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Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller — Episode One Review

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Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller — Episode One: The Hangman is the first of a planned four episodes from Phoenix Online Studios. You may have heard their name tossed around a couple of years ago for creating The Silver Lining, a 5-episode spiritual continuation of the classic King’s Quest series (which, I’m happy to report, are some of the very few point-and-click adventures that have ever hooked me). Cognition is Phoenix’s first original IP and — while it does not live up to the estimable King’s Quest series — it’s a great looking adventure with some great storytelling.

The gameplay is basic point-and-click: point at something or someone and click to interact, examine, or speak. There are a few action-ish sequences, but I’d hesitate to call them even that. The bulk of the game consists of solving various puzzles set up by the villain, piecing evidence together while running around downtown Boston, and using Erica’s “psion” powers to psychically examine the scene. The latter provides Cognition its most interesting puzzles, especially after Erica’s skills begin to develop.

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It all works well, technically, but the game is exceedingly linear. I’ll be completely honest: I’m not one for point-and-click adventures. Aside from a few games from my childhood — the aforementioned King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria — and the more recent The Walking Dead and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the genre has done nothing for me. And the main reason for that is rigidity of gameplay. I certainly see the genre as a great one for storytelling, but many of them frustratingly boil down to “Click A → Unable to click Z → Go back, click B → Click C → Watch cutscene → Now you may click Z,” etc, etc…

I’m sorry to report that Cognition suffers pretty majorly from this; the lion’s share of the gameplay consists unfortunately of stuff like the above example. As Erica, you’ll wander around many a room clicking on a bunch of things, then talking to a bunch of people, then seeing what new things you can examine, then seeing what new dialogue/action options have opened up, and if you don’t do an exact set of specific things you’ll find yourself stuck in a kind of point-and-click feedback loop. (I know I did — several times.) Constantly fetching evidence and objects to coerce other characters slows the pace down majorly. I don’t want to find three different types of food and a personal object for Robert before he talks. That isn’t fun.

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Almost the only moments of player agency are the Big Choice moments, and these are usually pretty evidently telegraphed (ex. pick between “lie” or “truth”). By the end I was ready to hand over my kingdom for some gameplay flexibility. This isn’t a unique critique of Cognition, but point-and-clickery in general. If anything, it isn’t so much evidence that Cognition is unsuccessful, but yet more evidence that this genre is (generally) not for me. I understand it has its ardent fans, people that positively adore going over every scene with a fine tooth comb — and for them Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is a must-purchase — but many of us are not. I would cite the recent The Walking Dead as an example of a game in this genre that was a little more forgiving of us point-and-click neophytes. True, that game does not emphasize puzzle solving nearly as much as this one, but scenes go by at a far more brisk, television show-like pace. Heck, even the King’s Quest games from twenty years ago offered branching paths.

Yet in the end this linearity comes off as a necessary evil because Cognition’s gameplay is a vehicle for one major thing: its story. And when it gets going it is very successful. The plot marries a few familiar elements — think Medium meets Seven with a little Law & Order thrown in — to create something that’s not exactly original, but engaging and entertaining. As Erica you’ll draw your own blood to enter a sketchy tomb, do fiery battle with a Jigsaw-esque serial killer, and witness the death of someone dear. Don’t worry about spoilers; that all happens in Cognition’s exciting in medias res opening.

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After that the plot fires forward three years. Erica, a committed FBI agent in possession of some unwieldy psychic abilities, is on the hunt for a new killer, The Hangman, who just might have ties to an older case and an uncomfortable amount of knowledge of Erica’s powers. The middle section — in which Erica hunts down clues, bums around the office, and interrogates persons of interests — unfortunately slackens the tension so excellently set up in the opening sequence. But when the plot gets going again it is very entertaining.

You can probably guess from that description that the plot is pretty standard stuff. It’s a by-the-books police procedural with a supernatural twist, the characters — the plucky lead, her donut lovin’, joke crackin’ partner, their hard-assed boss who looks out for her team — likewise. Superficially, there’s nothing terribly special about Cognition’s story. What makes it noteworthy is Phoenix’s presentation. The visuals, voice acting, appropriate music, and strong writing come together to create a very engaging overall product.

TECHNICAL PRESENTATION

GRAPHICSCognition looks nice: it has gorgeous, comic book-inspired visuals and smooth animations. The character models are distinctive (though, admittedly, they can be a bit stiff at times). The settings are pretty and never repetitive. The comic book panel cutscenes are very easy on the eyes and often intersperse creatively with the gameplay proper. There are visual quirks here and there — it’s a bit bizarre that the regular gameplay is lip synced, but the cutscenes are not — but overall Cognition sports A+ visual design. Small wonder Cognition is such a well crafted piece: it boasts a team including comic book artist Romano Molenaar (Marvel, DC), designer Jane Jepsen (Gabriel Knight), and director Cesar Bittar (Tales of Monkey Island, Sam & Max).

AUDIO – The sound design is similarly commendable. The background music is usually lo-fi and atmospheric, but gets the blood pumping when it needs to. The voice acting is solid across the board, especially Raleigh Holmes in the lead role. The characters, while not the most original, are believably voiced and have dynamic, realistic relationships.

PROS

+ Great overall first story. I can’t wait to see where Erica goes from here.

+ Sumptuous comic book-y visuals

+ Excellent voice cast breathes life into (somewhat) stock characters

CONS

– Rigid design means you’ll be clicking the same stuff a lot to find the right path

– Uninspired implementation of choice

FINAL THOUGHTS

Despite my qualms with the point-and-click genre, I had a good time with Erica Reed. I think Phoenix has started something potentially great, and I hope they continue to expand upon it in future episodes. I hope they break away from the rigidity of the genre and create something that offers a little more freedom — something that offers people who get frustrated (e.g., me) with click hunting a little wiggle room. I can’t fault them too much: Cognition is a story-based experience and when it gets going it’s a tough ride to get off. There’s a lot of good stuff here — more than enough to get me interested in Ep. 2.

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Posted on January 13, 2013, in Game Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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