Cognition—Episode 3—The Oracle

[17 June 2013]

By Eric Swain

And so comes the turn, the point in the story when events are ramping up and most if not all the details are explained in preparation for the climax. Episode 3 of Cognition picks up right where Episode 2 left off. Erica Reed has rescued her partner and is now headed to Enthon Towers where the Wise Monkey has been thrown off an upper floor of the building.

Unlike the last two episodes, this one isn’t about Erica so much as it is Cordelia’s, the woman Erica met in the first two episodes. She owns and lives in the Enthon Towers. Thanks to a new power, Erica can go back and view events from years ago from Cordelia’s point of view.

The episode actually starts you outside the Enthon Towers and your first job after searching the outside area is to gain access to the building. Everything outside the towers is the kind of standard point-and-click adventuring that you’ve been doing for two episodes now, but once you go inside, the entire tone of the adventure changes. You become more of a voyeur peeking in on the lives of Cordelia and her two brothers. There are obviously dirty dealings going on and secrets being hidden. In part, the mystery becomes family drama as their interpersonal politics collide.

The motive behind all these actions is supposedly Erica looking for her mentor, who went into the building, but no one claims to have have seen or is willing to admit that he was ever there. While Reed may be interested in his whereabouts, I often forgot that his disappearance was the inciting incident for her continued presence. I was far more fascinated by the layers of deception and time periods that were simultaneously being pulled back as the plot advanced.

The Oracle doesn’t have you trekking all over Boston. The action is contained to a few floors of the Enthon Towers, and it is not only a welcome change of pace, but also a brilliant shaking of the status quo. By changing up the previous style of play from the first two episodes the game is allowed push towards presenting new ideas. This isn’t another serial killer of the week story. This is the meta-investigation coming to fruition.

The previous episode featured a sprawling investigation with suspects and crime scenes all over the city requiring a map interface that was time consuming and annoying any time that travel proved to be fruitless. With a single location, the focus remains tight on the characters rather than on the plot.

You will end up traipsing through the same few rooms over and over in very quick succession even if you are on the right track, but as the plot advances, so do the elements in the rooms. Items become or lose importance, characters walk around, and conversations progress, keeping the experience of the environments fresh.

The new psychic power that Erica gains is also fascinating in its execution. As noted, it allows Erica to transport her mind back into the past to witness prior events, but it also allows her to help Cordelia. In other words, you are playing as Erica, but controlling Cordelia. Nevertheless, Erica isn’t the one in control and only witnessing past events. These metaphysics become truly inspired as certain revelations come to light about halfway through.

The difference between Episode 3 and Episode 2 is almost the same as the difference between Episode 2 and Episode 1. A more interesting and complex tale leads to a better narrative flow and in the case of this series more intuitive and natural puzzles. Nearly all of the puzzles here are straightforward and contain a narrative core. Yes, there’s always that one puzzle that seems to take a flying leap in the face of realism.  At one moment, for example, one is tasked with figuring out how to distract an FBI agent who already seems pretty distracted. The solution involves a device that does something that I’m not sure is scientifically possible in order to get the agent out of the room. It’s ridiculous and the single element that breaks the premise that this is set in our world during the present era. Thankfully, the game provides enough descriptions and dialogue that I was able to figure the steps of solving the puzzle out without wasting too much of my time, even if the reasonableness of it escaped me.

Talking about the end of a mystery is taboo and just poor form. I wont go into details, suffice it to say that Episode 3 has a monster of an ending. Where it leaves off suggests a masterwork in thriller storytelling and while before I was mildly interested to see where Phoenix Studios would go with it, now I am itching for the next installment. I previously called the material in Cognition much like that of an “airport thriller novel” and while it still dips its toes into those waters, with its greater focus on character and interpersonal dynamics Cognition manages to elevate itself above that genre in some powerful and interesting ways. As Cognition hurtles towards its final episode, I cannot wait to see if the team can maintain its momentum.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/172600-cognition-episode-3-the-oracle/