Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Episode 1

By Phil Scuderi 27 Feb 2013 0
They're not kidding about that hangman. Unless yours are already ruined, best keep this morbid game from the kiddies.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: Episode One: The Hangman has (by my count) four separate titles, and each one tells you a little something about the game. They are, if you will, clues, and so constitute the game’s first puzzle. If this trend of elaborate, suggestive subtitles keeps up, pretty soon we won’t even have to play our games. We can just kick back and enjoy an hours-long chain of moody subtitles, punctuated helpfully by colons and dashes. So, what’ve you played recently? Waitdon’ttellme! I want to experience it for myself. After which, the next great gaming breakthrough will be nonlinear titles: special hyperlinked subtitles will allow you to skip forward or backward in the sequence. And then nobody will ever be able to read the same game as anyone else. The end.

Before I rush off to the patent office, I’d better tell you some things about Cognition that you can’t quite discern from its lengthy title. It’s a point-and-click adventure game with a grim supernatural detective theme, like a cross between Seven and The X-Files. It’s the first of a projected four episodes, the second of which is out now for PC and Mac, and all of which should see release for the iPad. And if you’re patient enough to overlook its occasional clumsiness, I think you’ll find it’s pretty good.

Straight out the gates the game nearly lost me. It starts with the protagonist Erica and her FBI partner racing to the graveyard, the scene of the Cain Killer’s latest abduction, and where Erica hopes to use her unexplained magical ESP powers to disarm the bomb and save Scotty from his grisly fate in the hidden underground tomb, all while—wait, I’ve lost you too, haven’t I? Just who are these people? Why are they in their present predicament? Why should we care what happens to them? The frantic opening sequence would play better as the dramatic climax of the game. As an introduction, it feels contrived and confusing.

Eventually the game slows down and catches its breath. It turns out that stilted opening was just a flashback to an earlier trauma. Nowadays Erica lives in Boston and works downtown at the FBI field office. She’s determined to track down the serial killer who three years ago killed her brother, but the case is cold and her boss wants her to focus on other projects. When Erica gets called to investigate a homicide, her weird ESP powers begin to go a bit haywire. As Erica learns more about her changing psychic abilities, she finds new ways to use them in her detective work.

My crimes aren't all that well-planned. -- ed. Ah, fair Boston! I just wish I could pin my own, personal crime scenes to the map. You know, for old times' sake.

After its bewildering prologue, the game opens up quite a bit. You can visit locations across Boston in any order you please, and you’ll need to revisit old locations often to discover new clues. Each scene is filled with a satisfying array of objects to explore. Some of these are quite intricate: in the FBI field office, you can get close-up views of marker-boards and award plaques, and the office computers are fully interactive. Each scene is rendered in 3D, and during conversations the camera flits about to show off the art from different angles.

As you play, at any time you can touch an ESP button and certain objects in the world will reveal a glowing aura. If Erica examines these she’ll catch a glimpse of a significant moment in that object’s past. So, for example, when Erica sees a glowing aura on a patch of ground, her power—which she calls “intuition”—will show her a ghostly image of the killer digging a hole. He must have buried something! These ESP flashbacks serve two roles: sometimes they provide clues to solve puzzles, or they can introduce new puzzles altogether.

Serial killers, police forensics, and spooky supernaturalism: you’d expect this in a trite, forgettable network drama that gets canceled after half a season. Cognition does little to separate itself from its pop pedigree; rather, it seems to revel in it. It trades in grey skies, hurried meals of coffee and donuts, and sad trips to the graveyard. Overworked FBI agents gripe about their bosses and tell dark jokes at the crime scene. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata lilts softly at the city morgue. For the most part these clichés are well executed and therefore excusable, but sometimes the game goes overboard. After one tense scene in which Erica threatens to shoot her own partner for his prudent suggestion that she wait for backup, I kind of expected the guy to hold it against her. I suppose the world of Cognition is a mysterious place, full of psychic resonances and FBI agents who instantly forgive murderous threats.

Aside from a few overenthusiastic stumbles, the game gets a lot right. The dialogue is sharp, the characters are strong and the urban setting is convincing. The art is attractive, the music evocative, and the voice work is mostly great (except for one character’s dubious Jamaican accent). The puzzles strain credulity at times, but if supernatural powers didn’t already strain your credulity, why should puzzles that involve them? At any rate an effective hint system stands ready if you get frustrated.

What Dreams May Come The game often adopts a dreamy quality, quite to its advantage.

The game betrays some signs of its PC origins. When you tap the screen a mouse cursor flickers briefly beneath your fingertip. Maybe this was conceived as a feature to help pinpoint where each tap is registering, but it’s an inelegant step back from more technically accomplished recent adventure ports like Hollywood Monsters. Occasional graphical glitches attack the game’s immersion; in one early sequence, Erica’s body transformed into a giant blue cuboid, which I gather is not among her canonical psychic abilities. And the loading times, often in excess of six seconds, reminded me of slogging through The Secret of Monkey Island on my old Sega CD. And here I thought my iPad 4 was a solid-state device!

If you can see past the familiar premise and play past the sloppy prologue, Cognition will repay you for your trouble. Its main strength lies in creating spaces that cry out for exploration, and in rewarding that exploration with narrative progress. Incidentally that’s the strength of all good adventure games, and though it has its faults, I’m pleased to count Cognition among them.

Editor's note: this one's not out until around midnight in your time zone tonight.

Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Episode 1

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