"...its rough spots were pretty easy for me to overlook in light of the excellent puzzle-solving gameplay."
Cognition is the latest (and first commercial) title from the minds at Phoenix Online Studios. These are the folks responsible for The Silver Lining, an episodic follow-up to the classic Sierra King's Quest titles. While we've seen four free episodes in that series, Cognition is Phoenix's first foray into all-original material. Aside from the core team at Phoenix, the game also has a number of veterans attached to it – adventure gaming legend Jane Jensen provided story consultation, and Romano Molenaar (a comic artist with such credits as Batman, Witchblade, and the X-Men under his belt) served as art director. Austin Haynes, who wrote the music for TSL, brings his experience to the table as well, though the style of sound is markedly different from his previous work.
I had a chance to sit down with a preview build of the game, and made my way through the prologue and an early-game crime scene. The series is broken up into episodes; each one focuses on a different serial killer, with an overarching plot revolving around series protagonist Erica Reed and her efforts to tie everything together. Much like Telltale's various titles, Cognition is available both as individual episodes, or as a season (and, as per the usual, grabbing the season pass will save you a couple bucks along the way).
The first thing that grabbed my attention in-game was the excellent, comic-inspired visual design. Environments and cutscenes are foreboding and packed with detail, and their stylization really gives you a sense that you're reading through a dark crime graphic novel. Trees in the distance are rendered as simple swatches of paint, while things that are more in focus have a sharper, defined look. The character models aren't bad, but they do tend to stick out a bit with the lush background art. There's a kind of cel-shading in play here, and it does help a bit, but overall it seems like there's a bit of inconsistency. Unfortunately, the animation in the sections I played through was also a bit rough: it's serviceable, but definitely looks a bit clunky. Close-ups involving a lot of complex facial expressions are a little goofy as well; I got the sense that the team was running up against the limitations of the game engine here. If you've played the Back to the Future games by Telltale, you'll be on the right track with what to expect in terms of animation.
What I've heard of Austin Haynes' score is excellent. It's dark and full of somber piano cues, and suits the film noir style of the proceedings quite well. I haven't had a chance to dig too far into my review copy of the game yet, but it seems like this is one area that definitely won't disappoint. Additionally, the main theme of the game, which was released months ago, is a memorable mood-setter whose melody is distinct and moving.
Not to overuse the comparison, but while I've enjoyed Telltale's games (and the resurgence in popularity they've helped adventure gaming achieve), I've always found that they put their focus squarely on narrative, and at times the actual "game" aspects are a bit weak. I was quite pleased, then, with what I've played of Cognition so far. The scope of the adventuring seems a bit wider and more akin to the King's Quests and Gabriel Knights of yesteryear, and the puzzle solving seems more involved. I was even able to make use of the in-game note-taking feature (cleverly disguised as a cell-phone note app) for a puzzle that involved figuring out the order in which I had to undertake a series of actions to spring a trap.
Unlike some of the classic titles, though, all of the puzzles I solved were quite logical and made sense; they were well-designed and not at all obtuse. You won't be using the hammer to catch the bird to use on the ice cube to unlock the door across town here; at least so far. Additionally, the game has made good use of the titular "cognition" ability, which allows Erica to relive events from the past when presented with a trigger in the environment. This lets her see how a killer has set up a trap, for example, and can provide valuable context on how to disable it.
The interface works very well; Erica's inventory is tucked away on the far right of the screen and allows for you to manipulate, look at, and combine objects with ease (though none of this was particularly necessary during the early sections of the game). Clicking on interactive things in the environment brings up a context menu that includes look, talk, manipulate, and "use item" actions where relevant. I liked this setup, as it allowed me to have the range of actions available in my favorite old-school adventure games without necessitating several different kinds of cursors or having me click all over the place. Lastly, Erica's cognition ability is activated by clicking a button in the corner of the screen, which highlights applicable objects. It sometimes feels like it requires a few too many clicks, but other than that it was easy enough to work with.
One area of the game that I found to be a bit hit or miss was the voice acting. Erica's voice actress, Raleigh Holmes, does a great job providing her character with nuance and urgency while Erica's partner John, the stereotypical jaded New York investigator, feels a bit hamfisted at times, but is generally competent. Once you branch off from the main characters, however, things get a tad inconsistent. Some of them are great, but others are just plain bad. Fortunately, what I experienced of the game's writing was excellent and helped keep me engaged in spite of the somewhat lopsided delivery.
I'm excited to spend some more time with Cognition – its rough spots were pretty easy for me to overlook in light of the excellent puzzle-solving gameplay. The story has a dark vibe very reminiscent of Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, and Erica seems like a complex and interesting character that I'm eager to learn more about. We'll have a full review of the game in time for release, so be sure to check back for my complete thoughts on the whole episode.