Review by Bobby Blackwolf

Game Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Game Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Thanks to the success of Telltale Games essentially reviving the point-and-click adventure genre and bringing it into the 21st century, we've been witnessing many independent developers do their own take of the genre. Most of these entries are firmly stuck in the 90's with their graphics and sound, which is great for the lovers of nostalgia - but there's a breath of fresh air to be had when an independent developer stands out to bring Telltale-like quality to their own story. That's what we get with Phoenix Online Studios' Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.

You may recognize Phoenix Online Studios as the indie team that made headlines when they were shut down, and then worked out a deal with Activision to self-publish The Silver Lining, the fan-made continuation of the beloved King's Quest series. A rich environment with great production values, The Silver Lining was a testament to how much a labor of love could turn into something so great. What could this team do with their own IP and an actual budget? Thus, the idea for Cognition was born.

Cognition was initially funded as a Kickstarter campaign in late 2011, with 634 backers funding $34k - well over the $25k goal. They promised comics artist Romano Molenaar, who has worked on such franchises as Batman, Witchblade, Tomb Raider, and X-Men, as Art Director, and Jane Jensen, most notably known for designing the Gabriel Knight series, as Story Consultant. Episode 1: The Hangman has now been released, just in time for Halloween.

Pointing and Clicking


Look at all the stuff I can click!
Look at all the stuff I can click!
Cognition is a traditional point and click adventure game, and it doesn't add too much to the formula. When you click on something, a small radial menu shows up of things you can do with the object, and its context sensitive. You can look at it, use it or grab it, or use your currently equipped inventory item on it. The graphical inventory is on the right side of the screen, and you can not only equip an object, you can also look at it, use it, or combine several objects together.

One of the nice additions that the team made was a special view button that shows all of the interactable objects in the room. You can either hold down this button, or hold down the space bar, and make sure you have interacted with anything you can. Speaking as someone who has spent an hour banging my head against a puzzle in Sam & Max, with the answer being to pick up the tiny object five screens away that I didn't see the first ten times I looked, this helped to relieve my worries.

In the first episode, there is only one area with timed sequences, and, as far as I can tell, only one time you can die and have to retry. Dying isn't that bad, because you just restart from the beginning of the timed sequence, and you can keep retrying different actions to prevent from being shot in the head. Considering this sequence is in the introduction, I expected there to be more throughout the episode, but I'm guessing they are leaving more of those experiences to future episodes.

The Environment


Helpful, but won't really look you in the eye.
Helpful, but won't really look you in the eye.
Cognition definitely has a very mature comic-book feel to it, a testament to Molenaar's involvement. The cutscenes are delivered in the standard "motion comic" style, with minimal animation - mostly to highlight the important aspects of the scene. The actual gameplay has full cel-shaded environments and characters, complete with mouth movements to accompany the voice acting. I felt that there was a little bit too much of a metallic sheen on all of the characters on the side of the face that was in shadow, but that's really just a minor quibble. All of the movements seemed natural, save for perhaps the woman who runs the antique store - whenever she would talk, she would do her best Ray Charles impression and sway her head anywhere and everywhere she could to NOT look at your character.

Other than some minor clipping problems with characters interacting with the world - I don't think there's any reason to duck under caution tape your partner's belly has already clipped through, for instance - the graphics and animation are extremely well done.

The music is also wonderfully done and definitely sets the mood for each scene. The best thing I can say about it is that it didn't get in the way, which is the point for a game like this. It highlights the atmosphere appropriately. Austin Haynes (who also worked on The Silver Lining) once again delivers.

The Characters


You play as Erica Reed, a Boston FBI agent with a deeply troubled past and some supernatural abilities, which are introduced to you throughout the first episode. The voice acting for Erica is provided by Raleigh Holmes, who is the daughter of Jane Jensen. Now, before you cry nepotism, she herself is an accomplished actress and a singer/songwriter with the Scarlet Furies - who are also integrated into one of the puzzles. She does an excellent job giving Erica some depth, going from between completely serious, to cracking jokes to herself, to then flirting with her coworkers, who all seem smitten with her. It's easy to play the part of "I'm an FBI agent who works alone and doesn't need anyone else ever" - it's much harder to pull off someone who actually DOES have feelings for someone else, but can't bring herself to think about it. Holmes pulls it off.

