
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 04/15/2014

I hadn’t heard of Moebius: Empire Rising, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started the game up. I was impressed by the TV-show-like intro with its James-Bond-esque soundtrack, though the comic introducing the main character’s standard tragic backstory didn’t do much for me. At its core, Moebius: Empire Rising is a “Kickstarter’d” point-and-click adventure featuring a Holmes-like character named Malachi Rector, who has built up a career tracking down and appraise antiques, a job that’s fairly easy for him, since he’s a history buff and genius and has a photographic memory. Malachi is intentionally unlikeable, having a contempt for pretty much everyone he runs into. Somehow, as is typical for stories like these, those close to him feel a mixture of annoyance and love for him, and his secretary Gretchen–his only real friend at the beginning of the game–is no exception. Though we know Malachi’s backstory (if we read the comic before the game), we aren’t quite given any reason for why he’s so snarky, though for the most part, his snark is at least somewhat humorous. I know there were a few times I actually chuckled at his sarcastic comments, including one later in the game regarding Angry Birds.

Early in the game, Malachi is contacted by a mysterious organization, FITA, who wants him to go to Italy to look into the life of a recently murdered politician’s wife, and to see if her life mirrors that of anyone else in history. Malachi does so, and is drawn into a larger conspiracy, which he refuses to take part in initially. Eventually he meets David Walker, an ex-soldier who seems strangely familiar to him, and who has a dramatic effect on his ability to do his job. He hires David as security, which surprises Gretchen and makes her jealous. David is infinitely more likeable than Malachi, with his awful jokes and puns and genuine care for Malachi despite Malachi’s resistance to letting anyone close to him. It’s not until David enters the game that Malachi even develops as a character (or the plot truly gets started), so to say he is important to the story would be a bit of an understatement. David is honestly my favorite character in the game, and the times where I controlled him were actually more enjoyable than playing as Malachi most of the time.

Graphically, the game is decent. The backgrounds are fantastic, though the character models, while adequate, often leave something to be desired. (Malachi, for instance, runs rather weirdly.) There are some minor issues (like Malachi floating above the ground in the hotel in Chapter 2). I enjoyed the cinematics, especially the fight scene in Chapter 2, but other than that, the game doesn’t stick out as far as the graphics go, and there are scenes where the hands are reacting awkwardly with things, like in the last chapter where David is holding some rope. The soundtrack, however, is wonderful. I left my game to make dinner at one point and was able to listen to the background music for the 30-40 minutes as I fixed my food, and even found myself humming along. The voice acting is wonderful, though a few of the accents are a bit off. Particularly impressive performances are of course those of Owen Thomas and Colin Benoit, who play Malachi and David, respectively, but others are also top-notch. (You may recognize Owen Thomas as Omid from Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Colin Benoit as The Wolf Among Us’s Jack Horner.) There are some bugs, like in Chapter 5 when exploring the gardens, Malachi gets stuck when looking at the statues from time to time (this happened multiple times and required me to load my last save), and in the same chapter, retrieving a glove for someone causes Malachi to disappear and make you think the game froze. Occasionally there’s lag between making a decision and the game reacting to that decision.

Overall, the gameplay is pretty good. It’s your standard point-and-click adventure, requiring only the mouse (unless you want to use the space bar to show what you can interact with). The menus are a little clunky but not horrible. On the top left of the screen, you can choose to view the main menu, your smartphone, or the map. Under the main menu, you can look up how to ply, save and load your game, adjust your standard settings (including turning on and off hints–I turned them off since I didn’t really need them), and allow for subtitles. The smartphone allows you to dial numbers (which you never do), call or text contacts (which you rarely do), look at hints (if you’ve turned them on), open up project files, and read stuff Malachi has searched for. When interacting with people, sometimes you can “analyze” them, which basically means making snap judgments about them based on how they look. On the right of the screen, you can mess with your inventory. Thankfully, if you select to combine items, it will tell you what those items can be combined with, so you’re not trying every combination known to man on the few occasions you do need to combine items. Most of the puzzles are intuitive, though near the end they start to feel a bit cheaper with the “rub two things together” syndrome, or rather, “look in really obscure places for something stupid in order to rub two things together” syndrome. The worst part of the game in terms of gameplay, actually, is in the last chapter where there’s this weird maze thing. I honestly didn’t want to be bothered at that point so I loaded a walkthrough on my other monitor and just dealt with it that way. It wasn’t difficult so much as it was annoying, and I’m not sure where the developers were trying to go with adding that in there.

