Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Genre: Point n’ click adventure
Release Date: 30/01/2013
Cognition: Episode 2 represents the second instalment in the four-part Erica Reed Thriller series. It takes the form of a comic noir inspired point n’ click, which sees you play as the eponymous, red-haired FBI agent as she’s hot on the heels of a serial killer hilariously dubbed ‘The Wise Monkey’ – a name more inclined to make one imagine a terrible superhero than a psychotic murderer. Cognition’s story manages to cram in just about every trope that the booming police procedural genre has managed to produce over the years – the troubled past, the murdered sibling, yada yada yada. The hook of the game centres on Erica’s latent psychic abilities, which allow her to intuit things about characters, objects and events that the normal human eye can’t see. The trouble – where TV is concerned, at least – is that even the ‘psychic crime-solver’ trope has now become a cliché. Considering that TV appears to be Cognition’s primary source of inspiration, this immediately raises concerns. It fast becomes apparent that there is little in this game that hasn’t been previously done to death in book, movie, and especially television form. That’s the trouble with choosing a genre that has such popular appeal (this applies to you too, zombie games!) – whilst the immediate audience for your product may be huge, and the initial sell easy, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide something innovative and to escape the shackles of the genre. However, I have long been of the opinion that the creators of entertainment should not be encouraged to strive only for innovation, newness, uniqueness etc. It seems to me that the current obsession with pushing the boundaries, creating brand new genres etc. is a symptom of our collective 21st Century addiction to stimulation. On the whole, we seem to suffer from a type of entertainment ADD in which only the totally brand-new is appreciated. I think there is still an argument for the fact that you don’t necessarily have to be the first one to do something – rather, you just have to be able to do something well. The question is, does Cognition take the exhausted crime-solving genre and at least do it ‘justice’? (….ahem)
The answer is….well, sort of.
It’s at this point I should probably hold my hands up and admit I didn’t actually ever play the first installment This presents itself as an immediate problem as the game most definitely expects you to have done so. In true TV style, the opening of the game includes a “Previously on….” style recap of the last game. However, being blisteringly fast and unexplained, the snippets shown made absolutely no sense to me. Not only that, but you are then thrown straight into two sections of in-game dialogue in which you are explicitly asked questions about the previous episodes events. This basically amounts to you just choosing random dialogue options because YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT ANYONE IS TALKING ABOUT. This is not good game design. The opening to Cognition: Episode 2 feels like walking into a movie theatre during the second half of a convoluted crime drama – only instead of just allowing you to sit there and try to figure out what’s going on, you are forced to interact with an angry police chief who then berates you for clearly not having the faintest idea what he’s talking about. The number one rule that governs all episodic material, no matter the medium, is that each installment MUST be self-contained. It’s totally fine to build an over-arching structure that is best enjoyed by playing all episodes in order – it’s to be encouraged, in fact – but no player should be punished for being late for the train, as it were. Unfortunately, this game can’t help but bring comparisons on itself with Telltale’s recent (and excellent) Walking Dead series – a comparison in which it doesn’t fare too well at all. That series was also episodic in nature, based on a point n’ click adventure format, and hailing from a genre more tired than a sloth on diazepam. What it did beautifully, however, was make each episode entirely self-contained and yet improved by playing the series as a whole. That doesn’t limit your audience, and doesn’t alienate players for joining the party late. Admittedly, as Cognition moves past the beginning chapter, the importance of playing the first episode diminishes greatly. Still though, it is the opening sequence after all, and those sorts of things stay with players.
