- Episodes have fantastic and engaging stories.
- The overarching plot is amazing.
- Solid Gameplay.
- Powers get plenty of use.
- Erica’s smartphone is useful for more than just calling.
- Incredible music and voice acting.
- Smart and interesting puzzles.
- Lengthy loading times (Episodes 1 & 2)
- A few crashes (Episodes 1 & 2)
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is an episodic Point & Click Adventure game developed by Phoenix Online Studios, creators of the unofficial King’s Quest conclusion, The Silver Lining, and current developers of Jane Jensen’s Pinkerton Road’s Moebius and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition. Cognition is a murder mystery/paranormal thriller starring the eponymous Erica Reed, an FBI agent with psionic powers, the most notable among them being post-cognition, the ability to see the past of objects by touching them, also known as Psychometry. The game’s first season is comprised of four episodes, the latest one releasing on September 2013.
Episode 1: The Hangman, opens up with Erica and her partner and mentor, John McCoy, arriving at the Cemetery, where her brother has been taken captive by the Cain Killer, a serial killer focusing on siblings, trapping them in Saw-esque traps, forcing one sibling to sacrifice themselves for the other, though there’s no real escape for either of them. Things don’t go as planned and Danny, Erica’s brother, dies and the Cain Killer escapes, though suffering horrible burns.
The story then jumps three years into the future where the Cain Killer’s case, and therefore Danny’s, is now a cold case and Erica is given orders to close it, and almost seconds later, she and her partner are called to the scene of a crime, a murder by a serial killer known as The Hangman.
Episode 2: The Wise Monkey, picks up where the 1st left off, and now Erica is handling another case, the Wise Monkey Killer, named thus for his MO of taking eyes, ears and tongues from his victims (say no evil, hear no evil, see no evil), and leaving a musical charm behind. With the case’s lead agent kidnapped and tortured by the serial killer, the investigation is tense and desperate, and finding the killer means finding and saving him before he dies.
I can’t talk much about Episodes 3 & 4 since I run the risk of spoiling the story for you, and that’s something unforgivable in this case, as the plot for both episodes is fantastic, even stronger than the already wonderful stories in the first couple of episodes.
The season’s overarching plot is amazingly written, giving you clues to future events in the form of Erica’s visions (something that causes confusion to her, since her power shows her the past), setting up story elements and twists from the start, playing a Long Con on you, leaving you unsure of what exactly will happen. This level of episodic storytelling is rarely seen, as most episodic games handle only their episode’s plot and just include one or two “references” to the main plot, usually presented and solved in the last episode; but on Cognition, with past, present and future available at the press of a button, the writers manage to give you plot elements for the entire season and make it engaging and not let it become confusing, and even better, without ruining each episode’s story and the eventual revelations. There was only one reveal I saw coming, but it’s so obvious I believe it’s on purpose.
Hand in hand with the outstanding plot, and another proof of the strong writing behind cognition, is the characterization. Characters in Cognition are real people; I don’t think there’s a better way to describe them. Even the best of them are flawed and the worst of them have redeeming qualities and there are no black and whites, but everyone lives within a shade of grey. This makes you, as the audience, care that much for the characters, good and evil, and especially Erica (who’s become one of my favourite video game protagonists). You’ll hate what she hates and love and worry about the same things and people, connecting with her on a very deep level.
Gameplay is your standard point & click affair with more a few awesome twists. Unlike most adventure games where an icon displays over a hotspot, letting you know what type of interaction is available with it, in Cognition, interacting with a hotspot brings up a radial with all your possible actions for it: observing (eye icon), look closely/inspect (magnifying glass), speak (speech bubble), take/interact (hand) and use item (briefcase).
The Inventory has four possible tabs, each focusing on what you want to do with the item. The first one is for taking the item to use it on the environment, the second, marked with an Eye, is to inspect the item; the third, marked with a “+”, is for combining; and the last one, marked with a hand, is for using the item by itself.
Erica is one of the rare few modern adventure game protagonists with a smartphone useful for more than just placing calls, allowing you to search the internet for clues, look up case files during Episode 3 and it even acts as the game’s hint system, disguised as text messaging with Erica’s dad, which I think is a rather nice approach to a hint system. Speaking of hints and the smartphone, you can access the phone directly by clicking its icon on the top left corner of the screen, same with the hot-spot hint button, displaying all available hotspots for a given scene.
