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Cognition -- Episode 2 -- The Wise Monkey

(Reverb Publishing; US: 30 Jan 2013)

Phoenix Studios have taken full advantage of the feedback from the first episode of Cognition and put it to good use in Erika Reed’s ongoing adventures.  “The Wise Monkey” has wholly improved on the previous installment. In nearly every respect, the game is better paced, better focused, and better presented.


Picking up the story where the last episode left off, Erica Reed and the rest of the Boston FBI department are still reeling from Director Davis’s murder. But before they can begin to work on finding the culprit, Erica is drugged and her partner is kidnapped right in front of her. The killer he had been tracking has infiltrated the station, and now Erica Reed has to pick up the case where her partner left off and figure out who The Wise Monkey is before he has a chance to kill again. The case is supremely gruesome and not for the faint of heart.


Immediately the game is off on the right foot. I was feeling pretty burnt out after the last episode as it went on too long with what felt like too much exposition—not a problem here. Instead, the game has set up a situation with high enough stakes to believably put aside the conclusion of the previous episode and contains the energy to push this new case forward based on its own momentum. We don’t need to be convinced to turn over the previous investigation to the acting director.  After all, we have been put on a far more urgent case and that urgency is like a shot of adrenaline into the franchise. Soon enough, I was interviewing persons of interest, searching apartments, and poring over case files with gusto.

The previous episode had the unenviable task of setting up the characters, the premise, and the situation that they find themselves in. Because of this, “The Hangman” was exposition heavy and felt like it was dragging its feet, making sure we were on board before giving us the exciting bits that came a little too late.  It was also overly padded, stretching some of its material and my patience a little thin. The rooms would drag on with too many steps to complete before you could move forward. Certain actions, especially at the crime scene, were overly complex, and the game would not move onwards until you had done exactly what it wanted you to do.  “The Wise Monkey” streamlines the design of Cognition. It is made clear through visual and audio clues as well as through story beats where you have to go or what you need to continue your investigation. Doing so, allows both the narrative to flow with fewer hiccups and fewer stall points.


I was never at a loss about what to do, and when I felt I hit a wall with one line of inquiry, I could easily start on another that would invariably open up a path back in the first route. It never telegraphs a solution and still requires some logical thinking, but the game never strands you in the middle of nowhere without any idea of how to proceed.


Episode 2 also introduces a new psychic power to Erica Reed’s repertoire. In the psychic state, you can combine related inventory items to create a mental picture of an event associated with them. It’s simple, elegant, and perfectly in tune with the current case.  The power is also far more intuitive and thankfully gets quite a bit of use. The identify button also continues to be a stroke of genius. You press the image of the cursor with a question mark in the top left hand corner, and it labels all the interactive spots in the room.


The game has also been more fully optimized, since the previous episode. In my review of the previous episode, I complained about the dead space after every single spoken line of dialogue and action that was doing nothing but causing me anxiety while ruining the game’s rhythm. These issues are gone. The game runs smoother and is far more responsive to your clicks. Minor issues remain, like the cursor disappearing for a few seconds every time you go to the city map or when you change locations on it. But overall, these problems are negligible and far more tolerable than having to wait after every single click. The voice acting is likewise better. The actors are disappearing as they grow more fully into their roles.


To be frank, “The Wise Monkey” is just a better mystery than “The Hangman” and is backed by more polished game design. Most of things that annoyed me greatly about the first episode have vanished entirely and the studio has learned a few lessons in narrative flow.


After the implications at the end of this case, I can’t wait for episode 3. The material is still grist for an airport novel thriller, but there is good airport novel thriller and there is bad airport novel thriller. “The Wise Monkey” falls squarely into the former category.

Rating:

Eric Swain is a self-educated game critic. One day he had the crazy idea that video games could be put under the microscope with the same amount of respect and thought that books and movies are only to discover he was not the first person to think of this. He set out to learn all he could and hopefully add to the growing field of game criticism. He has no idea how far he's come or if he's moved forward much at all. He graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in English. You can read more of his work at http://www.thegamecritique.com .


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