PREVIEW: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is the new adventure game from Phoenix Online Studios, who of course released the King’s Quest-based The Silver Lining. It features the great Jane Jensen as the story consultant and comic book artist Romano Molenaar as both Art Director and lead artist. Cognition also shares the rare opportunity of being a result of a successful Kickstarter drive that completed in early December last year (which I pledged towards!) How does this combination pan out?

Cognition‘s protagonist is Erica Reed (as you may have guessed). A somewhat stubborn FBI agent that has a rather strange ability, dubbed Intuition.

Intuition (and the couple of variations, Regression and Projection) is basically a way to view events from before. Sounds like it’s been done before? Not quite. The way these are implemented is actually quite nice. A bit of a different feature coming from an adventure game. There are a couple of little more interactive segments, such as when using a gun, which certainly take away from the traditional P&C adventure game aspect.

From the very start of Episode 1: The Hangman, you are thrust into the middle of a story involving Erica’s brother and a killer named The Cain Killer. A high-impact start that also acts as a subtle tutorial. The rest of the story manages to build up in intensity, but never reaches the height of that introduction. The rest of the story is fantastic and feels just like a Jane Jensen adventure. The introduction also introduces you to the fact that multiple paths exist and your accidents choices actually matter. This isn’t usually featured in P&C adventure games and feels rather welcome here.

Another big part of P&C adventure games are puzzles. Cognition is lacking in this department (at least this first episode is). There are a couple of small ones early on, and towards the end there are a couple of larger ones. That’s about it. The biggest one is done in the form of interrogation and using the Regression power. This is challenging and fun. Erica’s internal monologue gives you hints at what you should do next, at times. I think I spent about an hour on this part alone. Here’s hoping that the remain episodes feature more use of that feature.

[img_big]center,8608,2012-10-30/fbimainstation_sully02.jpg,Cognition: Episode 1[/img_big]

Cognition fits in the category of 2.5D P&C adventure games. For those who do not know, that means that the player has full 3D movement while the backgrounds remain static, as if they were 2D. In this case the backgrounds are semi-rendered scenes with some 2D art that look wonderful. The art team has done a great job of making the scenes feel gritty, almost as if they were out of a cop drama or dare I say, even a comic book. A great amount of detail has also been added to the scenes.

The character models are also very well done. These are fully rendered with cloth and hair physics. While they are standing still, the look great. Once they start moving the problems begin. 3D animation in adventure games is always a problem and in Cognition, it’s better than normal but a long way from perfect. Lots of strange clipping issues, peculiar walking animations and items not really looking ‘right’ are the main issues. These are all relatively easy to forgive as they tend not to detract from gameplay. Surprisingly, the lip-syncing is really good and spot-on most of the time. The most jarring (and eventually comical) are Erica’s facial expressions. If you like your heroes to bite their lips and roll their eyes every time they get a response, you’re in for a real treat! This does start to occur less over time though. Every other character has rather decent and apt facial expressions so I’m not sure why Erica’s look the silliest.

There are cutscenes in the form of motion comics as well. These are wonderful to look at and convey a great deal of information in a small bursts. From the games I’ve played that utilise this style, Cognition might do it the best.

The sound in Cognition is fairly standard; nothing outstanding but nothing below par either. The voice acting is all right. The voices fit well with the characters and thankfully none of them ever sound cheesy or overworked. The music, composed by Austin Haynes, is very good. It fits the mood well (almost too well during one cutscene) and has a couple of memorable themes. Being a supernatural-themed crime game, there are a lot of dark ominous tones but thankfully these are very well done and musical.

(There is one terrible track though. Just hang around in the FBI lobby for a while and you’ll hear this awful guitar riff. The riff itself isn’t bad, but the guitar tone itself? Just listen…)

Like most point-and-click adventure games, Cognition suffers from usual click inefficiency problems. While not as bad as some, it does occur. The inventory panel can get quite busy after a while. On a 15″ monitor with 1280×800 resolution, the inventory takes up above half the screen at one point.

The most annoying problem I found was during loading, the cursor would turn into a bright blue spinny-thing and remain on screen. Perfectly fine while waiting for moves and other actions, not so during cutscenes and conversations.

[img_big]center,8608,2012-10-30/osmh01.jpg,Cognition: Episode 1[/img_big]

Episode 1: The Hangman is the first episode in a series of four, so the length isn’t too bad. Assuming the rest are about the same length, the whole Cognition series should last about 20 – 22 hours. The first episode leaves you with a slight cliffhanger and a head full of unanswered questions. Currently there is no release date for the next episode but hopefully it’s not too far off.

Besides the few issues, the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is a must-play for fans of P&C adventure games. It explores some new ground while making sure the foundations are steady. If only it had some more puzzles…

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