Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

CognitionAnEricaReedThriller

Imagine being able to touch an object and see the past as it relates to whatever you are touching. Not just objects, but people as well. To touch several seemingly random objects that all occupied the same space to paint a vivid picture of events that happened in the past. To help a person remember the past by looking at their memories and clear up faded images to spark new details from history. Now imagine being an FBI agent gifted (or cursed) with this ability and you have the premise of Phoenix Online Studios‘ point-and-click adventure game, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.

A mix of comic book panel motion art with 3D modeled characters and environments, Cognition tells the story of Erica Reed, a detective with a sixth sense who is on a case to capture a mysterious figure known as The Cain Killer. Told over four episodes, the game weaves a complex narrative of family history, blackmail, serial killings and supernatural powers. Presented almost like a TV show, each episode opens with a “previously on” intro which then cuts to a short climactic build up and transitions into an opening credit sequence featuring a rocking music score by Austin Haynes. While each episode is a self-contained storyline, together they weave a much grander narrative.

The game really does make you feel like you are playing the role of a detective in a gritty TV drama. Part of this is due to the subject matter, and part of it is the excellent performance of the cast, led by Raleigh Holmes as Erica Reed. The first episode focuses on a serial killer who is murdering victims by hanging them and making it look like suicide. Reed uses her cognitive powers to examine crime scenes and piece together random clues that a non-psion would have overlooked. Like many good detective shows, there is plenty of banter and character building between Reed, her partner, and the rest of the usual cast that fills out a crime investigation story (nerdy forensics, demanding chief, grandmotherly tutor, and hard-nosed coroner). As the story progresses, new locations open up on the map and traveling between them is a simple click with the sound of a revved motor to indicate travel. For as complex as the story and puzzles can be at times, the presentation feels like an updated, classic Sierra game (more specifically the original Gabriel Knight).

Reed’s ability to perform cognitive powers on objects grows through each episode. At first, clicking on the cognition power shifts the view with a filtered lens and highlights objects with a blue aura that allows Reed to divine new information. As she learns to control her powers, items in the inventory can be clicked on to show a fuzzy image relating to a crime. The more objects that are collected and touched with the cognitive ability, the clearer the clue becomes, ultimately unlocking a new piece to the puzzle, usually through a cut scene or animated comic panel. Further improving Reed’s powers, she is able to touch subjects and see snippets of that person’s past. Each snippet can contain one or two clues that aren’t fully remembered, and through a mix of interviews and in-game cellphone web searches, the correct objects can be selected to help jog a subject’s memory.

These memory puzzles are both really cool, but also really challenging. I strongly recommend taking notes because out of six snippets that may contain one or two details (that may or may not be correct), clicking through each one to get the entire memory correct can become a bit frustrating and tedious when everything does not line up as the game intends. This is my only real gripe with the game. This isn’t necessarily leveled at Cognition alone, but pretty much every point-and-click adventure ever made. When a game offers one or two fairly obvious clues that are collected from one location, the game mechanic should offer one of two options. The first option would be to not allow forward progress until ALL clues are collected (especially if a major clue needs to be collected at a different location). The second option would be to allow forward progress but with perhaps a less complete interaction.

I bring this up because during several highly complex puzzles, I ran into moments where I was three or four screens deep into the process only to realize that I didn’t have a clue necessary to complete the logic that the game was expecting. The process of clicking back out of three or four screens, traveling to a location to find the necessary clue, then heading back to the puzzle to click through three or four screens to get back to the point I was stuck at and move a bit further, only to then get stuck again because I had missed yet another clue from a different location, is completely frustrating and breaks the momentum of the game. The challenge, of course, is to provide a way to offer clues without giving away too much. Letting gamers stumble through a puzzle is half the fun, but breaking the momentum and having to leave the puzzle, travel to a new location, find more clues, then travel back to reestablish the puzzle is frustrating.

Maybe part of my frustration is that there are several areas (mostly in the first episode) where certain actions require a specific set of steps. There is a person sitting in an interrogation room. Reed and her partner at the time are observing the person through the two way mirror. Clicking on the person doesn’t allow Reed to talk to him. Clicking on the door (on the opposite side of the room) makes Reed walk into the interrogation room. Clicking on the person to talk still doesn’t allow Reed to talk because she isn’t close enough. So you have to click on the chair to sit down. Then clicking on the person allows her to talk. Why can’t clicking on the person while in the outer room be interpreted by the game to line up all of the aforementioned steps? These multi-step clicks add up at times when clues are missing and scenes need to be exited in order to collect additional information.

This is just a minor complaint (and something that could fairly easily be addressed in the future) when looking at the rest of the game as whole. Some of the powers that are introduced in the first episode are then expanded upon in later episodes, and the game does a good job of offering a tutorial when new concepts are introduced. Often a new cognitive mechanic is added which simply takes previous powers a bit further, and through repetition and familiarity of the process, these additional powers quickly become second nature during the investigation. Clicking on the cognitive power highlights objects that can be examined individually, or clicking on two or more allows Reed to see events unfold. The subtle baby steps that the designers put forth in the game are huge but very welcome.

As the third episode gets moving, another mechanic to the game is introduced via another psion with cognitive powers, however this time the power is to see into the future.  As this character is the yin to Reed’s yang, they mesh and the game allows players to switch between Reed and the other character. I don’t want to be too specific because the reveal of the character is one of the better moments in the overall experience. Needless to say the ability to switch between both Reed and this other character who will remain nameless provides some complex puzzles where at times the expected outcome and logic isn’t entirely obvious, but the UI of the game provides subtle context by menu objects switching from color to mono once a particular path is complete.

As I mentioned above, each episode is its own complete story, but events from each tie together for a larger, highly impactful end. The music and voice work is fantastic and helps to overlook some of the janky aspects that crop up now and again. Some character animations are off–timing is slow, and then speeds up to almost unintentional hilarious effect. Objects that are collected for inventory sometimes aren’t positioned correctly when a character is holding it during a cut scene. Several of these have been fixed, but be aware going in that there are moments where things just appear a bit off. Also, one word of warning to our readers who enjoy the use of the Raptr desktop app: The game may crash if you are using the app while playing. I experienced this most noticeably during episode 4.

Cognition proves that mature themed games don’t have to be solely about shooting dudes in the face, or have to thrive on T&A. Phoenix Online Studios have put together a complex narrative that explores some dark behavior but also has some genuinely funny moments based on the excellent performances by the characters and the actors lending their voices. Grisly images and mature language are seen and heard throughout the game, so I can’t recommend it for kids or to be played as a family, but I strongly urge anyone who loves murder mysteries and point-and-click adventures to pick this game up.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fantastic, complex story
+ Great voice acting
+ Interesting “super power” investigation mechanics
+ Atmospheric music

Cons:
– Puzzle logic can be frustrating and obscure at times
– Pathway clicking isn’t always intuitive
– Some distracting visual glitches

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also available for iPad
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Release Date: 9/19/2013
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.