I’m a bit torn on the character development in this game. On the one hand, most of the characters have strong, distinct personalities, and things normally overlooked or misrepresented (like physical disability–thanks to the developers for not linking “wheelchair” with “this person is sick”) are handled pretty well. On the other hand, Malachi’s views of women are problematic to say the least. I would argue that most of the women in the game do have personalities, but it was difficult to differentiate between the way Malachi treats women and the way that the game saw the women. I can say fairly confidently that it would make sense that a character like Malachi could be expected to draw conclusions of a woman based on how she looks, and perhaps someone as cynical as he is could logically draw the conclusion that women who take care of themselves are vain or insecure. However, at the same time, Malachi makes the conclusions, “If I give this woman a necklace/earrings/flowers, she’ll tell me everything I want to know,” and the part that made me uncomfortable was that it worked… every single time. Giving someone flaws? Great! We don’t seem to do that enough in our narratives. Making that flaw work for him every single time? …Not so great. Are we really saying that out of the multiple women that Malachi meets during the course of the game, over several countries, that every single one of them is so easily bribed that way? Of course, there’s also a part in the game where, despite the fact that Malachi seems to just give women stuff and get what he wants, the game forces you to take a knife to a woman’s throat for information, which made me really uncomfortable. Lastly, at one point, Malachi is trying to get a VIP badge off of this guy who Malachi figures out is a sex addict because he has glitter on his pants (?), so he asks a teenage girl to “distract him.” Of course, the girl bends over and this makes the guy so distracted Malachi is able to run home for some scissors and cut off his VIP badge. On the one hand, I suppose this could be making fun of guys who only pay attention to things when there are attractive women involved, but on the other hand, the girl (again, clearly a teenager) decides on her own that this is how she’s going to distract the guy, instead of talking to him or something. So it’s not even really Malachi being a jerk here; he just asks the girl to distract the man (though I suppose the implication could be argued to be there). Perhaps these are minor issues, but it did make me uncomfortable playing the game at times, and I feel like these sections of the game could have vastly been improved with a little more thought.

The most disappointing part of the game is actually the conclusion. While on the one hand, what happens suits Malachi and David personality-wise, it just feels a bit flat. There’s no real excitement there, and we’re left wondering if anything is going to happen beyond that point. It feels like the developers set the game up for a potential sequel (which I would be all for) but without satisfactorily ending this game. Throughout the game, I got the distinct feeling that David and Malachi may have feelings for one another (or, at the very least, David may have feelings for Malachi), and I like the way the game handled the discussions about each character’s sexuality, but it remains unresolved at the end, which made it seem like either Phoenix Online Studios was afraid to go all the way with the romance, or they didn’t know what they were doing and everything was unintentional (which seems unlikely). I can understand Malachi perhaps being uncomfortable with broaching that conversation, but David seems far more comfortable with himself and confident about his ability to not only talk to Malachi but to get him to talk, so it seems odd that this is never even broached beyond a few other characters’ speculations and the Malachi’s musings about David’s historical connection.

I would definitely be interested in a sequel to the game, but with a few requirements: (1) More attention should be paid to the graphics. While I thought the graphics themselves were fine, and they’re generally not the most important part of adventure games anyway, there are some bugs and glitches and the mouth movements are noticeably not aligned to the dialogue a lot of the time. (2) If you’re going to set up a potential relationship, address it on some level, even if you don’t fully explain it in that game (assuming you’re planning on fleshing it out in future games). (3) Give a variety of personalities to both the men and women in the game. Finally, (4) focus more on the end parts of the game, and make them feel less phoned in. I generally enjoyed the game itself, even if I did have issues with certain aspects of it, and I could see myself playing it again at some point in the future. I’ve already recommended a few friends check out the demo to see if it’s something they would be interested in. Despite the game’s clear issues, there are definitely strengths to the game and its characters, and I would genuinely like to see what influence David has on Malachi in regards to his character growth and life direction. I actually enjoyed playing the game, despite its flaws, and I think there’s potential for a good series here.

Short Attention Span Summary

Moebius: Empire Rising is an adventure game with an interesting premise and the potential to expand into a series. Though there are issues with some character development, a few minor bugs, and graphics, the game manages to be entertaining for the most part. The Dan-Brown-esque story flows rather well and the characters are entertaining, especially David Walker. The voice acting is generally great, namely the performances by Owen Thomas and Colin Benoit, the puzzles are fairly intuitive, and the soundtrack is top-notch. I imagine there will be mostly mixed reactions to the game, especially the phoned in ending, but my personal experience as a history and sci-fi fan was that the game was enjoyable and my interest has been piqued for potential future installments of the series.