Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1 The Hangman
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Release Date: 10/30/2012
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is an interesting take on the adventure genre. While not doing anything terribly new with controls or the standard formula, they’ve introduced a new way to tell a detective story through the adventure genre, essentially making the protagonist a sort of medium to the past, but not through dead people, through objects and displacements in that area. It’s an intriguing thought that actually kept me playing the game far more than the puzzles, which were decent, but I felt myself getting frustrated enough in the first area to almost quit a few times. Let’s take a look.
Cognition is a four part episodic series that will deal with four cases and what appears to be an over-arching story, set up in the first moments of Episode 1. Erica Reed’s brother has been taken by a serial killer who likes to involve siblings in his sick schemes, forcing one sibling to try and save the other from a trap setup that is something you might see in the Saw films. She and her partner track him down to a cemetery, where she has to use her powers, what she calls Intuition, to touch objects so she can see the past and figure out what to do to save her brother. Erica takes advantage of her abilities and manages to get the drop on the bad guy, but the killer manages to get away, despite Erica’s inventive actions.
The rest of the episode takes place years later, and Erica still hasn’t been able to let it go. Her department head at the FBI forces her to close the case anyway, just moments before getting her involved in what appears to be another serial killer case. A body has been found strung up by a noose with a mysterious disc laying about, the fingertips mutilated to make it harder to identify the corpse. To make matters worse, the man was given just enough rope to let him raise himself up enough to breathe before he collapsed, choking again, dragging his demise out over an agonizing hour. Erica’s powers are going wonky at the new crime scene, and with the anniversary of what happened to her brother looming, she’s forced to handle the case while getting a bit of rail-roading from her boss, who’s keeping key pieces of evidence away from Erica. It’s up to her to get her Intuition under control, with the help of a shop owner recommended by her partner, so she can gather enough clues to try and stop the killer before he does it again. It’s a pretty decent story-line as far as it goes, with only a few bits of cringe-worthy dialogue.
Visually I got a very mixed reaction playing this. While I loved the graphic novel style comic art during the cutscenes, they didn’t always quite mesh with the 3D character models while you’re actually investigating, although the art style is similar. It reminded me of The Walking Dead in many respects, only with cleaner “Ëœart’ around the 3D models. There are some issues with character mouths not syncing to dialogue quite right, and making some truly bizarre facial expressions on occasion, that ruin the immersion a little bit. Animation wise, walking around and investigating looks decent and the environments look varied and interesting. My only complaint is in the opening sequence, when Erica is trying to find her missing brother, she still walks around the area you’re investigating. Partly this is my fault, though there’s also no mention of this being an option, as you can get the character to move into a run by double-clicking where you want her to move. In the cutscenes she’s full of energy and angst and needs to get it done now, which doesn’t quite jibe with her almost laid back movements just a few moments later while looking for clues. I think that’s a minor quibble, but it’s a little touch which a quick hint that, hey you can run here, could have gone a long way to help.
I do have to say the voice actors do a really good job with the dialogue here. You really feel for what Erica is going through, especially at the start, and later on in the game. Her partner is also pretty good as well. The ambient noises and the music are pretty decent. What they have here suits the scenes and investigations pretty well. I like the change in tone and even the feel. Going to the map has a different vibe than sneaking around someone’s office or investigating a crime scene.
Control wise I had issues with the keyboard. The game has you do all your key-mapping and everything before you even load up the game, and once in you can’t change them. You have to quit the game and restart to do that. That’s annoying. I also couldn’t get the game to respond to any of the key presses I did make from the keys I did remember. Luckily, you can do everything in the game with the mouse, so you don’t have to remember those keyboard keys you can’t change or use when they are set, but I do know people who like using a combination of the two, myself included. You interact with objects like most adventure games, hovering the mouse over them and clicking. From there you get options to inspect, interact or use an object from your inventory with the highlighted object. I had problems remembering the keyboard shortcuts and even getting her to move with it, but if you mouse over and click in an area it moves Erica around. As I found out much further into the game, if you double click a location, she’ll actually run to it as well. It’s easier to just select an object to look at if you want her to move around or exit an area, which is good.
