Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Review: Cognition - An Erica Reed Thriller Episode One: The Hangman

 In addition to maintaining The Trollish Delver, I also write for the monthly videogames magazine Thirteen1. The original review can be found in the latest issue.

Platform: PC
Developer: Phoenix Online Studio

Have you managed to recover from taking in that behemoth of a title? From now on, the game will be referred to as Cognition, just to save everyone’s sanity and my fingers, but don’t let the lengthy name put you off. This is indie studio Phoenix Online’s first commercial output, having already worked on The Silver Lining, a spiritual successor to the King’s Quest series; and it’s always refreshing to see a new studio begin with an adventure title, which is something of a rarity these days. But for a commercial debut, Cognition is a good effort that will keep fans of classic adventure games happy and newcomers enthralled in the story.

There’s a reason why Cognition is such a strong game, as the story has had a helping hand from adventure guru Jane Jensen. For a new studio, Phoenix were massively lucky to have Jensen on board with the project and her golden touch really shines through. But she’s not the only big gun the developers have on their side, as the stunning artwork was done by none other than Romano Molenaar, a comic book artist who has worked on big titles like Hellboy, Spider-Man, The Darkness and Conan. Truly these are some formidable allies to have on your game.

So it’s only natural that Cognition has gone for a comic book inspired visual style, with gorgeous 3D cell-shaded graphics layer on top of beautiful background paintings. Speech boxes appear in conversation using a comic style font, making it seem like you’re playing a motion comic rather than a game. The visuals are incredibly effective and one of the game’s strongest assets.

The titular Erica Reed is an FBI agent based in Boston who begins the game tracking down a mystery figure who has taken her brother, Scott. But she ends up being too late, and becomes haunted by her brother’s death. This may sound like generic crime fodder, but Erica has a secret of a supernatural bent: she’s a post-cog - she can see images of past events by studying the aura of objects. The thing is, it becomes apparent that someone knows her secret and Erica must unravel what they want from her and how they know. The whole prologue sets the tone for the game really well, showing that we’re dealing with a mature game with a violent and dark edge to it.

The post cognition power, which is actually one of three powers that Erica has, including projection and regression, presents an interesting game mechanic that turns what could have been a run-of-the-mill detective game into something more layered. All three powers are used effectively in conjunction with puzzles, which are varied and sometimes complex, but still exciting. These powers mean that you’re not just stuck doing repetitive inventory-based puzzles, a pitfall that is so easy for an adventure title to fall into. However, there are some instances where the puzzles are bafflingly strange, such as having to break into Davies’ office as covertly as a rhino sneaking into a pub. Adventure veterans may find most puzzles a little easy for their tastes, but they’re challenging enough to keep you going.

This premiere episode introduces a number of characters, most of which currently lack much depth. John, the useless partner, likes donuts and isn’t particularly helpful; Davies, Erica’s boss, is the typical brash and shouty boss, and Terence is a gadget-adoring nerd who is all about being a gadget-adoring nerd. Maybe future episodes with expand on these characters to make them more three dimensional and, to put it bluntly, interesting.

As stated before, the art in Cognition is astounding. The expertly painted backgrounds drip with dark atmosphere, with creepy shadows, detailed textures and an eerie use of lighting that will make you feel uneasy while playing.

The plot of Cognition actually builds up really well, ending in a climax that will make you wish you could go straight into playing the next installment of the series. While its characters are, for the moment anyway, paper thin and some of the puzzles a bit illogical, the incredible art, decent plot and cognitive powers do make for an interesting and fun adventure thriller. Roll on episode two.


*****