Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony

Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony
Origin Systems Inc
Designed by Greg Malone
(Original Apple II release, 1985; DOS version released in 1987)

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An action RPG with an oriental setting, Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony casts you as a novice monk in the service of Mobeius the Windwalker. The land of Khantun has seen ten generations of peace since the coming of the Windwalker and the Orb of Celestial Harmony. However, one of his disciples, the turn-coat Kaimen, has stolen the Orb and used its power turn the land to his evil will. The theft of the Orb has conveniently trapped Moebius, whose spirit is bound to it, in his own incorporeal plane. Leaving it up to you to fix all this, obviously. 

Wild beasts and deadly assassins stalk the land, and its people live in fear. Renegade priests have come to Kaimen's side, serving as Overlords of each of the four elemental realms. You have to defeat them, rescue the Windwalker's monks, cleanse the shrines, and ultimately free Moebius. (At this point, the sheer familiarity of all this makes one suspect that Origin had some kind of in-house roll-your-own-RPG-plot dice system.) Like Ultima IV, released in the same year, Moebius has a karma mechanic - defeat the forces of evil, and you'll gain karma; threaten innocents with your sword or flee from righteous combat and you'll lose it. If your karma drops far enough, the disciples of the Windwalker will no longer aid or follow you, making it impossible to complete key quests. 

The game opens with combat training, so if you want to get anywhere with it, you'll have to get good enough with the controls and combat system to win a couple of martial arts battles. For modern gamers, this is probably the biggest challenge you'll face, but I swear: we can get through this. To ready your novice to face the world, you'll have to pass training in one bare-handed match, one sword duel, and one round of divination. Best to start by learning which button does what.

In the menu system, you select an option by hitting the first letter of that entry - (T) to train, for example. The space bar progresses through cut scenes. Enter skips entirely through the game's introductory sequence, but it's worth watching it at least once for a sense of flavour, and to marvel at the remarkable things being done with incredibly limited palettes and VGA resolutions in 1987, when this PC version was released (the Apple II version looks a lot more basic, although your character in it looks a great deal cooler). You are always represented by a bearded guy vaguely resembling Chuck Norris - no portrait selection here. Then again, I think it's safe to assume that all martial arts experts in 1987 vaguely resembled Chuck Norris.

Combat Controls
Moebius predates the WASD convention by decades, and only makes occasional use of the arrow keys, so prepare for a pretty steep learning curve. Fortunately, the combat system is actually fairly logical, and the manual goes into considerable detail when it comes to both controls and strategy.

Unusually, you can set the speed of play. The slowest setting, 1, makes it easy to see your opponent's intended moves in combat, but feels impossibly sluggish. The fastest setting, 9, still feels unresponsive, thanks to clunky controls, but is in practice reasonably pacey. If you want a bit more time to study your enemy's moves, opt for 6.

Bear in mind that you don't instantly make your chosen move when you press the key - the few seconds' delay between moves makes controlling your martial artist feel more like he's operating on queued turns than in real time. Also note that if you're at the wrong range, your move won't hit home. For example, a long kick in close quarters will miss as surely as a short punch from several paces away. 

The good news is that enemies telegraph their moves before making them, giving you an opportunity to block or get out of range. Moving in and out of combat also helps to reduce your fatigue meter. If all this seems like rather a lot of effort, low kicks and sword thrusts do little damage but almost always connect, and blocking renders you immune to almost any attack.

From the manual:

Your sword is a tool. Tools are glorified by poets and broken by fools. 'Tis best to respect your sword and use it with calm. There are six ways to strike your opponent, two styles of pacing, and a single, universal way of protection. They are:

(I) Short Swing to the Head
(K) Short Swing to the Center
(,) Short Swing to the Legs
(O) Long Swing to the Head
(L) Long Swing to the Center
(.) Long Swing to the legs
(S) and (A) Long strides forward and back
(X) and (Z) Short steps forward and back.
(SPACE) Block Opponent

The controls vary slightly in hand-to-hand combat:

(I) High Kick
(K) Middle Kick
(,)Low Kick
(0) High Punch
(l) Middle Punch
(.) Low Punch 
(S) and (A) Long strides forward and back
(X) and (Z) Short steps forward and back.
(SPACE) Block Opponent

(RETURN) gives you an opportunity to flee combat, but you'll lose karma for this.