The introductory section reveals some of Cognition’s other major flaws, too. After the gorgeously drawn and detailed recap sequence, which is played out in deliciously dark, David Fincher-esque vignettes, the playable introduction to the game comes as a jarring shock. While the character models and backgrounds look pretty fantastic, with their graphic-noir style cel-shaded sheen, the animations are just awful. Peoples mouths rarely sync with their speech, with characters rigidly opening and closing their frozen jaws like Halloween skeletons, while their eyes loll about in their heads like they are suffering from concussion. That’s not to mention the main character’s walk animation, which is frankly absolutely terrible. She has a lurching, lunging, straight-backed stride which is one-part gangster and two-part Monty Python. It completely takes you out of the game, because of instead of focusing on where you need to investigate next, you just walk back and forth going “What on Earth is wrong with that woman’s legs??”. The animation is therefore a fundamental flaw, because much of the game centres around close-up, one-on-one dialogue. I think it’s a flaw of ambition, admittedly – the game has aimed for a complicated style which it can’t faithfully accomplish. Instead, it would have been served much better by opting for an entirely 2D, graphic novel style for the one-on-ones. It executes these beautifully, and it’s a shame to see them eschewed for much of the playable parts because it would have improved the immersion of the game a hundred-fold. The next flaw which becomes apparent early on is the games uneven characterisation and dialogue. While Erica herself seems three-dimensional enough, some of her co-workers are just unbearable clichés. The incoming Police Chief (the last one was murdered, natch) is a cardboard cut-out of the grizzled hardass. In the dressing down you receive in the first segment, he actually tells you to go on vacation because “ you’re too close to this case, dammit!”. I am not making this up. This sort of writing has gone past the point where it’s a funny, ironic thing now, and it just comes across as awful and lazy. Your partner is the cigar-chomping donut-loving Regular Joe cop you’ve seen a thousand times. In-game, Erica even references what a cliché he is, but that doesn’t make the game any cleverer. It’s frustrating, because Phoenix Online shows via Erica that they have the ability to write an interesting and well-rounded character. Her troubled relationships with her past and other characters are handled subtly enough, and the hints as to the nature of her psychic abilities keep you intrigued. So why have they populated the rest of the game with abominable CSI extras?
Writing and animation aside, Cognition is actually a very decent point n’ click gameplay-wise. The interface is unobtrusive and well thought out. I never experienced any of the inventory woes which seems to plague other games of its ilk. Moving through the game world is fluid, and the game makes it clear where you are supposed to go, which objects are interactable etc. I’m not saying it’s spoonfed to you, but there’s none of the pixel-by-pixel searching for the item you need to proceed. The puzzles and conversation tree sections are solid, well thought out and enjoyable. The game manages to avoid the obscure “combine the banana peel with the wastebasket with the kitten” interactions which are the bane of the genre. It’s all pleasantly grounded and common-sense, and there is a cleverly implemented hint system whereby you can text your Dad for help if you get stuck on the case. Once you start to proceed the game opens out a little, and you have to map-travel to different locations (sometimes quite a few) in order to solve puzzles. It keeps things fresh, and you never get the chance to get sick of a location before the game moves you on. It’s paced well, and the twists and turns of the narrative follow that of any other police procedural. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s familiar and well executed. The same can be said for Ericas psychic abilities, called in-game her ‘Intuition’. When activated, it displays a fuzzy blue filter over the gameworld. Key items with which she can interact with telepathically are surrounded by a rolling mist. Most often, her powers take the form of holding on to an object and sensing a snapshot of its recent past. It’s a nice mechanic, and used in some interesting ways. Mostly, I was relieved it was never used as the “Click here to win” button, however. She uses her powers in some other ways too, such as to read other characters hidden memories. It does provide a nice twist to the game, even if it only ever amounts to another investigative option.
Overall, Cognition: Episode 2 is a solid point n’ click adventure, if you can overlook its flaws. I imagine that if you enjoyed the first one and know what to expect, you will find much to please you here. However, the characterisation and writing really detract from the experience, and the terrible animation seriously hampers immersion. Value-wise, you’re looking at about 6-7 hours gameplay here (more if you count the time spent frantically googling the last episodes events so the Chief stops shouting at you). If you love point n’ clicks, then it’s probably just worth a buy – but only if you have already devoured the fantastic Walking Dead and the haunting Kentucky Route Zero first.