Moebius hands-on archived preview
Without a doubt, Moebius feels like a Jane Jensen game. From the opening sequence to the game’s nearly-obsessive attention to historical detail, this game is unquestionably a return to form for one of the adventure genre’s pioneers. At E3, I had an opportunity to sit down with Jane herself for a preview of the preliminary build that was about to be released to the supporters of her Kickstarter campaign. It was a rare chance to hear the design philosophy behind the game, which, when it is finally released later this year will be the first from Jane’s Pinkerton Road Studios.
Moebius certainly has a lot of pressure on it. In addition to being the first "real Jane Jensen" adventure in 13 years – while she wouldn’t say it directly, it’s clear that at least some of the failings of 2010’s Gray Matter resulted from the lack of Jane's full creative control – it will also be one of the first high-profile Kickstarted adventures to be released. The question that kept running through my head throughout the presentation and my own later playthrough of the first two chapters was whether Moebius was going to be too old school for today’s gaming audience – would Jane be able to innovate in a medium that has advanced considerably since cat moustaches? (And yes, I know that wasn't one of Jane's own puzzles.) That’s a question that won’t be answered until the final game is released, as I found my early exposure raised more questions than it answered, though from what I did see Moebius looks incredibly promising,.
Similar to Jane’s Gabriel Knight series, Moebius is a paranormal thriller which stars a very unusual protagonist. Malachi Rector is the newest hero, and while he may not be a chosen schattenjager, he certainly possesses a number of traits that set him apart from his fellow man. Players are treated to an electronic comic at the start of the game which provides Malachi’s backstory: in a nutshell, he’s an uber-genius with an IQ north of 175 with a fractured and difficult family history. In addition to his smarts, he possesses a photographic memory and the ability to quickly measure up situations and people – often analyzing them against the limitless database in his cranium. He’s a modern day Sherlock, who also happens to pop Xanax pills like Skittles.
Watching the opening to Moebius, I was struck by the obvious similarities to Sins of the Fathers. After the e-comic which introduces Malachi, we have an opportunity to get a little acquainted with his home base. While he’s in New York City instead of New Orleans, Malachi’s antique shop is eerily similar to Gabriel’s bookstore. And Malachi’s cheeky female assistant Gretchen could be a body double for Grace Nakimura. The fact that Malachi also has a tiny office off his main shop is another detail that provided a sense of deep déjà vu.
The way the gameplay begins is also in the classic Sierra adventure style. Moebius is played in third-person perspective, and players will point-and-click to send Malachi to different locations, inspect and interact with objects within each location, and open up dialogues with the game’s cast of characters. Unlike Gabriel, however, Malachi isn’t a simple salesman at the start of the game – he hires his memory and deductive abilities out to bidders who wish to determine the authenticity of historical antiquities.
The adventure begins with a job assignment that Malachi must complete, and while the themes and style are firmly planted in the thriller genre that Jane is known for, a few of the gameplay elements offer some interesting experiments during this first job. The first new feature is the ability to zoom into particular objects and people to inspect them a little more closely. This allows Malachi to make deductions about specific details, such as how a woman’s hairstyle reveals something about her personality. Each time you click on a clue, you receive a little more information on the target and earn data points. Data points are Moebius's way of providing a score (another nice little throwback to the Sierra games of old.)
Even more compelling is the menu bar at the upper left of the screen which allows you to access Malachi’s smartphone/PDA. Gabriel would probably have loved to have such a tool available as he traipsed across Germany, because here Malachi is able to access the Internet for research, keep a to-do list which acts like a de facto hint system, take notes during his investigations, and most importantly, to analyze all the data he has collected. While Moebius certainly features classic adventure game logic and inventory puzzles – several are apparent in the first two chapters – using the phone to analyze data is just as significant here.
