Cognition Episode 4: The Cain Killer Review
Upon finishing Cognition Episode 4: The Cain Killer, I felt like like Michael Corleone from the Godfather II. Having established a solid relationship with the series, it let me down hard in Episode 4 and I wanted nothing more than to grab it by its figurative face and tell it: “You broke my heart! You broke my heart!” OK, maybe that's a touch melodramatic, but really, after engrossing me in the gritty, paranormal world of FBI agent Erica Reed and prepping me for a spectacular, gut-wrenching ending, Cognition instead presented me with a finale full of awkward dialog, clumsy storytelling and unintuitive mechanics.
Let me start by saying that it's with sincere regret that I say all this because I truly wanted to see Cognition pull it off. Past episodes had considerable flaws, but these were compensated for by formidable strengths; this go-round, Cognition quite simply loses the battle with its failings. Anyone who's read my other Cognition reviews knows I have issues with the look of the game: its inconsistent 2D art, model distortions and wooden animations. All that stands. I also maintain that the dialog comes off like a hasty montage of cliches from every cut-rate cop show ever made. Still, I'd hoped that the series would continue to build upon its creativity and manufacture enough gameplay excitement to distract me from its problems. Alas.
As you might imagine, The Cain Killer focuses on the villain responsible for the catalytic moment in FBI Agent Erica Reed's life—the murder of her brother. The problem is, developer Phoenix Online has shown its hand in previous episodes by revealing the identity of the killer. This leaves them with the dispiriting task of creating hours of compelling story and gameplay from an epilogue. Although the killer has yet to be caught at the start of the episode, there's very little suspense to things and it's hard not to spend the entire episode wondering why it even exists.
The two-player-character approach continues in The Cain Killer with gameplay switching between Erica and heiress Cordelia Smith. Rose, the antique shop owner/psion life coach is also back as a central figure. In a bit of a switcheroo however, this time it's Erica poking around in Rose's head, trying to piece together some of Rose's incomplete memories. We once again use Erica's Regression power to do this, and the whole process could have been a lot of fun were its interface not totally confusing. Things function differently than before, and so even if you have previous Cognition experience, you're bound to find yourself doing a lot of aimless clicking. The problem is there's little to no feedback—positive or negative—to let you know that what you're doing has any effect.
Making matters worse, The Cain Killer's hint system is as vague as that of previous chapters (multiple hint levels would be great here for when the interface totally stumps you). I for one was stuck a long time on the Rose part of the game only because I had no way of knowing I was supposed to use Erica's Regression power on a single item twice in a row.
In addition to the Regression issue, in Episode 4 Erica gains an imperfectly useful psi-power that allows her to read people's moods and more easily gain their trust. An icon appears in the lower right corner showing the subject's mood and early on, we're warned that making the wrong dialog choice not only affects this trust, but can have fatal results. I was excited by this because I love dialog systems that affect character attitudes and have meaningful effects on events. Unfortunately, things don't really happen that way since the system's not very well implemented. Again we encounter a feedback issue. Characters provide no “tells” to indicate which choice you should make and the result is an annoying trial and error system that often forces you to fail multiple times in order to figure out what the right answers are. Ironically, a power that's meant to give you an empathic edge over non-psions instead makes you feel intuition-disabled.
It would be nice to report that these psion-related mechanics were the limit of The Cain Killer's problems, but unfortunately, its more literal puzzles (as in, gadgets left for Erica by the killer) should also be added to the list. One two-parter in particular—where you're asked to set the positions of several levers, then set a combination of buttons on a map—is particularly insidious. Yet again the “f-word” (“feedback”) rears its ugly head. The idea is to use both Erica's and Cordelia's powers to find the solutions to the puzzle, but the feedback you receive (on the lever portion) is extremely obtuse. Even Agent Reed seems to think so, since she keeps making faces and spouting things like, “This is getting really frustrating!”
Aside from lugging around a load of profound gameplay issues, The Cain Killer's also burdened by a slew of narrative problems. Erica doggedly continues to pursue the Cain Killer (curiously, everyone keeps calling him “Cain” even though they all know his identity) through one sluggish, over-written scene after another until you start to feel kind of sorry for her. The only things adding life to the proceedings are the absurd, overwrought dialog exchanges where Erica's asked to shriek and curse to unintentionally humorous effect. (Oddly enough, one of the worst offenders in terms of trite dialog, Erica's jerk boss McAdams, actually gets the lion's share of believable lines in Episode 4.)
After getting to know and like Erica Reed so well, what I've said here feels like a betrayal of sorts; I gotta figure though, a girl like her wouldn't want me to pull punches. Although Episodes 1-3 had flaws, they also had spirit, creativity, and the ability to grab your emotions by the throat. By contrast, Episode 4: The Cain Killer lacks tension, feels sloppily conceived, hastily made, and worst of all, lets its narrative weaknesses set it up for equally damning gameplay shortcomings. One hopes (well, I do) that Agent Reed can overcome this challenging chapter of her life and bounce back, ready to let us ride shotgun again on future paranormal manhunts.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.