During training, you'll face two opponents: sword-wielding Palace Guards and hand-striking Assassins. In fact, apart from magic-wielding priests and overlord characters, they're pretty much the only opponents you'll see in the entire game. The guards are by far the easiest foes, with slower reactions and fewer hit points. The ninjas are bastards - they can jump, and get in repeated strikes once they have you at the right range. Fortunately, you can get through training quickly by opting to face guards in both combat disciplines.

There's also a third discipline, Divination. To train this, you attempt to achieve illumination by mashing the arrow keys in order to keep an increasingly fast-moving Yin-Yang ball within the confines of a rectangle. If it's still there once the countdown ends, you presumably become enlightened. Based on this example, I'm considering giving up meditation and taking up pinball.

Journey Onward
Once you've trained up to a minimal level of competence, you can set out to kill Foozle and claim the McGuffin defeat the evil Kaimen and retrieve the Orb of Celestial Harmony in order to drive corruption from the land.

Yeah. I know. You can also use the arrow keys for movement in four directions, or a numeric keypad (if you have one) for full control.
I strongly suggest the latter.

Additionally, as with the Ultima games, there are plenty of keyboard commands to help you interact with your environment (list cribbed from Lemon Amiga):

B - Bare Hands.  Put sword away.
C - Communicate with character.  Press appropriate initial letter when Communication Menu appears.
D - Open or close door.  Use movement keys to indicate direction to door.
E - Equip with sword, i.e., hold sword at ready.
F - Cast Fireball.  Available only in shrines.  Use movement keys to choose direction when indicated.
G - Get item or fresh water.
H - Hit with hammer if one has a hammer.
L - Listen.  Disciple's effective Listening radius will improve with level increase.
M - Magic.  Choose appropriate initial letter when Magic Menu appears. NOTE:  "Utter Prayer" requires a period of fasting after which "Utter Prayer" must be selected again in order to activate a prayer.  "Stop All" will end all magic in use at the time.
Q - Quit & Save game.  Up to four Adventures may be saved.  The Book of Moebius will be automatically updated during this time and when moving between realms.
R - Restore at last saved position.
S - Swing sword; to cut vegetation or attack adjacent character.  Use movement keys to choose direction when indicated.
T - Throw shuriken, if one has shurikens.  Use movement keys to choose direction when indicated.  NOTE:  If an opponent is right next to you, your shurikens will not be very effective.
U - Use item in Inventory.  Will turn torch on/off, if torch is chosen. When Inventory Menu appears, press the appropriate initial letter to choose item.

Rather than a stick-figure avatar (or, indeed, Avatar), both you and other characters are shown as shoulders-up portraits wandering around the countryside. Although the world's background scenery looks similar to that of Ultima IV, scenery objects and paths are scaled up to match the larger area taken up by the bust-avatars. The overall effect is somewhat disconcerting.

Chuck Norris and the world of randomly positioned blocks
Origin Systems presents: Chuck Norris in the world of randomly positioned blocks

You do get used to it after a bit, but it's never quite as comfortable as the more consistent perspectives of the Ultima games from the same period. There's only ever one view level - you can open the doors of buildings, but this will only move the contents of the buildings into your inventory or release any hostile or benign NPCs inside. Some exterior areas are set up as enclosed compounds, but you never really go inside a building, town, or dungeon. 

At the bottom right of the screen, you'll notice food and water meters. Diminishing sustenance is a common factor in RPGs of this era and Origin RPGs in particular. In Moebius, it's probably the easiest way to die on your first few attempts. You can get food from villagers and water from pools and cisterns - all other water sources have been poisoned. On a related note, nature hates you. Rock slides block paths, heat waves increase your water consumption, and rain storms cause all the undergrowth you've hacked away to re-grow, blocking your way.

