"The moments it took me to solve the episode's final puzzle were filled with an escalating sense of disbelief and the realization that I was one hundred percent onboard with the story and totally caught up in the drama."
There was a little over two months between the release of episode 1 and 2 of Phoenix Online Studios' Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. While I found both episodes to have a great artistic basis, they were unquestionably rough and showed room for improvement. The team took a little more time between episodes 2 and 3, and I'm happy to report that they put that time to good use. Cognition's penultimate episode is the best yet, and makes the strongest argument so far for the creative talent of the team behind it. There are still a few technical hiccups here and there, but by and large this adventure has become an exciting story worth experiencing.
Episode 3: The Oracle makes an interesting narrative choice to set the adventure in the smallest physical space yet: the entire episode takes place within the confines of an apartment building and its upper-crust penthouse. However, this helps seriously tighten the pace, and the addition of a second playable character adds considerable depth to the puzzles. Thanks to a particular wrinkle in the plot, Erica and the second character (who inhabits the penthouse at an earlier point in history) are able to exchange information with one another, which is necessary to solve puzzles on both ends. The pacing is brisk, and nearly the entire episode brings with it revelations and answers to questions that have been bubbling since the first episode. The final thirty minutes of the game have a sense of urgency that is utterly lacking from nearly all adventure games of this type and is a testament to the excellent pacing and writing on display.
Key characters are all voiced adeptly, and I've really grown to enjoy the performance of Erica's actress, Raleigh Holmes. Some other performances are a bit rougher, particularly a rookie cop whose voice continually sounds way too goofy for the lines he's delivering, but these characters take up such a small portion of the total play-time that it's not an especially big deal. Austin Haynes' music, however, is a big deal. While the game's gorgeous hand-drawn background art and cutscenes still clash with the relatively ugly and oddly animated character models, Haynes' score is consistently stellar from start to finish and contributes a great deal to the dramatic tension in most scenes. I found myself replaying several key scenes from the finale just to hear certain tracks again, and along with the sharp writing, I was totally absorbed. The moments it took me to solve the episode's final puzzle were filled with an escalating sense of disbelief and the realization that I was one hundred percent on board with the story and totally caught up in the drama.
A few story beats still necessitated a little suspension of disbelief (Erica is apparently an incredibly
gifted pickpocket), and there are still some technical issues like the occasional glitched cutscene or character model. However, these issues were much more frustrating and plentiful in earlier episodes. Thanks to the fantastic puzzle design, great writing, awesome music, and outstanding sense of pace that Phoenix has brought to the table in The Oracle, I was much more willing to see the forest rather than the trees. The Oracle has shown me that Phoenix Online is in it to win it, and is working to make this series something special. Therefore, I feel no compunction whatsoever in recommending it to any discerning adventure fan.