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Moebius: Empire Rising Review - Fallen Empire

Andy Chalk | 10 May 2014 13:00
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Developed by Pinkerton Road. Published by Phoenix Online. Released April 15, 2014. Available on Android, iOS, PC (reviewed).

01

Jane Jensen's Moebius: Empire Rising is billed as a metaphysical thriller, but it's really not very thrilling at all. There's a potentially good story in there somewhere, but it's laid low by awkward plot twists, paper-thin characters and a slavish devotion to old-fashioned adventure game mechanics.

Moebius: Empire Rising is played, mostly, as Malachi Rector, an antiques dealer and appraiser who fits nicely into the character archetype that's grown popular in television shows from House to Elementary: socially maladroit but so sparklingly brilliant that people put up with his brash rudeness. He serves a very exclusive and wealthy clientele, traveling around the world to tell them whether they're investing in genuine and valuable antiquities or being fleeced by shady con-men.

It's a unique talent that earns the attention of FITA, a secretive government agency that recruits him to investigate a young woman who's been murdered in Venice: Not the murder itself, but the victim, a strange distinction that's central to the story and so of course isn't clarified until much later. As part of his investigation, Malachi must analyze many of the people he meets, collecting "data points" about their lives and then comparing them to real-life people throughout history. The idea is to determine if a person has any connection to famous figures from the past, and the process of narrowing down a large pool of candidates to a single individual is a pretty cool bit of puzzling - until you realize that you can't get it wrong.

You can get it wrong, but doing so only results in being told you chose incorrectly and must try again. There's no penalty for blowing it, no lost conversation options or need to find another, more difficult way to get the job done; you just keep trying until you get it right. The analyses generally aren't terribly difficult so it's not as though you're likely to spend much time with them anyway, but the realization that you literally cannot fail at the game's most central mechanic really sucks the urgency out of it.

It also never stops being painfully obvious that Moebius is a point-and-click adventure. Malachi is a real globe-trotter, flitting to Venice, Cairo, Zurich, Washington D.C. and beyond, yet the game world feels extremely shallow, filled with everything he needs to advance his quest and not one iota more. There's no substance to it, no depth; everything is spartan and obvious, and it completely fails to come alive as a result.

The lead characters are similarly flat. Malachi is an unrepentant jerk but so magnificent that men and women alike will do just about anything to be with him; the much more mundanely-named David Walker, an ex-special forces soldier who joins the cast midway through as Malachi's bodyguard, is unflinchingly stoic and noble; and Gretchen, Malachi's office manager and obviously long-suffering apologist, seems eternally grateful to be treated slightly better than a dog whenever he shows up for work. Even a "date" between David and Gretchen is just a brief bout of cheap exposition meant to impress upon players how dark and mysterious Malachi really is, but it's all tell and no show, and reveals absolutely nothing of either of the two characters who are actually involved in the scene.

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