Throughout the game, Malachi must evaluate antiques and will be asked to determine if certain people are eerily similar to famous historical figures. “Malachi’s job is to determine the authenticity of historical artifacts,” said Jane. “Because of his photographic memory, he can match anyone in history.” Through his phone, he is able to compare the information he’s collected with historical fact in order to make conclusions.
In the first two chapters, this feature was more impressive for its wealth of historical information and accuracy than as a challenging exercise. I don’t think anyone can match Jane for her passion in using real world history to provide a captivating sandbox for her heroes to explore. In the first analysis you have to perform, you’re treated to fascinating backstories of Italian painters such as Raphael and Botticelli; in another sequence you have to examine each artistic element of an Egyptian Canopic chest to accurately appraise its value.
While the classic puzzles of Moebius are very traditional, these experiments are refreshing and show that the game won’t be entirely what you might expect. In total, Moebius will span seven chapters that will slowly unravel the supernatural mystery of why historical figures are re-appearing in our modern age and how Malachi figures into it. “This is a convergent point in Malachi’s life,” said Jane. “Moebius is his origin story and is designed to be an origin story for a series.”
The first two chapters are very linear. There are a few decisions that you are allowed to make (and different dialog options), but the conclusion of each chapter is nearly identical. In addition, though you can force Malachi to make incorrect conclusions from his analysis, the story won’t advance until you correct them. While the game won’t likely be as lethal as the Sierra catalog, Jane mentioned that Malachi will find himself in lethal situations that may merit a few reloads of saved games.
It’s important to note that the version I saw was simply a preview build – in many ways, a proof of concept for her backers – and as expected, there were certainly some rough edges to be seen. The graphic style and interface have been designed by Phoenix Online Studios (Cognition) and the high-definition graphics were impressive, if a little uneven (some animations are particularly strange at this point).
Malachi will be visiting a number of locations across the world, and the Venice and Cairo on display in the preview represented their exotic locales well, though the early color palette did seem a little gaudy and saturated. It absolutely looks better than you might expect from the $400k Kickstarter investment that Pinkerton Studios acquired (Jane pointed out that the first Gabriel Knight cost over a million dollars in 1993 for comparison), and touches such as the moving water in Italy and minute changes in characters’ facial expressions are welcome.
Moebius's sound elements are also a mixed bag so far. Jensen’s husband (and frequent collaborator) Robert Holmes returns to score the game, and his haunting compositions provide a compelling noirish backdrop to the mysteries. Most of the characters are already voiced, and while Malachi’s egoism and arrogance (and UK accent) were perfectly captured by the actor who plays him, dialog and character exchanges are sometimes a bit awkward. What was meant to be a humorous exchange between Malachi and a companion, for example, came off as uncomfortably forced.
The game’s tone itself feels very uneven in the early going, blending the serious and dangerous situations Malachi quickly finds himself in with some peculiar moments of absurdity. In the first chapter, Malachi is approached by a secret government agency whose acronym of F.I.S.T. is frankly comical. I couldn’t help but think that Moebius felt very much like a very personal, classic B movie. It’s clear that Jane is being playful with concept, character, and expectation, yet she made it a point to say that she wanted players emotionally invested in Moebius, and the result is clearly the work of her singular vision. “I think it’s a great story. It’s the best one I’ve ever done,” said Jane. “It’s the layers that you uncover throughout the journey that make it really feel like a true Jane Jensen game.”
It’s certainly a challenge to juggle the expectation of gamers familiar with classic Jane Jensen games with the desire to create a new and contemporary gaming experience. Will Moebius be a retro throwback or can it contribute something truly special to the medium as part of a renaissance for adventure games? It’s too early to tell, but either way it’s obvious that this game is a labor of passion and love for the genre, as well as an opportunity to show how games can tell intriguing and complex stories. It’s good to see Jane have her crayons back.
The game does not have a release date yet but has been promised for later in this calendar year. For now, it’s simply too early to tell what the final version of Moebius will be like, but I can absolutely say I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Jane and Pinkerton Road will answer the questions and mysteries that were presented in this early sneak peek.