Jane Jensen’s most famous creation, Gabriel Knight, is the owner of a shop that specializes in vintage books, who finds himself dragged by fate into a centuries-old supernatural conflict that has been waged unbeknownst to most of humanity. He overcomes his reluctance and skepticism and embraces his fate as a singularly important figure in the conflict. Malachi Rector, the protagonist of Jensen’s latest release, Moebius: Empire Rising, is the owner of a shop that specializes in rare antiques, who finds himself dragged by fate into a centuries-old supernatural conflict that has been waged unbeknownst to most of humanity. He overcomes his reluctance and skepticism and embraces his fate as a singularly important figure in the conflict.
With that on the table, I trust you’ll understand why I will spend much of this review using the Gabriel Knight franchise as a reference point. Unfortunately, Moebius would be mediocre even outside of the context of its predecessors, but because it tries to hit many of the same notes and falls flat, the comparison can help illuminate why it disappoints.
Gabriel Knight is one of the legends, and for good reason. He was a fascinating character – a rogue, a charmer, an alcoholic bum, a loyal hero, a jerk with a heart of gold. He was a mess of contradictions and despite the myriad ways that could have failed, we loved him for it. Judged against his forebear, Malachi Rector comes up short on every measure. He’s not funny, he’s not charming, he’s not particularly conflicted or interesting. He’s not lovable, but he is a jerk. He is simply not fun to spend time with.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up: Moebius is a collaboration between Pinkerton Road, the studio formed by Jensen and composer/husband Robert Holmes, and Phoenix Online Studios, the team best known for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The story follows Malachi Rector, a famed antique dealer specializing in the appraisal of rare objects of great historical significance. Leaving his Manhattan-based shop in the capable hands of his doting assistant Gretchen, Rector spends his time hopping from country to country on jobs for wealthy patrons and fellow dealers, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a few minutes of his time as he identifies forgeries and rarities with unquestioned authority. He doesn’t cite his sources – he IS the source.
Soon after we meet Rector, he receives a job request from a mysterious new client, Amble Dexter of the shadowy government organization FITA. The job is strange: a young woman has been murdered in Venice, and they would like Malachi to investigate. Not the murder, mind you, but rather the life of the woman. FITA wants him to determine if her life resembles that of any prominent historical figures. Initially reluctant, Rector is eventually persuaded to go.
It’s not long before he encounters David Walker, a former US Special Forces soldier. They form a bond and Rector hires him on as a bodyguard. This relationship forms the backbone of the story. Rector and Walker uncover the truth behind FITA as they help the organization track down a very particular woman, one whose life is an uncanny match with a prominent and powerful historical figure. But who is the woman, and is her life repeating the details of Cleopatra? Anne Boleyn? Livia Drusilla? Jeanne d'Arc? And why is it so important that she be found and protected?
Like the rest of Jensen’s games, Moebius starts in a staunchly realistic world and slowly uncovers forces we can’t understand as the protagonist is plunged deeper into the supernatural. Like the Gabriel Knight series, the fantastical elements of the story are interwoven with historical fact. Much of the fun of those earlier games came from the blurred line between fact and fiction. It’s pretty clear that King Ludwig of Bavaria was not really a werewolf… but damn if it didn’t seem like he could have been.
Whereas each GK game was practically drenched in the history and culture of its setting, Moebius merely dabbles. Perhaps it is the global nature of the game – rather than keeping to a single city (such as New Orleans or Munich of GK1 and 2, respectively), Rector and Walker travel from New York to Venice to Paris and beyond, and each is just a brief sketch of the place, contained within a few screens and perhaps an Eiffel Tower in the background of one. Each location feels shallow and is quickly forgotten.
The same can be said of the science-fictional elements of the plot, which centers around the ill-defined “Moebius Theory.” The theory involves the idea of repeating patterns of history, which is an intriguing idea that goes woefully underexplored. It is never given more than a couple of paragraphs of explanation and some lip service as to its paramount importance. No evidence is ever given for its existence (surely as an expert on the theory, Dexter would be able to drum up even one such previous example of a repeated pattern), and its pillars are a bit wobbly – some people’s lives apparently seem to mirror the lives of important historical figures, but how closely and in what ways are barely explained. The theory ends up being less convincing than the writings of Nostradamus – and when it’s the crux of the entire narrative, that’s a problem.
This shallowness extends to the characters. I’ve already mentioned that Malachi is uninteresting at best and repulsive at worst. He is, supposedly, devastatingly handsome and electrifying to be around, except that he’s not. He’s a distant, elitist braggart – the fact that his coldness is due to a tragic backstory doesn’t help things because the tragedy in his past is honestly kind of hilarious. He reminded me a bit of a middle-aged Edward Cullen, another supremely uninteresting and unlikeable character who, we are told, is impossibly attractive.
Walker is shallow as well, an unflinchingly loyal puppy dog who occasionally punches people. His relationship with Rector feels forced, and while the story gives them reasons to feel a connection, their total lack of chemistry prevents those reasons from ever feeling valid. I never bought that Walker would put his life on the line for Rector, and I never for a second believed that Rector would want to keep a meathead like Walker around. The game hints at a possible homoerotic attraction between the two, which might be interesting if it was the slightest bit believable. Instead it feels like bad fan fiction. Nearly everyone else is a one-note archetype, which is a less of a problem for side characters, but disappointing nevertheless.Continued on the next page...