Phoenix Online Studios and Reverb Publishing are teaming up for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, a new episodic PC adventure series. With Episode Two just over a month away, I recently played the first episode, The Hangman.
I grew up playing a lot of the classic point and click adventure games, so when I had the chance to review the first episode of a new game within the genre, I was intrigued. The fact that Cognition also had some interesting gameplay mechanics and was a crime thriller also got my interest piqued. The first episode, entitled The Hangman, introduces players to Erica Reed, an FBI agent who has some special, let's say, paranormal, abilities. These powerful 'visions' and abilities that she is able to conjure are a big part of the series, and I thought Phoenix did a nice job of unveiling these throughout the five-to-six hour episode.
The game begins in the middle of a rainy night in a graveyard, with Erica and long time FBI partner John McCoy trying to find Erica's brother who has been kidnapped and is due to be killed very soon. Lately, in the Boston area where Erica is based, there has been a bizarre series of murders involving siblings. A serial killer targets sibling pairs, and this time it's Erica and her brother Scott under fire. The opening sequence encourages a hurried pace and heightens the feeling of danger with atmospheric music and determined dialogue. Once this plays out, the story fast forwards a few years. Erica is still with the FBI, and the case involving her brother remains unsolved, yet is suddenly closed. This additional stress and inability to let go, coupled with a new strange murder involving a hanging, sends Erica's visions into overdrive. She reluctantly meets with an eclectic old woman who runs and antique store to get a grip. And, over the course of the story, she learns to control the visions and enhance their function. These cognitive abilities -- allowing her to experience past events and uncover hidden truths -- are a significant part of the gameplay.
Playing Cognition will feel right at home for anyone used to point and click adventures. Each room or scene usually has a few objects of interest that you can ask Erica to comment on or one or more NPCs to talk to. Going beyond the obvious physical layer, Erica's mental abilities, accessed with a click of the button in the lower left of the HUD, give players another layer to explore. In this view, objects are highlighted with a bluish-green tint and the player gets both additional insight and more puzzles to solve while in this "cognition mode." This adds a positive layer of additional depth to the gameplay, but for the most part I found the puzzles pretty easy and at times I felt like I was a few steps ahead of the game itself, which is rare for me in an adventure. In other words, I could see a situation developing and basically knew what I was going to need to do, but I had to wait for the game to catch up with me. This made some of my time with the first episode kind of boring, especially coupled with the fact that I could not skip through dialogue sequences (I had subtitles enabled and could read them much faster than the voice actors were saying them). Still, Cognition did put up a few brick walls for me, although these were comparatively short-lived, largely due to the fact that episode one isn't particularly large. Players do have the ability to go to most locations at will, although sometimes conditions force you to a specific location. Being able to travel to any location can add a lot of complexity, but with this first episode of Cognition I didn't get that feeling because each area was pretty cut and dry, in terms of objects and NPCs of interest.
The characters in Cognition weren't especially interesting either, but this is just the first five hours or so of what could very well end up being a thirty-plus hour adventure, so it's too soon to close the book on how good these characters will be. The protagonist, Erica, is pretty likable, but not as readily interesting as the lead role in The Longest Journey, for comparison sake. I'm sure there will be some interesting twists in the other main characters to.
The presentation quality of the first episode is pretty good, but there are some technical flaws, primarily clipping and some stunted animations (like when Erica starts her walking animation). The clipping or sometimes 'floating' issues are kind of distracting, but do serve to remind players that this is an indie game and I believe only Phoenix's second game at that, so, some understanding is due. Voice-acting is well done, although not being able to zip through it after having read ahead several lines on screen gets annoying. That's especially true when talking with Rosa and having to listen to her say 'my dear' every few sentences. I should point out that sometimes you can skip spoken dialogue, but not always. Art style is good, a lot of the backgrounds are sort of glossed over, i.e., they're kind of whimsically drawn and blended, which can look alright, but also take away from the exploration and wow factor.
To the summary...