Indie developer Phoenix Online Studios first came to notoriety through their King’s Quest inspired and free-to-play adventure game, The Silver Lining. Their debut commercial release, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, takes a notable turn from the genre’s characteristic PG-rated traditions. It’s a gritty point-and-click adventure spanning four episodes of murder and mystery.
One of the best things about a point-and-click adventure is the gameplay learning curve isn’t very steep. It’s typically very easy to get started without much hand-holding, and Cognition is no different in this respect. However, the game does have its own style and can take a little getting used to for avid adventure gamers. Erica Reed, the lead character, has “post-cognition” abilities that allow her to see the past of an object she focuses on. This ability introduces an additional and reoccurring puzzle dynamic to the game.
Unlike a lot of other games in the genre, which have a very defined set of circumstances, the lead character’s choices in Cognition can have a varying impact on the outcome. In some cases, you make the wrong choice and it’s game over. In most instances, your decisions will branch the game off into a story line based on your actions. Overall, gameplay is solid and the importance placed upon the player’s choices adds a great dynamic.
As earlier noted, Cognition takes a decidedly more adult approach to story telling than what is typical of the genre. With the limited gameplay mechanics employable in a point-and-click adventure game, story tends to take the front seat. Clearly recognizing this, Phoenix Online Studios brought on adventure game luminary Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight, King’s Quest) as a story consultant.
Cognition is a paranormal thriller that follows the life of Erica Reed, an FBI agent caught up in the unsolved case of the serial killer who took her brother’s life. Her ability to see an object’s past with her touch helps her unravel cases while adding an additional air of mystery to the game’s plot. Episode one, The Hangman, takes place three years after the murder of Erica’s brother Scott. FBI Director Madison Davies officially labels the murder as a cold case. Erica and her partner, John McCoy, are assigned to the case of a hanging murder. The player follows Erica as she learns to develop and control her post-cognition abilities in order to help solve the mystery. While the story and characters are strong points of the game, the dialogue can be a bit cliché and cheesy at times.
The art style of Cognition is unique and works well on some levels, but is held back slightly by the lackluster animation and character design. The cut scenes feature excellent 2D artwork, reminiscent of acrylic painted comic books, in which layers are animated to give life to the still art. The in-game backgrounds are painted like the cut scenes and the characters are cel shaded. While the cel shading style works well, the characters’ faces and expressions are a bit awkward. The character animations also tend to be a bit wooden and marionette-like.
An excellent soundtrack and quality voice acting round out the game’s finer points. The music is driving and moody, and it sets the tone for a more mature adventure. It’s a powerful soundtrack that blends piano, guitar, percussion, and synthesizer based orchestral strings, choir and other electronic elements. Cognition’s music is the perfect compliment to the game, adding to its suspense, somberness, and overall darker feel. Though the dialogue isn’t always strong, the voice cast does an excellent job of delivering their lines. They fit their roles well and add to the polished feel of the game.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, Episode One, The Hangman is both a mouthful and a well done, mature point-and-click adventure game. Not without its flaws, it’s a sincere title that respects the genre while adding its own stamp to it. With its thoughtful gameplay, quality story telling, unique art style, and moody soundtrack, Cognition successfully immerses the player into the gritty world of Erica Reed. Adventure gamers who have been pining for a game reminiscent of the feel and tone of Gabriel Knight will certainly appreciate Cognition.