Posted on December 24, 2012 AT 06:09am
Adventure games are, slowly but surely, coming back in a big way. The first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller comes wrapped up in an episodic format, gorgeous art, fantastic audio, and adds Jane Jensen [designer of the classic Gabriel Knight series, amongst many other things] as the bow tying it all together. It’s a beautiful package, but there are some frays in the wrapping.
Cognition is a classic style point-and-click episodic adventure game series created by Phoenix Online Studios. Phoenix’s claim to fame is The Silver Lining, a free-to-download revisitation of the world of King’s Quest. Aside from the good [and sometimes bad] press they garnered from that project, they were also able to bring in Jane Jensen as a story consultant. I could probably go on about all the things that I think make Ms. Jensen great or what I love about classic adventure games, but I promise not to digress [for now]!
This series follows Boston-based FBI field agent, Erica Reed [voiced by Raleigh Holmes, who happens to be Jane Jensen's daughter-in-law], in her journey to find the serial killer who took her brother’s life. In episode one, The Hangman, we are thrown right into the thick of things: Erica and her partner, John McCoy, arrive at the cemetery where Erica believes the Cain Killer has taken her brother. Quickly, the player is introduced to what makes Agent Reed the best at what she does… She has the power of post-cognitive vision, allowing her to see events in the past by merely touching an object. The game deals with the use of this power with the ‘Cognition Button’ at the lower left corner of the screen. Key items will glow with a blue haze, and as her abilities grow, different coloured auras will make the player aware of other ways to make psychic contact with the objects and people around her.
Even angels have a past… Don’t take that for granite.
Even though the plot is intense at times, the pacing is generally slow. It’s the type of slow that makes you ball up your hands as things unfold, unsure of what you may discover next. The slow pacing also helps you care more for the characters. This is important, since the main story deals with the loss of a loved one, and the quest for both closure and justice. The opening scenes make it clear: You must be prepared to make some hard choices to find this justice.
I’m unsure if choices you make in this episode will come to haunt you later, like the recently wrapped first season of The Walking Dead: The Game, but I did notice that your choices can really affect how things play out. For example: I had to bring someone downtown to talk to him. If I was kind, he was more receptive during interrogation. If I forced him to come with me, he was cold and distant as I interviewed him, making interaction a more difficult affair. I’m hopeful that the series will continue in this manner, because it can make each player’s experience ever so slightly different, and replay value isn’t something that a lot of adventure games of yore are known for. The puzzles, for the most part, aren’t terribly difficult for veteran adventure gamers, but this is only episode one. I strongly suspect that as the series continues, they’ll up the ante. I’d love to see them add an ‘expert’ difficulty mode for those who like their puzzles hardcore.
The gameplay, for the most part, feels a lot like the old days, when some games were completely mouse driven affairs. It’s a little frustrating though, since most of the icons are in the far corners of the screen. It honestly feels like the game was made more with tablet gaming in mind, rather than those who are sitting at their computer. It would be great to see them either revise the GUI a little, or better yet, add some hotkeys. The game was built in the Unity engine, so hotkeys are certainly not a difficult task, as I understand it. Aside from the layout, though, I never had any issues with the way Cognition plays. Like any episodic game, there’s always room to improve with each iteration.
Speaking of ‘room to improve’, I had one major issue throughout the game: A lot of the animations are very stiff, especially the mouth movements. What compounds the issue is that the majority of the characters are voiced with a great amount of emotion, so the awkward jaw movements really stand out. Equally strange, to me, is Erica’s constantly furrowed brow. Even when she’s smiling, her eyebrows almost always still appear angry. I understand that she’s troubled, but right now she seems to have a severe case of ‘bitchface’. [Please see this picture of Glee's Quinn for reference.] It makes me sad, because I find Erica to be a very likable character. Hopefully, they can tame that a bit. Otherwise, you’ll be seeing some heavy duty Erica Reed bitchface meme-ing. Well, maybe just from me.