Pointing out the one dimension.
Pointing out the one dimension.
As for the other characters, they are, sadly, very cookie cutter and stereotypical. You have the hard-nosed boss. You have the lazy egg sandwich eater. You have the guy who's smitten with the protagonist (but, as I said, it's not TOTALLY unreciprocated). You have the tech nerd, and you have the doctor who hates the tech nerd. There's a lot of backstory with Erica, but you don't see much backstory in any of the other characters, save for Mr. Egg Sandwich, where a tiny bit is explained.

This isn't to say that the voice acting is terrible on everyone but Erica - quite the opposite. I thought the voice work was great, I just wish they were given a little bit more material for their character. Perhaps that's something that's being saved for future episodes.

The Story and Puzzles


...ALTAIR?
...ALTAIR?
Cognition starts off as any self respecting murder mystery thriller would - on a dark and stormy night, just outside of a cemetary. This sets up much of Erica's emotional state throughout the episode (which takes place three years later) and also introduces her first supernatural ability - cognition. She can see the past of an item by touching it, which is integral to solving the first puzzles. Once you get past the epilogue, you will find that this ability is compromised, so it's not a magic easy button to future puzzles.

You will learn two other supernatural abilities, projection and regression, as you move through the episode. If you can combine three items together, you can project an object into a scene from what those items have in common. If you're able to see jumbled thoughts, you can help piece them together using regression. This isn't an easy button, either, as these powers are really only used twice in the episode.

None of the puzzles are super difficult, but some can trip you up. There is an in-game hint system that doesn't spell everything out for you - which is great. It reminds me of the old hint boxes on the Sierra BBS days where there were multi-tiered solutions, with the first solution being a question such as "Have you thought about looking over in this area?" It is usually enough to get you in the right direction without spelling out the solution. The problem is that there are some gaps and bugs with the hint system. Certain hints will retrigger if you go back into an area, and near the end of the episode, there was no hint at all. I got completely stuck near the end, and it turns out I needed to actually finish a conversation (rather than back out to get more evidence) to be able to get the object I needed to continue using a computer, which I thought I needed to do to be able to complete the conversation in the first place.

There was also one retriggering puzzle, which yielded me a duplicate item when I solved it a second time. This, thankfully, did not crash the game or corrupt my save file.

I said, go eat your sandwich!
I said, go eat your sandwich!
Some of the puzzles seem shoehorned in to be shoehorned in...The guy wants food, I have food, but I still have to go out to get different food? Am I really sneaking into my boss's office within view of every single one of my coworkers, and then having one of those coworkers really tell me "Don't tell me you snuck in there"? You're kind of looking right at the door...You probably saw me go in and out five times...Nevermind, eat another egg sandwich...

While I didn't run into any bugs that would end your progress, there are some reports online that says that it can happen, so it's always good to "Save Early, Save Often" and not overwrite your old saves. This is, like old times, just a quick F5 away.

The Verdict


While flawed in some areas, this is an excellent introduction to a world that I'd like to visit again. It will take about 5-6 hours on your first playthrough, and it ends on an appropriate cliffhanger that makes you want Episode 2 right now. This is definitely a game of love from fans of the old Sierra genre - and there's a very cute homage to Sierra games hidden in one of the puzzles. If you can look past some of the unbelievability of some of the puzzles, you'll be sucked into the story and wanting to learn more about Erica Reed and just who was responsible for her emotional state.

Cognition is available now from Rain Digital Games, GamersGate, and GameStop, for either $9.99 for just this episode, or $29.99 for a season pass to all four episodes plus a digital comic. It is, as of this writing, still seeking votes on Steam Greenlight.

Acquisition Method: Promo code provided by publisher.


Our Grade:
B+
The Good:
  • Stunning comic-style graphics and animation draw you into the world.
  • Stellar and believable voice acting draw you into the story and make you care about the protagonist.
  • Simple interface and hotspot view option great for people new to the point and click adventure genre.
The Bad:
  • With the exception of Erica Reed, the other characters seem extremely one-dimensional and stereotypical in terms of their writing.
  • Puzzles seem shoehorned in some cases, and not very believable.
  • In-game hint system is hit or miss, sometimes highlighting bugs and glitches by telling you to do something you've already done.

Bobby Blackwolf is the host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show on the VOG Network, lead developer of the website, and lead GM for VOG: The Game. Follow him on Twitter at @BobbyBlackwolf

Review by - 10/31/2012 4:06 PM1161 views

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