Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 3 The Oracle (PC)

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 3 The Oracle
Publisher: Reverb Publishing
Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 05/16/2013

The first two episodes of Cognition focused on two cases that seemed to be connected, but individually threw Erica for a loop. The pieces weren’t fitting together, but she thought by the end of Episode 2 she might have an idea who was behind it. They were told in a comic book noir style that had you going around Boston and crime scenes to get things done, but were a little bit slower paced even with what was going on. Episode 3 kicks it up a notch, sticking the whole episode to one location and tying in another new mechanic to Erica’s visions that ends up driving the narrative for the main story, but also who’s responsible for the murder in this episode. It keeps the style but streamlines some of the detective work, and is a really well done episode that leaves you ready for the next. Is it worth buying stand-alone? No. Is it worth it as part of the overall series of four? Yes. Let’s take a look.

This episode starts with Erica’s friend and potential romantic interest lying in a hospital bed as she worries over him. Her father shows up just in the nick of time, as Sully gives her a call telling her not to worry and that he’s looking into a few things in her case. With Erica, that’s basically like telling her she has to go help, so her father stays to look after her friend while she tries to go help Sully. When she arrives where he said he’d be, a privately owned building known as the Towers, she finds the scene is in a bit of disarray. It relates to her case, and there’s a dead body, or was one, but the crime scene has been hastily cleaned up and she’s not being allowed access to the building. There’s a smarmy guy who won’t let you in and is giving your boss orders on how things are being done, which sets off alarm bells for Erica. She sets up distractions to get inside and tracks down where her body was pushed from to get more clues, only to find she has lost control of her powers, or so she thinks.

Cognition - Episode 3 2013-05-16 17-24-29-36Her powers are tied to Cordelia’s now. Where Erica can usually only see the past, Cordelia could see the future, and this becomes key to solving what’s going on for Erica, as the past in the building collides with her investigation. Cordelia has given her run of the building, according to the smarmy guy who wasn’t going to let her in, and happens to be her attorney. Erica tries to piece it all together through flashbacks and feeding Cordelia information from the present to the past to get around different roadblocks to make things happen. It’s a fantastic mechanic that really drives the story of the episode and makes being stuck in one location for the whole thing far more interesting, as you see different events play out and figure out who the killer really is, or so you think. With Erica’s boss, her partner, her former boss, Cordelia, her family and lawyer all involved, sorting it all out turns into the real case, with what started as a murder investigation has tied directly into her bigger cases and moves on to solving who was responsible for her brother’s death as well.

As I mentioned, anything from here on out is far from stand-alone. Events from the previous episodes have been built on and weaved into the over-arching storyline. While they don’t spend as much time fine-tuning your detective skills this go round, more attention is paid to you paying attention in flashbacks and linking different items together, giving you clues but not leading you through the whole game with kid gloves. Even the hints won’t help you piece it all together right away. The detective noir is played up a bit more, as you have to actually use the clues to piece it all together, and when it makes the shift to cutscene and looks like a graphic novel, it doesn’t feel out of place and works well.

Cognition - Episode 3 2013-05-16 17-46-51-16Much like the other episodes, I’ve got mixed feelings with the results visually. Character mouths don’t always sync properly, the cel-shading, while making a valiant effort to mesh with the backgrounds, doesn’t always cut it, and there are some bizarre animation errors with some of the characters where they’d walk through one another or their arms would change size. Most of the time, the look works really well and gives off that comic book or graphic novel feel. When they do switch over to full on art work though the deficiency of the character model really shines through and leaves me wondering if this would have been better off being completely animated in 2D instead of the 3D hybrid we have now. The effect isn’t quite as jarring as it was in the first episode, nor as immersion breaking.

The trend in keeping decent voice actors and delivery continues. While some of the dialogue feels a little cliché, belonging more to the genre than anything else, the voice actors do a good job keeping it in character which helped me move through the game immensely. The music fits as it did before, and none of it really sticks out as being too out there, helping you keep involved when the visuals aren’t sending the right message.

Cognition - Episode 3 2013-05-16 19-29-59-28Control wise, this time around I didn’t even bother with the keyboard and stuck with the mouse for everything. You still set up your keyboard shortcuts and everything when the game first loads, and most adventure titles you can play with just a mouse anyway, so I went with that. You click on objects to interact with them and select options that are available. Your menu and options within the game, like selecting objects in your inventory, are also done with the mouse as well as entering into your Intuition mode to see past events. Honestly, don’t bother with the keyboard because it’s barely functional in this game.

The Intuition is what really sets this apart from other adventure titles set in the same kind of detective noir vein. Erica’s ability to see events that have happened and her visions of the future are a nice tool for discovering new clues and foreshadowing future events. Other than that, your gameplay is typical adventure fair; point and click, 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.

Cognition - Episode 3 2013-05-18 11-16-08-12Episode 3 is a far more linear experience as far as dialogue goes. Most of your options of doing things differently come from the way you play through events and put things together, but overall it changes nothing except how much you have to move around the building. While this eats into replaying and doing it differently, it lends itself to being a bit stronger in the way it tells you the story. It’s a minor complaint really, as I felt the way everything tied together this go round was brilliantly handled and made me want to play through this episode all over again, just to pick up on the subtle clues each of the characters drop that I missed but picked up on later.

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 overall there’s a decent set difficulty to get through. I’ve played through detective stories before, 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 friends, you don’t have to use them and they still require you to work through the problem on your own. In this episode they’ve changed the ebb and flow of the game a bit, placing all of the episode basically in one building while giving you different locations through memories from someone else and letting you access case files from your phone while still keeping that noir and detective feel.

Cognition - Episode 3 2013-05-18 13-03-22-60I was having a great time right up until I hit a wall with one of the puzzles that didn’t involve memories and flipping between Erica and Cordelia.  I’m referring to the puzzle that once I got it, I thought was brilliant, but trying to figure it out was a bit of an exercise in frustration.  Most of the puzzles flow pretty well though, and the game moves along, which makes it a lot of fun to play. One of them could really make your interest come to a crawl for a bit. 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 relate-able and makes me want to keep playing it.
Short Attention Span Summary
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Episode 3 is the best entry so far in the four part episodic series. Most of the issues I had playing the game were minor glitches that are easily overlooked. They’ve taken Erica’s abilities and amped up what they can do this time around, tying things up nicely with what will lead in to the fourth part, leaving the player on a great cliffhanger that is very fitting for how the episode plays out. The over-arching case details prove to be enlightening and driving for the plot, giving the player some much needed backstory for the events that are unfolding and what Erica is involved in. This is the best entry into the Cognition series so far, but is nowhere near stand-alone at this point. You will be entirely lost with what’s going on here if you’re using this as a jumping on point, but it offers a great reason to play the other two entries to get through this one as well. I’m looking forward to the final episode, and if I was on the fence about recommending the series to adventure fans, this episode cleared that all up.



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