How would you like to play a supernatural detective thriller point-and-click adventure? As FBI agent Erica Reed you’ll pursue Boston’s latest serial killer, grapple with your emergent psychic powers, and grieve for your past traumas.
Sound good? It should also sound familiar if you played Cognition: Episode 1. I really enjoyed the first title, and I’m pleased to see the sequel features the same strong points. Regrettably it presents the same flaw, too—an inordinately contrived plot that strains adult credulity, and thus is at odds with the game’s graphic violence, profanity and other adult elements—and it’s the kind of flaw that gets worse with repetition.
Newcomers to the series had better begin with Episode 1 since the sequel assumes the player already knows how to use Erica’s psychic abilities. Although Episode 2 begins with a flashback cinematic, it only vaguely touches upon the backstory; it’s designed just to jog the memory a bit, not to bring players fully up to speed. The upside of this is that the game doesn’t drag returning players through painful expository summary. I’ll take that trade any day.
Indeed, Episode 2 doesn’t waste time on exposition or anything else for that matter. Mere minutes into the game, Erica’s coworker and romantic interest is mutilated and kidnapped (yes, in that order) by this episode’s new wacko serial killer, and the rising action sweeps away questions about the first game’s plot, while inviting questions of its own.
If you’ve played Episode 1 and have been counting along, this latest mutilation/kidnapping makes three close acquaintances of Erica’s that have fallen prey to serial killers in as many years. You might expect the game to explain this cosmic improbability, but then you would have missed one of the conceits of the supernatural police procedural. Back in the ‘90s we didn’t ask why each week’s episode provided Mulder and Scully with yet another convenient supernatural mystery to explore. Now that the genre’s been overrun by icky corpse shots and torture porn, we mustn’t ask why—or indeed how—a serial killer managed to saw off an agent’s ear in the middle of the FBI field office and escape lugging the poor sod on her back like a sack of potatoes.
If we insist on asking how and why, we shouldn’t expect any answers. It’s becoming clearer that the Cognition series is more interested in playing with themes scavenged from other works than in constructing a world responsive to our questions. Our protagonist Erica is really a jumbled mishmash of familiar tropes: the psychic neophyte on a project of self-discovery; the sharp-edged police detective out for justice; the wounded victim of appalling, evil criminals; the straight-shooting salt that clashes against bureaucracy. It’s fine to combine these roles in order to weave something more complex, but I’d prefer to see them deployed with a purpose and not just out of easy recourse to genre cliché. As the Cognition games continue to heap laughable improbabilities and worn-out clichés together, it risks collapse under its own ambling purposelessness.
Still, the first episode offered up even bigger head-scratchers in its first few minutes—who could forget Erica willingly impaling her legs on rusty spikes while the killer looked on hungrily? That was the dumbest moment adventure games have seen in over a decade. It’s how we know that Old Man Murray is never coming back. But when I played past it, I found quite a lot to like in Episode 1. The case is much the same here.
One of the game’s best aspects is that it rewards (and to some extent demands) attention to detail. You can spend a lot of time just reading case files and learning to use the computer system at the FBI office; you’ll even have to print out documents and go collect them from the printer tray. That may sound mundane, especially if your day job is at an office, but it’s one way that Cognition keeps itself grounded so the loopy plot doesn’t lift off and carry everything into absurdity. The conversation trees are often more extensive than in most adventure games. It’s a bit odd that a game with so many fanciful elements offers such detailed ways to explore it.
The game’s Boston locations are all convincing in this way. They feel lived in, and their reality helps ground the game against its own excesses. Exploring them is usually intriguing, seldom tedious. The game makes you wonder not what to do next, but how to do it—a difference that many adventure games neglect. The dialogue is compelling, the voice acting is good, and the art is appealing. So many of the core pieces are in place. And yet…
It’s that underlying solid core that drives me to frustration. Cognition deserves a better storyline than it’s got. In the last few years the adventure game genre has been resuscitated, at least from a sales standpoint. But if we’re ever to recapture the genre’s apex we need games to tell us things worth thinking about, or to show us something novel, or at the very damned least to present us a world that pushes back against the slightest bit of scrutiny. I don’t play narrative-driven games (just) to scrutinize their world, I play them in the hopes they’ll prompt me to scrutinize mine—but the former is a prerequisite of the latter.
It says something, though, about the quality of Cognition Episode 2’s underpinnings that I can criticize really only for its lack of ambition. If the next episode begins with yet another serial killer abducting Erica’s own parents in front of her very eyes, my criticism will grow more strident.
The game was played on a 4th-gen iPad for this review.