My retake on Moebius: Empire Rising (2014)

Moebius: Empire Rising (2014), designed, directed and written by Jane Jensen, developed and published by Phoenix Online

I have special tags on Steam and GOG, which are reserved for games I think aren't very good. Or if I'm blunter, they are reserved for games I think are pure garbage. The tag is simply just "shit". On Steam I currently have 49 and in GOG 8 games that have made me feel like tagging them as such. Jane Jensen's Moebius: Empire Rising is one of them, as I simply loathed it when I played it the first time. I backed it back in the day in Kickstarter and after the work started on the project I begun to have a bad feeling about the game, so I started to prepare myself for a disappointment. After the release I found out that it was worse than just disappointing, it was pure shit.

Now, in the spirit of seeing if my initial bad response towards the game was just because of expecting too much while not really expecting anything good at all, I decided that I should give it an another go now that it has been a couple of years since I played it. So here's my retake on Moebius.

Malachi Rector is an antiques super genius. His line of work is to evaluate expensive, rare items, rooting out the forgeries from the real things. Nothing escapes his eyes, as he's Sherlock Holmes of detecting at least what comes to old items. By a glance, he can spot the smallest of details. One day Malachi is hired by Amble Dexter of FITA organisation to look into people, despite that's not really his things. Mr Dexter doesn't explain much, but Rector's mission is to look into the death of a young woman and see if he can tie the woman into some historical figure. As the money is good, Rector decides to do it, despite he has no idea what Dexter is hoping to achieve with such a task. From here begins a tale that is messy and makes very little sense in the end.

Malachi Rector and the mystery of a low poly wheelchair handle. I mean if you know you're going to use a real-time 3D object in a close up you should at least put some effort into making that said object.

The main plot device, the Moebius Theory, is the main cause of this. According to the story, all history happens in loops: things re-create themselves and historical figures reappear time after time and can be identified by looking at currently living people and comparing their personal histories to those of the historical figures. FITA is trying to find all the right key people to fill the key roles of USA in order to relaunch a new golden era of politics and economics, but as it goes, there are other people with different ideas of what, or whom, that means. Rector's mission really is just to find those people before anyone can eliminate them in order to prevent something or cause something else to happen.

When I played Moebius the first time I thought it was an ugly mess. That hasn't changed a bit, despite there have been a couple years between the playthroughs. The animation is mostly pretty amateurish, with poorly done walk cycles and horrible facial animations. The character models themselves are poorly done and strangely proportioned. Malachi himself looks like he's suffering from severe back deformation. The background art could have looked nice, but instead of trying to push the pre-rendered 3D images to their fullest, the art is at times badly painted over and at worst just filtered with some Photoshop filters. All in all, the game is visually a mix of bad 3D models and blurry, unfinished looking backgrounds, laced with amateurish animation, which looks even more delightfully tacky during cutscenes.

While Rector is popping pills all the time during the game, I'm sure he hasn't shown his back to a doctor.

But games are not just about graphics. There's been plenty of ugly games, which are actually good games. So is Moebius a good game, despite it isn't very good looking one?  The answer to that is no. Mainly because the design of it isn't very good either. The most interesting aspect of Moebius, reading people and objects, is a hit and miss element. With items, it works reasonably well, when you're just picking up elements from history that lineup. Not a difficult job, but it works. With people, however, you are just picking up superficial tidbits, which don't really seem to have any relevance towards anything, especially because most of the people are just pretty poorly written stereotypes of snobbish rich people or evil world domination types or just uninspired thugs.  At times the writing is almost embarrassingly bad during these scenes when you need to pick out a correct line among three sentences of which two are so outrageous, that you immediately know neither is the right choice.

The puzzle design is most of the time pretty simple. At times all the needed items are on the screen or already on your possession, or in the near vicinity, but at times you come across an item which you obviously need, as those 3D items do stand out pretty clearly from the messy backgrounds. But you can't pick the items up until Rector has arrived into a conclusion that he needs that said item. So this means that you need to travel back to where the item was, even when it doesn't make real-life sense. These kinds of things stick out, especially when the game is trying to avoid some of the 90's adventure design tropes. And then there are the annoying "only one solution works" situations, where you can see a dozen alternative solutions, but still need to find the object to solve a puzzle.

I take back what I said about the design trying to avoid 90's tropes. 90's tropes ARE the design. Oh, and did I mention the game ends with the laziest adventure trope ever created, a maze.

While pondering puzzle solutions, I can come up with a couple of more sensible ones than the actual solution. Like using Malachi's cellphone as a light source. Or just opening that door wide open. But no, the real answer is to fetch a coat hanger and use that to pull the lamp cord. Because of adventure games.

A good example of this is a simple bottle of Whiskey Rector needs to bring as a gift at one point of the game. He's in Washington, but at least if Moebius is to be believed, the capital of USA is bone dry, so Rector needs to head back to New York to an only establishment of the country that sells alcohol. That's a bar next to Rector's own antiques shop. And no, you can't buy the whiskey beforehand, as you need to know first that you'll need it. Yeah, that makes adventure game sense, but for a game that is also trying to have a real narrative that is a just idiotic design decision. The game is full of stuff like that.

The music is an odd mix in this one. Robert Holmes, Jensen's husband and the composer for her Gabriel Knight games, has made a mostly pretty forgettable job. The oddness comes mainly from that there's this strange 80's TV-movie vibe about the music. Sure, it might be thematically appropriate, considering that the quality of the plot as a whole resembles of a terribly written 80's TV-movie, but here the music just never really catches on and feels pretty plain most of the time.

This hostel clerk is clearly having issues
The thing is, Moebius as a whole feels very uninspired. It feels like a game Jane Jensen didn't really care for and that shines through. I do believe there's a hint of truth about that, as Moebius was done based on a poll Jensen held at her Kickstarter. She had a couple of drafts on game ideas, Moebius among them, but to me, it read like a secondary idea. The idea she seemed to be the most enthusiastic about was Jane Austen themed murder mystery, but I think Moebius won as on paper it felt more like a Gabriel Knight kind of a tale and that was what majority of the backers wanted her to do. In the end, I think it was a mistake from Jensen's part to hold the poll, but on the other hand, if she hadn't done so, she might not have gotten funded at all. Which on the hindsight would have been just as well?

So now, after my second playthrough, do I still hate Moebius? Yes and no. I mean, before I loathed it, now I just merely dislike it. Moebius is a poorly written game, where ambitions and skills of the development team don't meet hand in hand. It's obvious throughout the game, that Phoenix Online Studios were trying to create a cinematic adventure game, but that they really did lack the needed skills to do that. Also, it's small budget shines through, as a lot of the artwork feels like the final polishing pass is missing. The same goes for the animation and cinematics as well, especially the facial animation is almost painful to watch and would have needed far more spit and polish.

Again that same stare. It's making me think these women have issues with Rector. Okay, he's an ass and not even a likeable one. But still, she was like that even before Rector's misanthropy started to overflow.
As a game and a story Moebius: Empire Rising is the weakest of Jane Jensen's games. It also is among the worst games that I've had the pleasure of participating in the form of Crowdfunding. All in all a terrible experience I can't really recommend for anyone. There's a certain amount of ambition about the game and as far I've understood the people at Phoenix Online are Jensen fans, so they did try. Sadly, trying hard isn't always the key to success. Good intentions and roads to hell and all that.

If you want, you can get Moebius from Steam and GOG, but I'd wait for a huge sale if I'd were you.