Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman
There is a plethora of detectives out there to choose from: you can find a sleuth to your liking of every gender, race, nationality, age and hair colour. FBI agents are also quite popular in the pop culture, gaming included, just to mention fearless Nicole Bonnet from Art of Murder series or Victoria McPherson from Still Life. However, if we want to limit our list only to people endowed with paranormal abilities, suddenly we have a hero shortage. Erica Reed, the heroine of episodic adventure game called Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, which was made by the debuting Phoenix Online Studios, steps in to fill the niche. Will she remain in the hearts of gamers or will she be forgotten instantly? Only time can tell. But for now let’s take a closer look at the first episode of the game titled The Hangman.
We meet our protagonist in rather dire circumstances – along with her partner, John, she rushes to one of the cemeteries of Boston to save her brother from the evil grasp of a serial killer called “Cain”. The heroine is getting more and more desperate with each passing second and there isn’t a sacrifice she wouldn’t make to get Scott back, but all her efforts are in vain and the whole escapade ends in a tragedy. The action moves three years forward. The encounter with Cain still haunts Erica, but life doesn’t allow her to dwell on the past too long. Another gruesome case demands her full attention: a hanged corpse has been discovered in one of the decrepit buildings. It seems though that the titular hangman didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered in a cruel way. Erica’s paranormal visions seem to back up this theory. What’s more, she starts to receive anonymous messages regarding some of the seemingly solved cases where the author hints that there’s more to them than meets the eye. Who sends those messages? What is the identity of the hangman and why did he have to die? How come Erica has paranormal abilities? And finally: what really happened to Cain? We can multiply questions to infinity .
Unfortunately, we won’t hear the answer to most of them (yet?). The Hangman is just a prologue to the whole tale, which will be spread out over four episodes. So far, the game made a really positive impression on me. It’s true that the main premise of the story is overall not blessed with originality, but since it touches upon supernatural elements that gives it some shades of novelty. I only hope that the developers won’t overdo the paranormal side of the game (yes, Fahrenheit, no use hiding, I’m talking about you). Here lies the problem with the game: the plot is still a great unknown and we have no idea in which direction it will go. The first episode ends on a really strong note and I’m really concerned whether the rest of the instalments will maintain the tension. I’m also afraid that the Phoenix Online Studios have already showed what they have in stock when it comes to Erica’s abilities. During those five-six hours we’ll spend in the game, our protagonist gains access to three special mind tricks. Do developers have some other prepared? If yes, won’t there be too much? If not, why did they have to present everything in the first episode? Too many ifs. I guess we have no other choice but to wait for the rest of the game. No sense in speculating now.
Erica is quite an interesting and full-blooded character, but unfortunately we cannot say the same about the rest of the cast. While Ms Reed shows some kind of emotional depth and she has her motivations, reflections and moments of doubt, most NPCs are rather paper thin and stereotypical. Occasionally even obnoxious, for instance John – epitome of a fat, useless cop, who only gulps down donuts – irked me throughout most of the game. This blandness of supportive characters is quite surprising, especially that Jane Jensen, famous for the Gabriel Knight series or Gray Matter, is the co-author of the game’s script and her productions were always filled to the brim with colourful individuals in the background. Oh well, let’s hope that the cast will show some actual personality in the further episodes, because so far we don’t care about them one bit.
Like befits a point’n’click game, we won’t have any problems with handling Cognition. When we click on the hotspot, a special menu unfolds where we can chose one of the three options: look at something in more detail, interact/converse or use the previously chosen item from our inventory. To get access to our backpack we have to point at the square in the right corner of the screen. Then the sidebar opens where we can not only examine the gathered junk or single out one item, but also try and combine the gathered stuff to create new objects. Space bar allows us to highlight the hotspots when we have trouble with finding them ourselves. The game has generally a very interesting hint system, which was skilfully implemented into the gameplay. Each time we get stuck we might send a text to Erica’s father, who will always have some sort of advice for us that helps getting our investigation on track again. The phone is our friend also when we want to jot down notes or listen to music.
Most of the puzzles we encounter – surprise, surprise – are based upon our inventory and demand using right items in the appropriate place and way. Usually the combinations are rather logical, so we won’t end up with the brain overload. Cognition has one conundrum where time is crucial. If we won’t be quick enough or we’ll make a mistake, then we’re going to die, simple as that. Game over, so long, and thanks for all the fish. Still, we can reply the scene till kingdom come, so failure is not overly painful. I’m usually fervently against time puzzles in adventure games, but here it’s not exceptionally annoying, so I let it slide. I won’t be complaining about the difficulty level as well. With a little bit of patience it’s possible to solve every puzzle that stands in our way. I can grumble about the credibility of some of the challenges, though. I find it really hard to believe that Erica could just break into her boss’s office with half of the department watching her or that a homeless guy voluntarily brought in for questioning would be picky as to the food we were offering him, causing us to ran around the city and collect various snacks. Such illogicalities really shatter the immersion, because the game tries to be very serious and realistic, despite the supernatural elements.
Those supernatural elements are what distinguishes Cognition from other detective productions. At the beginning of her journey Erica has a special power that enables her to see scenes from the past when she touches certain objects. With time her paranormal arsenal expands with two more skills: projection and regression. To use our psychic powers we need to click on the bulb in the left corner. The screen becomes misty and the hotspots that include some visions to be retrieved start to glow. We just need to click on a given object and then once again on the bulb to confirm our choice and voilà! The past won’t hold any secrets from us anymore. Using paranormal tricks is really satisfying and I don’t need to explain how much does it help with our police work. However, hocus-pocus is not an answer to everything and we don’t suddenly switch from an FBI agent into a medium. The good, old evidence gathering and long conversations with the people we encounter fortunately prevail.
Paranormal undertones are not the only thing that separates Cognition from other productions. Another distinctive feature is characteristic graphics. The game looks like an animated comic. This impression is strengthened by great backgrounds and the font used in conversations which seem taken straight from some graphic novel. 3D models of characters were rendered using fashionable cel-shading. I’m not sure if that was a good move or not, because the people look ugly, especially when they’re trying to express some emotions. Animation itself also could have been better – Erica runs as if with every step she wanted to break the record in the long jump. The game is not free of some glitches, like for instance objects merging into one another: the detective goes through the tape instead of ducking under it. During one of the conversations Erica’s eyes had become brown all over (pupils and whites included), which looked quite creepy. When it comes to annoying things we can name also really long loading times while changing locations and the fact that the characters are occasionally rather reluctant to follow our orders – it takes Erica a few seconds of staring blankly straight ahead before she graciously sits in front of the computer. It doesn’t happen every time, but often enough to be bothersome.
I can’t say anything bad about the music, though. It’s sufficiently dark and grim when the situation requires it, and when the mood is lighter, it still creates a great atmosphere. Actually, it’s one of the best elements in the game. And if while playing Gray Matter you’ve developed a liking towards The Scarlet Furies songs, there’s a good news for you: they’re here too! Voice-acting is fine, but apart from the protagonist, no one is really memorable.
The first episode of Cognition really sharpened my appetite for the rest of the story, but also evoked some fears. How the game really turns out we’ll be able to see only after the whole thing is released. But even after only one part we can state that Cognition is an intriguing crime story where supernatural elements are mixed with the traditional FBI investigation and many satisfying puzzles. I can’t wait to play the rest of the game and crack the mystery of Cain.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
+ interesting premise of the story
+ Erica’s paranormal abilities
+ great soundtrack
+ beautiful backgrounds
– some of the puzzles feel forced
– issues with the graphics
– bland supporting cast with unremarkable voices