Cognition Episode 2: The Wise Monkey Review
Last October, Phoenix Online Studios introduced the world to Erica Reed, a tortured but intrepid FBI agent with a talent for catching serial killers. In her debut title, Cognition: Episode 1, Agent Reed found she had strange psychic powers that let her see memories and visions. Her head reeling from the discovery, she still had to pursue a madman who took her (and us) on a rollercoaster ride along the twisted tracks of his aberrant psyche. In Cognition: Episode 2 – The Wise Monkey, Erica tracks down yet another sadistic killer and the results are as unwieldy as her visions.
No one said being an FBI agent was easy; more often it's downright dangerous. At the beginning of The Wise Monkey, Erica's attempting to recover from the gut-wrenching events of her previous case when disaster strikes the agency. Despite her reputation as a rogue, Erica's put at the forefront of the investigation and sets out to catch a knife-wielding weirdo who severs the ears, eyes and tongues of his victims.
In some ways, the case proceeds as the one in Cognition did, and what I enjoyed about the first episode persists in the second. I like the way there's an on-screen question mark that when clicked, shows you all the interactive areas. I like the game's clever hint system, which keeps you from getting stuck (most of the time) by letting you text Erica's dad for advice. Phoenix gets a thumbs up for their attention to detail, which shows itself when Erica uses her FBI computer to do a database or people search and when Erica comments on the things around her.
More good stuff—I'm still loving Raleigh Holmes as the voice of Erica Reed and the music by Holmes' band the Scarlet Furies and her dad Robert Holmes. It's something I'd listen to on its own. (And in fact, I did. I left the credits rolling a few times so I could enjoy the song playing over it.) Better than all these things though, is that this episode introduces yet another psi-power, this one called Synergy. Synergy allows Erica to use her “sight” on collections of inventory items and collect information about their owners. It's fun to do and is a cool addition to Erica's other powers.
Unfortunately, just as the good things from the first episode persist, so do the things that are rough around the edges. I guess you can't expect a series to change horses midstream, but I just can't get past Erica's horn-like hairstyle and creepy Joker-like smile. As the main character, she's on screen a lot and frequently she looks well, weird. Other unattractive 3D modeling anomalies continue to appear as well, like characters in odd postures and badly fitting suits (McAdams, I'm looking at you buddy). For an eye-candy fan like myself, these things are impossible to ignore. I'm not suggesting that the team should have made everything high-poly—Telltale Games has proven you can do amazing things with very few polygons—but it's important to know how to use those polygons well.
In addition to the various 3D oddities, more noticeable this time too were the dissonances between the 3D characters and the 2D backgrounds. It's a bunch of little things: instances where the characters float above their seats or where rooms and furnishings dwarf the characters. The latter creates an overall funhouse effect that I'm fairly certain is not intentional.
Aside from graphics issues, the writing also continues to be uneven. On one hand, the overall story has totally hooked me. I think the way we're pulled through the episode is great and I'm impressed even more by the way Phoenix manages to wrap up individual episodes while effectively teasing the subsequent ones. I finished The Wise Monkey satisfied, but truly anxious to go on to the next chapter. Finding that kind of narrative balance is tough and most developers fail miserably at it, so I give Phoenix a lot of credit for doing it so well. On the other hand, some of the dialog is pretty goofy. The exchanges between Erica and her boss, director McAdams, in their “loose-cannon-cop-versus-hardass-police-chief” animosity are so cliché they're cringe-worthy.
My last issue with the game—and it's a big one—is its climactic hero/villain confrontation. The crux of this climax is the solving of a multiple step puzzle that commits what, to me, is a cardinal sin: it alters the rules of the game's interactivity. So as not to give anything away, let me put it like this: if throughout a game, you've been able to open doors with X's on them, you'd assume upon encountering another door marked with an X, that you could open it. How would you feel then, if you used this door and instead of it opening, a hole opened unexpectedly beneath you, dropping you to your death? You'd be annoyed, right?
The final puzzle of The Wise Monkey does something in that vein. It provides you with certain information, gets you to play by a certain set of rules, then pulls the rug out from under you. Further, it makes accessing Erica's psi-powers inconsistent in a way we've never seen before. I don't know. Perhaps the intention was to emulate one of those ball-busting old-school point-and-click puzzles, the kind you beat your head against for days before solving? Well if I look back without wearing my nostalgia-tinged glasses, I remember that many of those old-school puzzles were difficult simply because they were poorly designed and as such, not worthy of an homage.
Anyway, even with its flaws, The Wise Monkey offers some good old-fashioned adventure game entertainment and promises more to come. Fortunately for us, the Cognition series' compelling heroine and an even more compelling story arc do two important things: make it possible to overlook the game's graphics, dialog and puzzle design hiccups and ensures that I for one, will see it through to the end.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final downloadable version provided by the developer.