"...Cognition is a good start, and at its core, a quality adventure game."
I'm very happy to say that it seems adventure gaming is no longer dead. This year has already seen several good-to-great releases, and thanks to Telltale's The Walking Dead, the genre is more popular than ever. Entering into this (thankfully) growing crowd is Phoenix Online Studios' Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, an episodic point-and-clicker starring the titular Erica Reed. While this isn't the developer's first trip to the races (they're also responsible for the storied King's Quest unofficial "official" sequel, The Silver Lining), this is their first with an entry fee. While the game is uneven technically and certain aspects of the mostly reality-centric plot strain credulity, by and large this is a solid first title from a fledgling developer.
It's often been said (by me, at least) that Telltale is the modern LucasArts; their games capture the story-centric vibe of the classic LucasArts point-and-click titles exceptionally well, even though at times the actual "game" portion takes something of a backseat. If Telltale is LucasArts, then Phoenix Online Studios is positioning itself as Sierra: their game features a greater emphasis on brain-bending puzzles, inventory combinations, and dark happenings, much like the Gabriel Knights and King's Quests of yore. Cognition is a much more gameplay-heavy type of adventure, and indeed, you're getting your money's worth here: depending on how long it takes you to solve some puzzles, you're looking at a solid five to six hour playtime.
Cognition thrusts you into the shoes of FBI agent Erica Reed in the midst of an investigation into a mysterious hanging murder. In the course of trying to sort out the how's and why's, you'll find yourself using your wits, high-tech gadgetry (including one of the most intelligent in-game implementations of a smartphone I've ever seen), and the protagonist's "cognition" ability to answer the age-old question, "whodunnit?" The overall story arc of the first episode is engaging and keeps the player interested, though the episodic nature of the game rears its head in the huge cliffhanger after the brief-but-exciting climax. The only real issue I have with the story is one of plausibility. Erica does some things that are flat-out unbelievable, and I found myself having to suspend disbelief on more than one occasion as item locations and "person being at this location at this time" became a little too
convenient. This type of wackiness was fine in games like King's Quest, which were disconnected from reality and entirely fantastical; Cognition, on the other hand, aims for realism, and this makes it much harder to swallow certain things.
The puzzle design is largely excellent. The vast majority skew much higher on the difficulty scale than what you'll find in most modern adventure titles (and far beyond the "here is one screen with three hotspots" seen in most of Telltale's games). Each puzzle can almost always be solved with a healthy dose of logical thinking, but there are some occasions when you'll roll your eyes with annoyance as the witness you're questioning decides that rather than help you catch his wife's alleged killer, he wants something to eat. Oh, but not that – that's too heavy. He just wants a snack. However, once you get past his initial belligerence, you're faced with one of the best puzzles in the episode. It's frustrating, but it eventually gives way to satisfaction.
Erica's cognition ability comes into play often and it's fairly well-executed. Through projection, regression, and cognition, she can view events and objects in the past and dive into people's memories to learn more about them. It can occasionally be irritating, though, when you have very little inkling of whether or not you've progressed far enough into the game and have the right items to successfully execute the power – a little more context and feedback regarding how and when to use Erica's abilities would go a long way towards user-friendliness in future episodes.
The interface works well; clicking on an object in the environment opens a context menu where you can choose to look at, manipulate, or use an item on that object. Your cell phone, which serves a number of functions (including a clever hint system that involves Erica texting her veteran agent father for advice), is easy to navigate, and the inventory menu makes it very clear which items can be combined and manipulated beyond the surface level. Unfortunately, once you start trying to navigate and move around in game, things begin to deteriorate. Erica moves erratically, and, on a number of occasions, she got stuck on the environment, got stuck in a certain frame of animation, or simply stood around doing nothing while the "loading" cursor sat onscreen. Fortunately, none of these bugs broke the game completely, but they definitely contributed to what is undoubtedly an uneven presentation.
Speaking of presentation – Cognition is a textbook example of a game whose artistic merits outpace its technical ones. Simply put, the game feels wonky. Numerous actions take far too long to complete, characters animate awkwardly, and strange facial expressions rob dramatic scenes of their weight. The writing itself is good, and the voices of the main characters are generally solid. Unfortunately, there's some ham-fisted delivery from several of the side characters – and man, does the quality of those Boston accents vary wildly. On the other hand, the music is universally stellar: Austin Haynes has outdone his work on The Silver Lining here, and Cognition's soundtrack is lavishly produced and full of haunting melodies and memorable themes. A great deal of the dramatic weight in the story is shouldered by Haynes' score, and it handles the burden with gusto.
The background art is gorgeous and gives each area a real sense of place, and since the art is drawn at the same level of detail as the cutscenes, there's great consistency when transitioning from gameplay to cinematics. Unfortunately, the character models stick out worse than a sore thumb. They're detailed, but they animate poorly – especially during dialogue scenes. Fortunately, the vast majority of the game (including most inventory item closeups and zoomed-in scenes) is comprised of the hand-drawn artwork, so the quality design manages to shine through.
The passion of the developers for their work is evident in every facet of the game, and there's a strong foundation here. The puzzles are far more detailed than what you'd see in similar games, and, with a few exceptions, they can be solved with only the magic of clear thought. The art and music are also inspired and make a strong case for the game. Some of the game's technical aspects aren't quite as well-tuned, though, and the unevenness does hurt the experience. Ultimately, Cognition is a good start, and at its core, a quality adventure game. If the folks at Phoenix Online Studios can iron out the technical kinks and uneven presentation, this series will be a sure winner.