Take on the role of Erica Reed, a Boston FBI agent with the power to see the past, as she follows the trail of four different serial killers, and a series of clues left for someone with her specific ability.
What We Think
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, is a point-and-click style adventure game wherein you play Erica Reed, a tough-as-nails detective with the extraordinary ability to scan crime scenes (and any other scene necessary) with an intense psychic connection. After a tragic incident, however, your once-useful gift begins to spin out of control leaving you with eerie visions you can’t quite understand.
Though Cognition showcases some impressive visuals and an interesting twist on the classic point-and-click puzzle-solving genre, there’s really only one question that needs solving: Will Erica’s visions show you the truth or just leave you with muddled memories?
Nice to Noire You
Cognition, created by indie game developers Phoenix Online Studios (which arose from a group of King’s Quest fans from around the world in 2004 who went on to create the game The Silver Lining) is set in a world dressed in a graphic novel noire style. The visuals are reminiscent of the Walking Dead series by Telltale in which 3D models are given a cel-shaded finish, blurring the lines between video game and comic book
Though all the characters follow the stereotypes from procedural police dramas (The captain that needs to chew you out for no reason, the buddy cop who is overweight and just needs doughnuts) the writing does, at times, do a good job of creating characters with three dimensional personalities and back stories.
The voice acting has its highs and lows. While there are some cringe-worthy moments of dialogue (‘See ya later, alligator’ is exchanged multiple times) the overall story and dialogue is credible and its forensics properly researched (and if not…they had me fooled.) A major issue for me was Erica’s noticeable slipping in and out of her Bostonian accent. It was actually about halfway through the game that I realized she was supposed to have an accent at all, as there was no trace of it elsewhere.
Still, most lines are delivered with poise and are used quite effectively to bring emotion to the story. Though I wasn’t taken in initially, by the end of the game I was substantially more intrigued as to the direction the story was headed.
The city of Boston where the game is set is lovingly crafted; from grimy alleyway to pristine police station to Gothic cathedral, every location has been given a coat of polish and a hefty dose of detail. While I admit there was something a little off-putting at first about the aesthetic (3D characters placed in atop Impressionistic scenery) the two blend almost seamlessly, and before long it feels like you’re playing a inside a living gumshoe comic. Accompanied by music that hits “serene” and “intense” in just the right areas, there are moments when this game comes together and really sings like a chorus.
Unfortunately, the presentation is not without its flaws. There were some clear issues in using the 3D models against hand-painted backgrounds. I witnessed characters clip unnecessarily through objects that I should have been walking around. Erica often became confused when I would tell her to investigate a clue and would at times just spin in place until ultimately popping in the animation of investigating said object. The actual animations sometimes just feel “janky” or robotic which betrays the otherwise convincing illusion that the game weaves together. While none of this is game-breaking, it did break the suspension of disbelief.
Use your brains. And theirs…
While Cognition has a fair amount of substance, its main focus is on puzzle sequences. Gameplay here is familiar to the early Sierra On-Line games such like Police Quest, Kings Quest (understandable, given its studio’s raison d’etre.) Cognition, however, offers an interesting twist on the genre as you will often be forced to view your surroundings from an alternate “cognitive state,” which gives the situation a little more depth than most games of this type.
In almost every scenario you will be forced to interact with people and evidence from the standard view and then drop into a cognitive state to expose key items or focal points. These “focal points” will be viewed with a glowing blue aura at first, but as Erica’s cognitive faculties increase, new colors will appear that require different investigative tactics. It’s no mere gimmick, as it’s necessary to combine these found items with Erica’s emerging abilities. The whole system sells the illusion that you can solve things that other detectives really couldn’t.
Puzzles range from run-of-the-mill to just short of ingenious; while some are clear and practically handed to you, later in the game you’ll dig deep into your own cognitive abilities, not just Erica’s, and the best part is that the game won’t hold your hand. Fortunately, if you’re really stumped you can always use the in-game help system built into your cell phone like we have seen used in more recent Wadjet Eye games like the Blackwell Deception or Resonance, or sandbox titles like Sleeping Dogs (via GTA4). As we have seen in those models, the phone also serves as a hub that will allow you type in your own personal notes, keep a database of important characters you’ve encountered, and even help you in ways you wouldn’t otherwise think.
Some puzzles were a bit questionable – forcing you into some unnecessary back-tracking. It’s hard to explain without spoiling plot details, but my gripe concerns the type where you know exactly what you need to solve a case when some “other event” disrupts your momentum, forcing you to fetch some other item before you can bring a scenario to its conclusion. At times it’s used tactically, while others it just felt like a meager excuse to extend gameplay. Sadly this hurts the flow of otherwise solid plotlines.
That’s quite an aura story
After playing through the first episode of Cognition, I can definitely say that I look forward to reviewing future installments as the dev team behind it will almost certainly iron-out the rough spots. While currently the game has some lofty highs, it also contains some glaring lows which do sadly drag the experience down a little. Still, the experience is more Jekyll than Hyde, and if you can use your powers of perception to overlook some face-palming dialogue and the small technical deficiencies you’ll find compelling story and intriguing puzzles.
Check back for my review of Cognition: Episode 2: The Wise Monkey in the coming weeks.