Because some genres aren't as trendy as they used to, because not every game out there is AAA and because the indie scene is quite active we’ve decided to talk about Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The first episode of this point and click has just been released (with three more to come from this first season) and it could vey well hold your attention with its particularly good atmosphere. Much like Telltale and their Walking Dead game, the developers of Phoenix Online Studios present an interesting story delivered in episodic form. To find out what we think about the first part of Erica Reed's adventures, you know what to do. Note: I'd like to thank my good friend William, who took the time to check my translation. :)
Different Shades of Gray
What do Cognition and Jane Jensen's latest game have in common? Well, to begin with the writer and game designer of the Gabriel Knight series accepted to be the story consultant for Cognition and to help Phoenix Online Studios make sure their plot was solid. After all, when you decide to develop an adventure game, it's not a bad move to ask one of the best authors in the genre to supervise your work. That being said the scenario was not written by Jensen herself, but it is nonetheless a guarantee of quality. Indeed, Gray Matter – Jensen's latest title to date – really was a great game with mature writing and a hypnotizing atmosphere, which is basically why we liked it back when it was released. Another similarity with DTP entertainment's game is Raleigh Holmes, a name you may not be familiar with. Or so you think.
This young woman and her band, The Scarlet Furies, composed the soundtrack for Gray Matter. The fact that her name is associated with Jane Jensen once again is obviously not a coincidence. Daughter of Robert Holmes (responsible for the soundtrack of the Gabriel Knight series) who himself is married to Jane Jensen; the least we can say is that point and click games and music really run in the family. Phoenix Online Studios didn't turn to her for her musical abilities, though. This time her role was to voice Erica Reed – the main character. She also participated in Cognition's theme song The Taking. Now OK, Jensen's husband's daughter taking the leading role; some might think that’s a little too close to home, but Holmes delivers a very good performance, even better than some of the other actors/actresses of the game. The good voice acting even helps you forget about the lack of facial animations (but I'll say more about that in a bit).
Reed between the enemy lines
After playing explosive titles such as Halo 4, Need for Speed Most Wanted or even Medal of Honor, discovering Cognition was a somehow soothing and relaxing experience. With its old school adventure pace, this episode proposes a slow descent into a very atmospheric universe in sharp contrast with the over the top aspect of most games today. The story starts in medias res, Erica chasing a serial killer with her partner, John; a case that suddenly got personal when the man decided to kidnap her brother. With no time to lose the prologue is set in a situation of total emergency and things do not look good. To find out how it turns out, you can either check our videos or simply purchase the game and see for yourself. This short introduction will allow you to familiarise yourself with the typical point and click controls, the clever help system that requires you to text Erica's dad and with the game's post-cognition feature. Like much of Jensen's games, there is indeed a fantastic element in Phoenix Online Studios' first title: Erica can see past events in the visions she has.
This power comes in handy when retracing past events related to a crime and finding the clues that will help you solve the case. Some will probably say it's a clever way to assist the player, but, as your power grows, you will see that the puzzles based on it get more and more interesting. Moreover, every time Erica uses her ability she is haunted by macabre visions of what seems to be her future. The plot and gameplay mechanics revolve around her post-cognitive power, as Erica has to learn to master it and understand where it comes from. Because she's an FBI agent, she soon becomes involved in a new investigation after the police discover the body of a hanged man whose fingerprints have been erased. The game is obviously based on point and click gameplay mechanics, with puzzles and interactions with the other characters, such as Terrence the forensic lab geek, or Gallagher the forensic surgeon of the team. What's interesting is that, much like in The Walking Dead, the choices – or the mistakes – you make will have consequences in the rest of the story. Some will be minor, some might be more important.
Even more so than in Gray Matter the puzzles are totally logical, which means you are never looking for the dead bird you found in the victim's refrigerator to combine with gum and a pen in order to create the necessary tool to crack a safe. That being said, it is also true that some puzzles are not particularly credible either, such as when Erica has to sneak into her boss' office in front of the whole department. Should you get stuck anyway, hints are always just a text message away thanks to Erica's dad, and though they are sometimes a bit misleading we think it's a nice idea. Another welcome feature is the speed that you can write down notes in-game using Erica's cell phone – a good way to avoid some backtracking when you forget something. It is also possible to make all the interactive elements appear so you don't need to go on a frustrating pixel hunt. All the rest is pretty standard and works well, which is yet another proof that the genre can still be interesting to play these days.
Just like we said earlier, Cognition's voice acting is pretty solid overall and perfectly in keeping with the mature tone of the story. Some secondary characters are maybe a bit less convincing than the main protagonist, but the multiple dialogues in the game never suffer as a result. Although the plot revolves around very dark events there is some comic relief in the form of some of Erica's encounters. Nothing like what can be found in Monkey Island, of course; otherwise they would have had a hard time calling it a thriller. Because Erica is an endearing character there is really an incentive to keep playing to find out what is going to happen next. Phoenix Online Studios decided to mix 2D (for the background environments) and 3D (characters and some other elements at times) and they've done it quite well, though not everything is perfect. The facial expressions are lacking and, in a game where there is so much dialogue, this is a bit of a disappointment. Just imagine what the game could have been like if they had used performance capture. On the other hand, the decision to make 2D comic book style cut-scenes is a definite win.
The game's environments show a solid artistic direction, with some of them looking like real paintings. The downside is that, as is usually the case in point and clicks, the scenery is too static, lacking in background animations to make the game livelier. Some of the landscapes are still very atmospheric but it would have been nice to see a bit more life in each of them – although, perhaps not in the cemetery. Such choice may also be explained by the fact that Cognition was also thought to run on a great range of computers, so they probably couldn't afford to add too many details. There is also no denying that the absence of animations in the game’s environments participates in the title's particular atmosphere; an atmosphere supported by Austin Haynes' excellent soundtrack, by the way. He was already responsible for the music of The Silver Lining, Phoenix Online Studios' first free project (a tribute to the King's Quest series). Because of that, we tend to be more forgiving when it comes to the few bugs we encountered, and the sometimes awkward integration of 3D objects and 2D backgrounds. There are also times when you have to wait until the character accepts to obey your command because the game is still loading. Talking about loading issues, it's also odd that they decided to use a circular cursor, reminiscent of Windows 7's, as it sometimes feels like you're working on your desktop instead of playing a video game.
With its 5 to 6 hours of playthrough, the first episode of Cognition is quite an engaging preamble. The writing being mature and the main character endearing, it really makes you want to see how it ends up, even though some slower sequences might not be to everyone's liking. The final cliff-hanger of this first part should leave you asking for more, but if you would like to try the game yourself before making any decision, just check out Cognition's official website. Finally, if you wish to see the game on Steam one day, you can support it by voting for it on Steam Greenlight.