Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Review
Game developers will tell you, making games is a labor of love. The hours are long, the work is back-breaking, the end-product is as ephemeral as an ice cream cone in July; still, for people passionate about games, it's all worth it. Young development company Phoenix Online Studios is made up of just such passionate people, as its premier point-and-click adventure, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, readily shows.
The titular heroine, Erica Reed, is an FBI agent with a special skill; by touching objects, she can see visions of the past. You'd think this would be an advantage for an officer of the law, but Erica doesn't see it that way. For one thing, she can't control this power and is often—without warning—hit in the head with a psychic sledgehammer. For another, she's haunted by the role her visions played in the death of her brother, who was murdered years before by a sibling-obsessed serial sicko called the Cain Killer. Never having nabbed this sadistic creep, Erica's a haunted woman, tormented by guilt, grief and increasingly violent visions. Despite this, when a new serial murderer arrives on the scene, she's determined to do whatever it takes to bring him (or her) to justice.
Cognition starts in the past, during the Cain Killer case and is for me, the weakest part of the game. I'd played this portion before during an earlier demo and was disappointed that it hadn't been polished. The dialog here is wooden, the character exchanges are unconvincing and the gameplay's fairly slow. Fortunately, once that first awkward ten minutes is done, Phoenix Online hits its stride and things get infinitely better.
Like most FBI agents, Erica has a partner; in this case, he's a stout, middle-aged guy in a trench coat called John. I won't say that John and Erica have the chemistry of a Mulder and Scully, but here and there you can control John as well as Erica which adds interest to the proceedings. Personally, I would wish for this mechanic to be developed more in future episodes because in some ways, Cognition hearkens back to Jane Jensen's classic Gabriel Knight series and as such, is a natural for a dose of those games' fictional complexity. Regardless, it still offers us more than the usual linear adventure experience through the use of branching dialog.
For the uninitiated, branching dialog means that different things happen depending on how you talk to people. If you're forceful, you might have to strong-arm your way through a slew of subsequent situations; conversely, if you're friendly, things could be a lot easier for you. In Cognition, it also means you'll have some occasionally weird (the psychic shop owner) but mostly entertaining interactions with a cast of somewhat-exaggerated secondary characters. When things are weird it's largely due to the writing which at times is a little stiff. Even so, the game spins a surprisingly adult yarn (adult in the real sense of the word, not the “boom-chicka-wow-wow” one). Cognition's narrative is highly disturbing at times and as a fan of cop dramas, movie thrillers and Showtime's Dexter, I can appreciate that. The best thing about the game by far however, even beyond its edgy storytelling, is Erica's “psy-power” ability.
Cognition's struck gold with this idea since it could easily carry a series of sequels. What's cool about it is that as time goes on, it develops. With the help of her psychic mentor, throughout the game Erica discovers new ways her ability can be used and in gameplay terms, this means a range of interesting and varied skills to use in a range of different situations. When using these skills, the screen changes to an effect that calls to mind Batman: Arkham Asylum's Detective Mode as ghostly images of the past play themselves out on screen. The puzzle aspect of the psy-powers (the most fun part) is figuring out which power to use, which items Erica should touch, in what combination and when. For instance, you might touch items at a crime scene to use Projection. This allows you to replay aspects of the crime as it happened. Or you might use Regression, which when you touch them, enables you to dig around in someone else's memory. This mechanic alone differentiates Cognition from the tons of other crime-themed games out there and while the concept is well-developed already, I can envision it becoming even more fun and more complex in future episodes.
Graphically speaking, Cognition is pretty solid, on par with its spiritual antecedents (such as Jane Jensen's Gray Matter.) There are the occasional hiccups—such as Erica's rock-hard hair, some questionable draftsmanship in the 2D comic-book-style cutscenes, and some very strange 3D crotch modeling, but overall, it's a job well done. For my money though, it's the sound that steals the show.The acting is generally good and Phoenix Online deserves particular credit for finding such a great voice for its heroine. Her voice is strong, feminine and likable enough to listen to for hours. The music too is pretty great. Not to belabor the Jane Jensen point, but more than a few times, Cognition's dramatic soundtrack gave me the same feelings of anticipation and excitement as the music from Jensen's games.
For a first effort and a brand-new IP, Phoenix Online Studios has done an admirable job. Although in places Cognition's graphics are little rough and the writing's a little unnatural, it offers us an adult-level adventure game full of interesting mechanics, a professional voice cast, great music and a compelling heroine. After playing the first Erica Reed episode, I have no doubt there will be future ones and no doubt that through them, Phoenix Online will iron out the remaining kinks and create for us a truly memorable adventure series.