Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Date: March 2014

Release Year: 2012-2013, Developer: Phoenix Online, Publisher: Reverb Publishing, PAGODA Link

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A supernatural thriller that takes place in Boston? The story supervised by Jane Jensen? The protagonist voiced by Raleigh Holmes? Alright, there are thousands of reasons for me to love this game without even playing it. And actually that is the main reason why I didn’t play this game when it first came out. My expectations were so high that I was really afraid of being disappointed. Well that, and also I am not a big fan of episodically structured games. Anyway, after roaming through all four episodes of the first season, I am very happy to say that I am far from being disappointed. Cognition has its share of technical issues; however, the story, narrative and the main character are so good that the game ends up being one of the most interesting and well-grounded one released in years.

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The events unfold from the eyes of the protagonist Erica Reed, who is an FBI Detective in Boston. She specializes in murder cases. After losing her brother to a serial killer who targets siblings, she takes a vow to bring the killer to justice. Almost two years after the killer’s trail goes cold, she finally discovers a connection to her brother’s case with another recent murder case that seems unrelated at the first look.

Alright, up to this point the story doesn’t look like anything special, right? Ah, I forgot to mention that Erica possesses supernatural powers. She has a ‘pre-cognition’ skill (hence the title of the game) that allows her to touch the objects around her and see their past. For example she can touch a table and see who touched that table before or what was sitting on that table. Even better, she can touch a corpse and have a vision about the identity of the killer. Sounds like the perfect skill for a homicide detective right? Well of course it doesn’t work all the time, the visions are usually heavily obscured and always lead to more questions than answer.

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Before going on the details of the gameplay, I really want to talk about Erica Reed. Female protagonists are somewhat typical in adventure games, they are usually strong and independent women with some highly developed problem solving skills (Kate Walker form Syberia, April Ryan from The Longest Journey etc.) Erica shares some common features with these heroines; she is also very charismatic, dominant and also an excellent puzzle solver. What makes her kinda special is that she also has a very deep emotional side. Throughout the game she goes through several mood changes, ranging from angry to depressed, flirty and melancholic. These character traits give us a break from the stereotypical “strong and independent female lead ” and help us to to connect with her on a more personal level.

I don’t know the extent of the involvement of Jane Jensen within the story, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she helped Erica develop into a multi-dimensional character. All of Jensen’s protagonists are like that, and it is one of the many reasons why her games rule so much. Also I have to emphasize that Raleigh Holmes (Jane’s stepdaughter and also the singer of the theme song of the game) does an outstanding job as the voice of Erica. I always knew that she was a fantastic singer but I wouldn’t guess that her acting skills were this strong. Especially at the end of each episode, where Erica goes through a sequence of emotionally challenging situations, you can really feel the frustration and desperation in her voice. Simply amazing…

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I think it would be fair to say that apart from the main character and the audio department (on which I have more to say later in the review), the story is the strongest aspect of the game. It starts as a fairly standard supernatural thriller, but quickly branches into a lot of side-stories that merge together in the end and keep you captivated from the start to end.

In fact, story-wise this is definitely one of the richest and most complex games I have played lately. By episode 3, the amount of side-stories and characters got so overwhelming I ended up taking notes to keep track of everything. That is not to say that the story is not well organized. Although the game is episodic in nature, everything ties together so neatly in the end. Kudos to the writers for pulling off a great ending in the final episode.

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Another appealing thing about the story is how well the adult based themes are integrated into the plot. The story involves serial killers, family ties, sexuality, torture, greed and so on.. One would think that these elements were incorporated to the story to increase the marketing value, however this is far from being true. Each one of these elements adds another dimension to the story, and makes the plot much more interesting and diverse.

The game’s use of psychological elements is also brilliant. Almost all (if not all) characters suffer from mild to severe psychological conditions. Some have lost a person very dear to them, some have an unstoppable urge to kill and some are just plain crazy. Their motivations are usually linked to a traumatic event in their past, and revelation of these events and their integration into the main storyline is very impressive. I think the writers have read/watched a lot psychological thrillers and have a very good understanding of what works and doesn’t work in a story driven by psychological elements.

Having said that, the quality of dialogues in the game range from good to laughable. Most of the key dialogue is well written, however some of the everyday dialogue sound really forced and borderline-silly. Well I guess you can not have everything, right?

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Let’s talk about the gameplay a bit. The game plays like a standard icon adventure, with the additional twist of supernatural puzzles. Unfortunately, most of the non-supernatural puzzles, which involve a fairly standard use of inventory manipulation, are not that interesting at all. Actually some of them, such as the ones that involve a lot of strolling throughout the game world, are quite dreadful.

Fortunately, game’s supernatural puzzles make up for that. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Erica has a set of supernatural powers and she gains even more as the story progresses. For instance, she learns how to enter into people’s memories to figure out a piece of information they can’t remember. Believe me, it is even cooler than it sounds! These supernatural puzzles are a definitely a unique touch and although they are not terribly difficult, they offer a fresh and interesting challenge to the player.

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In terms of visuals, I liked the overall comics-style approach. However, I am really tired of seeing these slide-show style cutscenes. For me, they kill the overall cinematic ambiance. Gray Matter had this too and I didn’t liked it there either. I am guessing that this is a budget issue, since Phoenix Online is an independent studio. If it is a stylistic preference rather than financial, I really hope they stop doing this in their future games.

The game is simply awesome in the audio department. The main theme song (“The Taking” by Scarlet Furies) got stuck in my head for days. I can’t thank Raleigh and Robert Holmes enough for this amazing song, I loved it! The game also features some of the best in-game music I have heard in a while. Being a musician myself, I was surprised and impressed by the quality of the melodies, textures and arrangements. I found myself stopping playing and simply listening to the background music at some points.

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Well up to now, I have praised the game a lot, but there is one ugly thing that really killed me. Bugs!! There are tons of them, varying from characters running into walls to crashes/freezes in the middle of the game. They are not uncommon at all, I have experienced them at least once in all my sessions. At first, I thought it was my computer, but it seems like everyone on the internet also complains about these graphical glitches. I guess that the game was not tested well enough before the release. I have no other explanation.

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The Cognition is definitely one of the better things that happened to adventure games in the last 2-3 years or so. It made me realize how much I missed a game with adult themes, dark narrative and original puzzles. On top of that, it also offers a fantastic audio work, in both voice-overs and game music. Cognition is the start of a very promising series and I am looking forward to see more of Erica Reed in the future.

The Good: Well developed story with a nice touch of psychological elements, awesome supernatural puzzles, Interesting lead character, Raleigh Holmes, impressive soundtrack

The Bad: Inventory puzzles are not very well designed, the cutscenes are not visually interesting, some dialogue is really silly

The Ugly: Tons of graphical glitches

Score: 8.5/10

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