Finally, and what expands your arsenal considerably: Erica’s powers. Postcognition, Regression, Projection and Synergy, each unlocked over the course of the first two episodes. To access Erica’s powers you need to press the blue orb (Cognition Sphere) on the bottom right of the screen, which then displays the possible hotspots for your powers, each color-coded for your convenience. Postcognition aka Cognition (blue), lets you see the past events around an object. Regression (rose) allows you to see people’s memories and help them reconstruct past events and reveal repressed memories. Projection (green) creates, as the name states, a projection of a past event, but you need to link three related items together. Finally, Synergy is used on inventory items, allowing you to get a vision by linking together related items. It works similarly to Projection, but it’s used from the inventory instead of the environment. To activate the powers, once you have selected the appropriately coloured hotspot, you then click again on the Cognition Sphere.
What I like about the Powers is they don’t take the spotlight at all times, and aren’t the go-to solution for every problem. Phoenix Online Studios has instead managed to find a balance between the traditional inventory-based puzzle-solving and the use of powers, and even better, they work together. Take Regression for example, it only works if Erica’s touching someone, but people don’t like being grabbed for no reason, so getting to touch them is the first part of the puzzle, and it’s conversational and inventory-driven, and even once you’ve started Regression, you need to fill in the details in their memories, and doing that is yet again dependant on both the inventory and the other powers, all complementing each other.
Speaking of puzzles, the game possesses and overall high quality of them, with some variable difficulty that ramps up for the last two episodes, with some of the toughest puzzles in the season, requiring you to chain together powers, items and even characters together to solve them. Having said that, one of my favourite puzzles is from Episode 1, and it’s the Robert Goodman Regression, for being both mechanically and emotionally engaging. The Cabin puzzle in Episode 4 is also fantastic.
Visually the game is rendered in beautiful cel-shading, which has to be my favourite graphical style in the world, and the only one to squeeze the most out of HD for its vibrant colors. The game handles in pseudo-3D, aka 2.5D, with 3D models over really good Hand-drawn backgrounds. Character models are fluid and move pretty naturally. I encountered a few visual glitches on Episode 1, such as Erica sitting behind her chair instead of on it, but they were sporadic and never happened again in further episodes. Backgrounds a pretty good and beautifully detailed. In what I feel to be a very clear Jane Jensen influence, almost all hotspots are functional, meaning they’re puzzle or story progression related, instead of having too much “fluff” around, which is a bit of streamlining I can get behind, having played too many games with useless spots cluttering up the screen.
Speaking of glitches on Episode 1, the first two episodes were the least stable for me during my playthrough, with a couple of crashes on each, making me lose all my progress since I tend to only save once I’m done playing. In addition to that, both episodes suffer from long loading times, not only between locations but between actions as well. Thankfully, all such problems are limited to those episodes and were fixed for the other two.
On the sound department, Austin Haynes composed a wonderful soundtrack, the music pieces for each scene and location matching the dark tone of the story very well. The main theme in particular is a beautiful, yet haunting piece, and the version with vocals, that plays every now and again, is even more powerful. The Scarlet Furies perform the ending song, composed by Robert Holmes, Jane Jensen’s husband, and performed by Raleigh Holmes, Robert’s daughter, vocal lead for the Furies and the voice actor for Erica.
Speaking of acting, it’s solid across the board, with Erica (Raleigh Holmes) and John McCoy (Ed Crane) being the best, infusing their characters with an abundance of personality. When she’s enraged, you can feel the seething anger in Raleigh’s performance; and Crane perfectly portrays an old Agent, one who’s seen it all and has paid the price for it, but doesn’t let go of his convictions.
This is a fantastic game that will keep even the most seasoned adventure gamer engaged from start to finish with its wonderful story, fantastic gameplay and puzzles and solid voice acting, so I’m giving it the highest possible score on The Mental Attic.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Overpaying! Why are you still reading? Go and buy the game!
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5 thoughts on “Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Review”
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