Cognition—Episode 4—The Cain Killer

[14 October 2013]

By Eric Swain

There is almost no point in reviewing the final episode of Cognition. At this point in a series, you’ve either been along for the ride so far, will start soon (at which point, you’ll play from the beginning), or you just don’t care. The ending is an odd animal as it is reflective of not just itself as a piece of the whole, but a synecdoche of the entire game. It is the capstone and the final marker of everything that has come before and will be the last thing in the player’s mind as they evaluate the experience.

It’s important to note that The Cain Killer changes format from the previous three episodes. Episode 3 reduced the free roaming from a larger world to a single building. Episode 4 removes free roaming entirely. Instead, the episode features a series of set pieces made up of mostly one room or two room locations. At the end of the previous episode, the player is on the trail of the serial killer and this episode picks up the pace. In terms of narrative, there is no time to waste, and the design adjusts accordingly. Puzzles are either super simple commonplace interactions or the creations of an ingenious, sadistic tormentor proving his superiority over his pursuers. They make sense in context. The game knows the genre of game that it’s working in and the aesthetic genres that it takes inspiration from and melds them together.

Upon finishing this episode, I was surprised how much shorter it was compared to the previous three. But that is to be expected. All of the set up of characters and relationships is done, the turn happened at the end of the last episode, and Erica Reed is at her lowest point. Episode 4 begins with Reed pulling herself together. I realized afterwards that this is done through a trope of a certain magical character archetype that I wont get into now, though I will say it is handled with more deftness than usual, allowing Reed to answer her own questions and take the next step forward in the investigation. Once the quiet moments are out of the way and we get another cop story trope regarding a badge and gun (again handled far more reasonably than usual), everything is off to the races.

Each episode of Cognition has added a new mechanic. In the previous three episodes, these mechanics were related to Reed’s psionic abilities. This time around it is a relationship meter. A portrait of the character that you are dealing with will fill or drain depending on their feelings towards you and based on your interactions with them, mostly through dialogue. Should the relationship meter completely empty, it will lead to a tragic end and a game over. But it’s pretty easy to tell which dialogue choice will lead to increasing or decreasing the meter. It’s simplistic and rather obvious, but as a method to keep things moving, it succeeds.

Actually, my favorite part of the game is the incidental interactions between Erica and her new frenemy Cordelia. They will banter at certain points about why each of them was right and who holds the moral or practical high ground. They are dealing with the difficulty of a situation of their own creation and the limits that places on their perspectives. We might know the right thing to do regarding the Cain Killer, but it isn’t so easy for the people on the ground who have a history with him. At one point, you have to use your visions to see a series of abbrieviated versions of how he killed his other victims, whereas previously we only saw them names on a computer. It’s the right level of gruesome to hammer in what exactly is clouding the clarity of their judgment.

These conversations also do something else. They made me reevaluate the rest of the series and what it was about. They brought to the forefront the themes of the past as opposed to the future and where we should be looking for a wisdom that had always been there—and I now felt like an idiot for missing. With all the set up behind us, the game’s narrative turns to evaluation in this installment. All of the arcs demand resolution, and we plow through the final act, finding that Episode 4 delivers. It’s a taut thriller with an ending that could be seen as the close to a self-contained adventure or as an origin story.

Cognition is by no means a perfect series. Even as Phoenix Studios made technical improvements over the course of its installments and became more proficient in designing the game, the final episode’s animations are still a little jittery, the voice acting seemed to have hit a plateau a little while back, and while the structure and ambition rose above expectations given the source material, the specifics of execution remain mired in the airport thriller novel genre. The melodrama can get real thick, real fast, and some lines are just downright hokey. Sometimes it uses the genre conventions to its advantage to craft something that works in an interactive medium, and other times it trips on hackneyed writing.

The team put in extra effort to make sure it ended on their terms, doing what they had to in order to make the game they wanted to make and tell the story they wanted to tell, including cutting it down into only what the finale needed. It’s a strong conclusion to an episodic adventure game that continued to surprise until its very last moments. The final episode raises the value of the entire series in my estimation, as it finally became a collective whole.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175832-cognition-episode-4-the-cain-killer/