Cognition -- Episode 1 -- The Hangman
US: 27 Dec 2012
Erica Reed is an FBI agent who lost her brother to a serial killer several years ago. She confronted the killer, but he got away. No one ever saw his face. Even with her burgeoning psychic abilities, she couldn’t catch him. Years later, her boss Davis has closed the case, but death goes on in the city of Boston. A new case has been dropped in her lap: an apparent suicide. Davis insists that it isn’t, though. Now Reed has to dig deep into closed cases and her own tortured memories of the past to get to the bottom of it. And it is only her with her special visions that can do it.
Sounds like one of those hardback thriller novels sitting front and center at the Barnes & Noble, doesn’t it? That’s actually an apt description of the story because that is exactly how it plays out—that or a primetime network detective miniseries. In another medium that might be a slight against it, but with a video game, the fact that the developers didn’t have to struggle to reach that level is high praise, especially when a game like this has competition like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire, games that while interesting mechanically have serious story and plot problems. Cognition does manage to establish an interesting character in Erica Reed and a pretty decent mystery that makes sense within the game’s own world.
Mechanically, the game is a standard point-and-click adventure. You walk around, observe the environment, pick up items, combine them, and then use them to solve puzzles. Cognition features a built-in hint system in the form of moments when you text your retired FBI agent father in order to receive hints on how to proceed. Rather than just asking general advice, you can choose from a list of questions about things you are doing at present, meaning that the advice will be what you want rather than being vague or about something else. But the big new addition to the genre is the psychic mechanic. If you click a button in the corner of the screen, it will “de-saturate” the room’s colors and highlight anything that you can interact with psychically with a swirling colored aura. You start off with a simple touch to see what happened in the past with an item, but then one-by-one your roster of abilities grows and some become puzzles to solve themselves.
What I like is that the game is a detective story. It expects you to figure out the solution, not just of the puzzles presented in the form of gathering evidence and questioning people, but the solution to the mystery itself. You can ask a colleague for their thoughts on some clues or ask your father for a hint, but the game gives you all the tools to figure out the details needed to solve the mystery. It’s not a hard game, and I was able to get through it on my own with only a useless diversion or two generated only through my own stupidity. When in doubt, check your cellphone.
There is one little problem. After every sentence of dialogue, there is a pause that is just half a second too long. This may sound like a minor quibble but that time adds up and becomes a drag on the game’s pacing. Little by little, I got more anxious as a result of the game’s slow pace —mainly as a result of these little pauses—and as the game loaded up the next piece of dialogue. Then I noticed that the same was happening with every click. I would look at something and because I had already seen it, I would click past the description and there was that half second pause. I had no agency in these pauses as I waited for the game to reload its interactive bits. Once is a fluke, twice is ignorable, but when it is every single click, it becomes immensely frustrating over time.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Phoenix Studios as it is their first “non-fan” game, but the game is severely lacking in optimization and production values. The visuals have got a pitch perfect art direction that matches the tone of the story, and the cutscenes, which have the qualities of a motion comic, serve the game well. The voice acting is hit or miss generally hovering around average, but I will say this—having lived there for 5 years—this is the most that I have ever heard a game “sound like” Boston. I’m just grateful it manages not to descend into parody.
Overall, I’m at the very least intrigued to see where the developers take the episodes that will follow. The story, for all its neo-noir pulp sensibilities, manages to spin a decent yarn and doesn’t reach beyond its abilities. Jane Jenson was a story consultant if that tells you what to expect. I think that offsets any issues that I have with the optimization. Thankfully, it isn’t a game that is too difficult. Thus, the less than desirable optimization that combines with adventure game stagnation doesn’t spoil the story beats entirely.