  • Read the fucking manual. Really. It contains tons of vital strategic info and general tips for survival.
  • Switch from having an (E)quipped sword to (B)are hands before (C)ommunicating with any NPCs.
  • (L)isten to see if there are any mobs or NPCs in your immediate vicinity.
  • Vision is restricted when night falls, but you can (U)se a (T)orch if you have one.
  • You get three lives to start with, and only earn more by rescuing monks. Try not to squander them. You regenerate exactly where you left off, so you don't have to trek back across the map, but might end up getting slaughtered by, for example, the Overlord that killed you the first time round.
  • (S)wing your sword to cut down grass or bamboo standing in your path. You'll find yourself doing a lot of this.
  • (H)ammer rocks (once you have a hammer) to similar effect.
  • Your body stat is your most important indicator of early survival, and is rolled randomly (along with your mind stat) at character creation. Both can be increased later, but for an easy life, ditch any novice with less than 17 body.
  • In combat, wait until your opponent is about two paces away and starts moving towards you. Aim a blow at his lower body. Repeat.
  • You can get stuff by (S)triking crucified corpses, but the game threatens doom (and presumably karma loss) for doing so.
  • You seem to spend half your life (S)triking through underbrush, so remember to (U)se a (W)hetstone to sharpen your sword before going into combat.
  • For the love of god, use the numeric keypad to navigate around the world. It makes life infinitely easier.
  • Encounter innocent woodland creatures (pandas, tigers, etc.) to fight them (on a probability roll) and get vital reagents for spells you'll get later in the game.
  • You can fight with a sword or bare-handed, depending on whether you have a blade (E)quipped at the time.
  • If you're about to face an Evil Monk, switch to (B)are hands, as the monks' fireballs can destroy swords.
  • The game operates on a constant clock, rather than being turn based. That means you can run out of food and water while waiting around. Press (Esc) to pause.
  • You can swim.
Moebius has some good ideas, but hasn't aged well. The martial arts based combat system is incredibly creaky. While it fared surprisingly well against dedicated martial arts games of its own time, it's not up to the combat in Palace Software's Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, released in 1987, and will annoy the hell out of anyone used to post-Street Fighter beat 'em ups. 

Although the use of a setting (very loosely) inspired by Chinese mythology is something we still don't see enough of in CRPGs, and certainly didn't get much of in the '80s, it would have been nice if a bit more had been made of the setting. The main map graphics capture the Ancient China theme relatively well but there's not much flavour to be had when it comes to NPCs. There are admittedly limits as to what you can do when your main NPC interaction involves asking random villagers to give you stuff - complex dialogue trees were largely something of the future when this was released. 

An additional problem, which we can to some extent attribute to the colour palette, is that some of the characters come out looking like Victorian stereotypes of what Asian people look like. There are some entirely pleasant looking NPCs who don't look anything like Fu Manchu, but some of these tonal choices are likely to be a tad eyebrow-raising to the modern eye.

The manuals give you a faint glimpse of a rich world, but so far (and I'll admit to still being on the plane of Earth as I write this), the linear quest path, minimal variety in opponents, and constant hacking through repetitive underbrush don't make Moebius a particularly exciting example of gaming from this era as far as the modern player is concerned. Although your survival becomes less precarious once you've levelled up a few times, infinite lives would make it easier to forgive the frequency of early-game death, repetitive interactions, and clumsy combat, and would perhaps turn this into a decent casual game. 

- Xaronzon Dragon


Pretty little village. Go on: Ask people to give you stuff for no very good reason.

Successful combat is mostly about hitting people in the crotch at exactly the right time

This guy is an Overlord. I think we're supposed to take the "Evil" bit as read

Villagers TELL you that the dead have cool stuff, but go and pillage the corpses of crucified innocents, and this ominous vision looms out of the monitor at you