Cognition Episode 3: The Oracle Review
By now, many adventure gamers have become acquainted with FBI Agent Erica Reed. After playing Cognition: Episodes 1 and 2, they know about her psychic powers, her grumpy partner, her dead brother and her douchebag boss. What they don't know—and mind you, neither does Erica—is the extent of her abilities and where they'll eventually lead her. In the series' gripping but gaffe-prone third chapter, The Oracle, Erica finds herself once again both in trouble and out of her depth.
Phoenix Online is a consistent developer, and as I mentioned in my review of Cognition: Episode 2, that's both a good and a bad thing. First, the bad. I'll start by saying I get it – once the look of a game is established, you can't do much to change it but at the risk of being obnoxious, I'll repeat; it's a shame weird animations and distorted character models draw the player's attention away from the game's strengths. People still jitter across the screen like they have two wooden legs and adopt bizarre postures when then come to a stop. It's hard to look at.
Further, on occasion the dialog's still pretty awful. Erica's boss McAdams is just so cornily hostile and obstructive, he's a cartoon character. I keep wondering why Erica doesn't just file a harassment report against the sonuvabitch and have done with it. Things get even more ridiculous when a vision shows McAdams and Erica's previous boss Davies in the same room; as you can imagine, here the pissing contest gets completely out of control. Then there's the unbearable cop cliches. The next person to use the phrase, “I'm gettin' too old for this” is getting a wedgie, I swear to God.
Anyway, even with the now-expected graphic and dialog issues, the rest of the game is really pretty good. Most of it's spent in a place called Enthon Towers, a fancy-schmancy condo high-rise where a murder has taken place; more specifically, a suspect wanted in a previous case has been thrown from the building's penthouse balcony. Though she's been warned off the crime scene, Erica goes there looking for her missing partner John, and finds something fishy going on involving McAdams, a lawyer named Scorobeus, and the family of heiress Cordelia Smith.
The Oracle's story is tied to the previous Cognition episode and starts with the fallout from it. This provides some nice continuity, as does the pre-game recap. Erica's psi-powers also make for some nice flow between chapters but this time things in the psi-arena have change significantly. Where before we only had to learn to handle Erica's powers, this time around we have to deal with her friend Cordelia's as well. As luck would have it, she and Erica have complementary powers—Erica's give her the ability to see into the past, while Cordelia's allow her to see into the future. Though existing in different time frames, the two women are conscious of each other and can communicate back and forth.
You do this by swapping back and forth between the two characters using an on-screen psi-icon. By investigating the same locations at different points in time, the women can offer each other useful information about the case and help each other find clues and overcome obstacles. It's a cool idea that provides a new level of challenge that's very reminiscent (in a good way) of old-school point-and-click games.
That said, it takes a lot more thought to solve the game's puzzles and players might have to avail themselves of the hint system more than they'd like. It isn't always logical how Erica and Cordelia can help one another, and that makes for much clicking back and forth revisiting the same handful of rooms, not to mention some occasional leaps of logic. Where previously Erica looked to her friend and psi-mentor Rose to help guide her through her new-found abilities, here she looks to Rose for advice (by texting her) on what to do. Unfortunately, Rose's hints aren't always useful as they could be and in fact, her advice is often infuriatingly vague.
Still, even if you have to use a YouTube walkthrough to get through the hard bits, you'll be glad if you hang in until the end. Phoenix Online has thus far done a great job of stretching my nerves to the breaking point with villainous climaxes and in The Oracle, they do it yet again. The last few minutes of the game are truly nail-biting and although I kinda saw the big twist coming, the ending still got me totally wound up. Better still, Phoenix again manages to create a resolution that's both a great ending and a great teaser for the upcoming fourth chapter.
The Cognition series is nothing if not consistent. Thus far, all three chapters have delivered bizarre-looking characters and laughable dialog, but more importantly, they've delivered seductively gruesome murder cases and an impressively comprehensive story arc. They've also grown the game's mechanics each successive chapter, giving players more to master and more to look forward to. Speaking of looking forward, stay tuned kids—Cognition: Episode 4 The Cain Killer's due out later this year.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final downloadable copy provided by the publisher.