Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller PC Review
Exiting my childhood state of playing everything with a ninja, werewolf, robot or Ninja Turtle in it, my first real video game love affair was with point-and-click adventure games on the Amiga. I had the dubious pleasure of playing Beneath a Steel Sky as my first, shining example of the genre – dubious because it set a high bar for video game writing, drama and subject matter.
I loved the Monkey Island games, but their light-hearted, comedic spirit deliberately sidestepped the gravitas on offer in Revolution Software’s 1994 classic. It wasn’t until I played 1993’s Gabriel Knight that I experienced that feeling again, and it cemented the notion in my mind that in terms of traditional storytelling, adventure games are possibly the most capable genre. This is largely due to their nature of being defined by context, rather than having context defined by their nature.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is, unsurprisingly, about an FBI agent named Erica Reed, who discovers that she has psychic powers of cognition – specifically the ability to see events that have transpired. These psychic powers manifest not only in ways to tell the story, but also in providing the game with mechanics that don’t boil down to “use stick on water” – a much cited trope of the genre, illustrating the sometimes reality-breaking nature of adventure game puzzles.
In practical terms, you click on an icon called the “cognition sphere” which makes pertinent areas – parts of the environment, objects or characters, glow. By clicking on the desired subject and then clicking the sphere again, you trigger one of Erica’s powers. Some involve the inventory, where you select related items to uncover their connection. Some have multiple steps to them, like “regression” – a memory recovery power which brings people’s surpressed memories to the surface. You “repair” fragments and images in their mind by correcting the colour of someone’s shirt or perhaps providing the name of a book they were reading. As far as psychic powers for field agents go, she got set up with some pretty convenient case solving ones.
Not only do the powers lay a great foundation for your interactions with the game on a mechanical level – they also give you a palpable sense of piecing together clues yourself. Being perceptive and paying close attention to dialogue and story details is rewarded handsomely in this, and other areas, of the game, and it makes sure that you and the game are on the same page. It’s a very different approach from just giving you absurd puzzles to solve as the characters figure out the murder mystery for you.
This extends to situations where you’re asked to convey details about the investigation, and although these don’t always affect your progress, it does highlight whether you’re actually on top of what’s going on or not. The game invites you to understand what it is you’re doing and why, and this is another area where Cognition feels like it gets the genre.
There are also some traditional adventure game elements – collecting items in your inventory, combining and putting them to use in the environment – and some of the situations within the story have literal puzzle components to them. This is not to say that there’s something inherently wrong with prominent puzzles in adventure games, but for the purposes of this particular story motif, the way they are embedded is particularly elegant.
The story, then, evokes equal parts Saw, equal parts Seven. Yes, thrillers depicting methodical, graphic murders; you’re probably never living the Seven comparison down. Neither of these monikers are in any way meant to belittle the quality of the story on offer, however. It is, in fact, one of the strongest, most cohesive and thrilling storylines of a game of this ilk since Gabriel Knight.
Divided into episodes, the game hits the ground running with Erica and her partner, John, hot on the heels of “The Cain Killer” – a serial killer focusing on the bond between a sister and brother. Gruesome, Saw-esque contraptions ask what the sister is willing to do to save the brother, but almost without exception they result in the demise of both. Almost without exception.
After a violent resolution, the story leads into the meat of the first episode – dubbed “The Hangman” – which establishes the overarching structure of the season. Individual episodes focus on a specific investigation into a specific killer, but the Cain Killer, and the events at the beginning of episode 1, act as a throughline, with story threads eventually converging into a very satisfying season finale with episode 4.
Each episode sees Erica develop her powers further, which also gives each episode a slightly different flavour. For the most part, this is a brilliant way of moving the game in meaningful new directions, mechanically, but the final episode engages in some awful “trust metre” shenanigans that turn events into teeth grinding exercises in trial and error. Depending on how you answer questions and tackle situations, characters will gain or lose trust in you. Some dialogue trees have you picking completely out-of-character phrases because doing otherwise would have an exclusively negative impact on the game. It does little to diminish the overall experience, however, as the story reaches a wholly satisfying climax.
Cognition does a mostly successful job of creating a cohesive, stylized look for itself. Although perhaps an acquired taste, the motion comic cutscenes totally work for me, while the cutscenes using the game engine don’t fare quite as well. This is mostly due to some awkward animation and model work when scrutinized up close. From afar, the cartoon shaded characters blend well with the hand painted backgrounds (save for some slightly mis-aligned 3D objects), but during zoomed in conversations, the faces can look downright gnarly.
It’s a testament, then, to the writing and performances that you still end up feeling invested in these characters. Like most adventure games, conversations play a huge part in moving the story forward, and I can happily say that most of the voice actors do a stellar job – with the voice of Erica herself being a particular stand-out. With a character model that frequently looks like an angry, confused robot, it’s remarkable how attached you become to Erica almost entirely thanks to the performance of Raleigh Holmes. There are a few duds among the supporting cast, but those are rarely in a position to be of significant consequence.
The music is great, and I’m writing this having purchased the soundtrack from the official site moments ago. Again, it’s very evocative of Gabriel Knight (yes I’m going to reference that game a third time, leave me alone!), and its ability to let melancholy sink in is of particular note. Composer Austin Haynes’ soundtrack perfectly underpins the themes of isolation and loss.
It would be irresponsible to avoid addressing the elephant in the room: The recent Steam version of the game is a technical disaster. Animation glitches, massive collision detection bugs, characters sinking into floors – having their heads on backwards and consistently sitting next to, or far away from, the chair they’re supposedly sitting in. I did several spit takes as Erica promptly stepped onto a piece of the geometry and then just kept walking in a diagonal, ascending direction until she was stuck in the ceiling. I have it on video. It’s hilarious.
At the time of writing this, numerous patches have been issued to address specific glitches, but the overwhelming number of problems I had with the Steam version makes me doubtful that they’ll be fixed any time soon. The skeptic in me inserts an “if ever”.
The good news is that the folks at Phoenix Online Studios were kind enough to also provide me with the version sold at other outlets such as GOG, GamersGate, Desura and their own official store. After spending an hour trying to recreate any of the previously mentioned problems, I can say with some confidence that they are Steam specific. It can be a little jittery, and there’s the odd rough edge, but it’s all well within reason for a Kickstarted indie adventure game.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller may have some clumsy animation, some robotic faces and the occasional instance where the tech and the art don’t quite gel, but it is a hugely competent adventure game in every other regard. One that provides stimulating puzzle mechanics that make perfect sense within its world, and a compelling story that quickly gains momentum and keeps it up until it culminates in a thrilling, memorable finale. That’s categorically what you want from the genre.