So your gameplay is typical adventure fair; point and click and interact with objects and carry items around with you that may prove useful. There are some puzzles that take a little bit of thinking to get around and using items in somewhat unconventional ways. One of the things that stands out a bit more are subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, hints from using Erica’s ability the characters in the game refer to as Intuition. It lets you see events of the past by interacting with objects that glow with a blue flame when Intuition is active, so you can see what’s happened before. There’s also a cellphone to interact with to text message your Dad for helpful hints on what might be best to do next if you’re stuck.
Different areas and ways to get around locked doors present themselves, and even sorting out problems Erica is having with her Intuition gets sorted out different ways. There is a bit of running around using the map, as not everything you need for every set piece will be in that area. In fact, you have to go back to the crime scene later on, twice even, to get all your clues if you don’t sort out your problems earlier, and because Erica doesn’t want to use her abilities around her co-workers.
Being able to solve things differently or go at a problem differently each time is a nice tactic, and will add to the replayability of a genre that I normally consider a one and done, especially if the story doesn’t grip you all that much. I like what I’ve seen here, and it’s an interesting take on a detective story. I think this gives it a little more staying power.
Much like Telltale Games The Walking Dead, Cognition has a season pass, where you can get all four episodes cheaper than you can buy them individually when they come out. Overall, it’s a great price for the whole set, and even piecemeal it’s still not a bad price for the content and quality. The puzzles are a bit challenging as they go, some forcing you to go to all sorts of places before they finally play out, but it’s a decent set difficulty to get through. I’ve played through detective stories before, and even ones where the detective is after something supernatural, but I think this is the first adventure game where they’ve incorporated the lead character having a power that moves you through the game and makes you better at your job like this. That being said, the basic formula for an adventure title isn’t mucked about with too much, and while they give you easy access to the hints in the texts from your Dad, you don’t have to use them and they still require you to work through the problem on your own.
As far as wanting to play, the game managed to hold my interest despite my frustrations with trying to figure out my keyboard issues and just accepting the mouse. It almost lost me early on though, before you first can use your Intuition, as you are forced to look at one specific point on the map to trigger the option to even use it, and until you do, you can’t go into the back area to even begin to solve the rest of the area. It was also a spot on the map I’d run over a dozen times trying to find that one little clue to progress forward as well. Even when I texted Dad for help, he told me to use my Intuition, which I couldn’t actually use just yet. After that, though, the clues are a little more obvious, but I can see people getting a bit frustrated when the first area depends on such a tiny section to continue. I do think that episodic adventure titles are catching on. The game being available on a few platforms will help as well. The artwork used looks great, and the game offers an interesting character and a decent price. I’d like to hope it will do well, despite what I consider hang-ups.
Despite my issues with the mouse and the way the key bindings are set and how they don’t seem to work at all, I really do like this game. It’s a different take on the detective side of adventure games, which I usually don’t go for, despite liking Law & Order, which tacked on having to actually take the cases to trial as well as investigate them. I’m all for incorporating the supernatural side of things into games like this because it is a neat angle, and to see someone who has had this ability all her life still struggling to come to grips with it and tackle getting over certain events in her life really makes the lead seem even more human than she would have normally. It makes her relatable and makes me want to keep playing it.
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Decent
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller provides a solid lead in to a four part episodic series. While there are some technical issues running this on the PC, none of them are game-breaking and won’t lead more to annoyances for some players. It has a neat take on incorporating a supernatural element into a detective adventure story and a very human lead that makes the game very easy to relate to. The case details are interesting and the puzzles a bit more complex but easy to navigate once you figure out what’s needed. Overall, I’d recommend it, and am looking forward to the next installment.
Tags: Cognition, Erica Reed, The Walking Dead