January 11, 2013 9:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
The first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, the one merrily subtitled The Hangman, is the first commercial game by Phoenix Online Studios; the team responsible for the impressive The Silver Lining 3D take on the King's Quest universe. Cognition, of course, has nothing to do with the family friendly fairy-tale world of Daventry and its pretty nonsensical puzzles and is all the better for it.
Being, on the other hand, a game that employs the talents of the mighty Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame as a story consultant, Cognition is a dark, gritty and almost traditional point-and-click adventure. It's an excellent game too and one that made it into our 2012 Top 10 indie adventures, but more on that later.
First, let's get the not so good bits out of the way and what better way to start off with than the graphics? None really. Cognition, you see, though a truly polished game that's more than obviously been a labour of love, doesn't really look this good. Granted, the backgrounds and cut-scenes are excellent and the overall art-direction commendable, but the 3D models of the characters are simply wrong. They feel too unnatural and too wooden to support the stellar voice-work and the realistic plot. They look like glowing mannequins from the uncanny valley and that, I'm afraid, almost kills part of the game's atmosphere. Truth be said, I'd rather they were low-res sprites.
The other problem with the game is that some of the puzzles are both unnecessary and far too adventure-y. What I mean with that is that sometimes the game simply bends its logic to irritating degrees in order to introduce tedious object combining puzzles, that would only (maybe) make sense in a surreal comedy setting. Can't frankly see the point in unhelpful associates that require trinkets in order to let you borrow their tape-recorder.
Did I sound negative enough already? Good, for the fact that I easily ignored each and every drawback of the game is a testament to its overall quality. Cognition managed to grip me from its very first scene and by the time it was over I was simply aching for more. I loved every moment of it. I even felt that this is a game on par with Gabriel Knight, but let me just rephrase that for the younger crowd: If you ever enjoyed Fringe and imagined an interactive version of the series, you too will love and appreciate the game's brilliantly written protagonists, the strong female lead, the spooky atmosphere, the excellent plot and some truly rewarding puzzles.
Not only does the detective work you'll be doing feel authentic, involved but never confusing and satisfying, but, as you eventually gain access to Erica's supernatural post-cognition abilities, the gameplay mixes things up and creates new complexities and novel riddles that are closely tied to the plot; riddles and complexities which make you feel smarter for solving them. Actually, the puzzles, the supporting characters, the cut-scenes, the game world that feels much bigger than its real size and, well, everything else make Cognition one adventure that will fully absorb you.
As for said plot, it goes beyond a simple serial killer vs. gifted detective story. The opening chapter makes sure everything gets personal quick and even the satisfying ending implies that greater and more sinister things await us in the following three Erica Reed episodes. I for one, frankly, can't wait.
[Cognition, Episode 1 can be grabbed for your Mac or PC for $9.99, whereas the complete 4-episode season will set you back a most reasonable $29.99. You can also try the game's demo here. ]