The people who give a damn are over there.
The art style, janky animations aside, is beautiful. The hand drawn 2D backgrounds and the 3D cel-shaded characters and objects all blend together nearly seamlessly. I especially love the motion-comic style of the cutscenes. In a way, the lack of facial animation during these scenes actually makes them more impactful, though that could be in part because I don’t have to watch their jaws move unnaturally. The voices are superb, though I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the Bostonian accents. Before playing Cognition, I’d never heard of Raleigh Holmes and her band, The Scarlet Furies, but after hearing her both act and sing [The Scarlet Furies perform the credits theme 'The Taking'], I’m looking forward to hearing more. Only one character got on my nerves a bit, and that was Mama Rose. She sounded a touch like Monkey Island‘s ‘Voodoo Lady’, but there’s an intangible awkwardness in her voice. Her tones border on saccharine sweet, and that bothers me. Considering she’s an important character when it comes to Agent Reed’s abilities, that could be a problem.
My favorite part of the game’s audio was not the voices, though, even as well done as they are [Mama Rose discluded]. The music is, in my opinion, the truly outstanding thing. Composed by Austin Haynes, the music of Cognition raises the game to another level. It grabbed me as soon as the menu screen loaded, and never let go. As you play, you’ll notice that main theme peppered throughout the various tracks. Sometimes, it’s subtle, but it’s there. The last game that had its theme so thoroughly stuck in my head was Mirror’s Edge, so hopefully that gives you an idea of how often I get truly addicted to a title track. I’m actually listening to the theme to Cognition at this very moment. [Here's a little related fact: When I write reviews, I almost always have the music to the game/anime/movie playing while I'm working. It really helps get the creative juices flowing!]
The only other issue I had was regarding loading times. Though travel from location to location was always fast, I’d often find myself having to wait for the game to finish loading the area or dialogue before I could do anything. I know most people hate loading screens, but I’d much rather see a loading screen than to be at my destination with no ability to interact with my surroundings. This also extends to certain conversations. I don’t know if it was because the game was loading, or if it was a design choice, but certain dialogues were skippable, and others were not. As important as it is to not miss what is being said, when you’re hearing the same line for the tenth or twentieth time, one would likely enjoy the option to circumvent it. I’ve seen this issue in other games as well, so Phoenix Online Studios isn’t getting called out as a sole offender. Oh, and one minor nitpick: If the case has been closed, why does everybody have The Cain Killer case up on their computer screens? Just sayin’.
Yeah, I saw you looking at the case, too, Sully. Cold case, my butt.
SUMMARY: The psychic game mechanics are fun to use, and I look forward to seeing Erica’s power develop further. The puzzles could be harder, but this is only episode one. Great story, great art, great voice acting, great soundtrack. No, the game isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good, especially for this being the company’s first major retail release. I have great hopes for this series. Without a doubt, it would be a fantastic addition to the library of any gamer who loves a good old adventure game or is just looking for a good detective noir story.
Now is a great time to pick the game up, because Phoenix Online Studios is having a holiday sale! The prices below are good ’til December 31st, so if you find yourself with some extra cash after Christmas, I highly recommend throwing some at their online store.
$4.99 for the Episode One Holiday Bundle, which includes Episode One, The Hangman, and free digital download of the prequel comic Provenance.
$24.99 [usually $29.99] for the Season Pass Bundle, which includes all four episodes of Cognition season one as they are released, the digital download of Provenance, and a digital download of the first volume of the Cognition soundtrack.
- THE GOOD: The story, art, voice acting, and soundtrack are all very well done. Erica’s growing repertoire of psychic abilities keeps things interesting. Choices make a difference in gameplay.
- THE BAD: Stiff character animations. Random unskippable dialogue and loading times. Inconveniently placed menu icons.
- THE UGLY: Agent Reed’s bitchface, or more specifically, her angry eyebrows.
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