Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: Episode One: The Hangman

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Erica Reed on the case.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller began as a Kickstarter project. They had a goal of $25,000, but surpassed that nicely by reaching $34,247! The game was created by Phoenix Online Studios, who you may know of because of their King’s Quest-inspired freeware series The Silver Lining. The other reason you might have heard about this game is because of Jane Jensen’s involvement. Jane is most well-known for her work as designer and writer of the Gabriel Knight series; she also directed the first game. More recently, she designed and wrote Grey Matter, and is currently working on Jane Jensen’s Moebius. Phoenix Online said that Cognition was influenced by Dexter and Heavy Rain, and I also saw shades of Indigo ProphecySe7en, and Still Life. There’s a twist, though: Erica Reed, our protagonist FBI agent, has supernatural abilities that help her solve crimes. Check out the launch trailer:

Plot

CemeterySquareStatue

I went in completely blind to this game before I reviewed it – I didn’t look at screenshots or read any other reviews. All I knew was that it was an adventure game and you played an FBI agent. I’m a big fan of detective work, so that piqued my interest right away. I really enjoyed the investigative sequences in Indigo Prophecy and Still Life. The game starts out in medias res, with Erica and her partner, John, rushing to the scene of a crime. A serial killer, dubbed The Cain Killer, who goes after brother and sister pairs has Erica’s brother, Scott, held hostage in a mausoleum. After the situation is resolved, the game jumps ahead three years and you have another, perhaps related, case to solve. The remainder of episode one introduces you to Erica’s co-workers and has you investigating crime scenes along with developing your supernatural powers.

This game is definitely on the mature side, with sometimes gory crime scenes, language, and generally disturbing themes, so it’s probably not one to play if you’re squeamish. However, if you’re into thrillers and detective stories, that’s not going to be a problem for you.

Graphics and Sound

A cutscene.

A cutscene.

This game looks pretty great, even at the fastest graphics setting that I had to play on (which I think is what contributed to the odd lighting I experienced at times). The cutscenes are done with comic book-like panels and voice-overs, and the art for those is really gorgeous. Subtitles throughout the game are also done in comic book-style text boxes. During the majority of gameplay, backgrounds are pre-rendered or painted (or a combination), and the character sprites are cel-shaded. Most dialogue is done in close-up of the characters, and everyone has a distinctive look. The only issue I had with the graphics was that sometimes the sprites would walk or run strangely – at a more clipped pace, or it would take them a while to get going. The worst instance of this was a character spinning around in a circle a few times before doing what he was supposed to be doing. None of this really detracted from my enjoyment, however.

Cel-shaded character.

Cel-shaded character.

The voice acting is very well done, and I particularly enjoyed listening to Erica’s Boston accent (although it puzzled me that only one other person had a Boston accent, despite the location being downtown Boston). No one sounds out of place or amateurish, which is especially nice for an indie production.

Gameplay

All in a day's work.

All in a day’s work.

Cognition has some really nice gameplay features and some that got under my skin a little. I liked that there was a button to click to highlight hotspots – this completely eliminated pixel hunting! If you like that aspect of adventure games though (I’m not sure why you would, but to each their own), it’s easy to not click that button. You do absolutely everything with the left mouse button, making this a true point-and-click adventure. You have the ability to save anywhere, but there’s only one place where you can die, and if you do, you get brought back to right before it happens (with a hint on what you should do differently. The game also has a built-in hint system, disguised as texting your detective father for pointers on what you should do next. The hints are vague enough so that you don’t feel like the game is doing everything for you, but are still effective at pushing you in the right direction. There is enough variety of gameplay – interrogation, logical observation, timed puzzles, exploration, inventory-based puzzles – that I never felt bored, and the puzzles were never illogical or frustrating; I barely needed hints.

One of the things I didn’t like was that it takes three clicks to use Erica’s initial supernatural power where it should only take two – the verification click isn’t needed. It seems small, but in a game with an otherwise streamlined interface, it stood out to me. It also didn’t make sense that the “wait” cursor was turned on during cutscenes – I always had to move it out of the way when it probably should have disappeared like in pretty much any other game. One last thing that bothered me was the amount of backtracking I had to do because the game doesn’t let you pick up inventory items until Erica knows that she needs them (even though you, as a player, know that it’ll come in handy at some point). I suppose I might be too genre-savvy, but it’s annoying to have to run around so much when the story is so tense.

The game does a good job at adding some much-needed levity to the mostly grim subject matter, mostly through the wisecracks of your partner John and your friend Terance from forensics. It did manage to make me a little emotional during a few particularly sad parts, which I still find impressive coming from a video game.

The Hangman took me between five and six hours to complete in three sessions, and that felt just right to me. Wait until after the credits for a little audio sneak preview of the next episode!

Final Verdict

Score: B+

I really enjoyed the story and writing of Cognition, and it was definitely enough to get me excited to play episode two. I look forward to seeing what new puzzles (and maybe even new powers!) The Wise Monkey will introduce. Hopefully the few gameplay issues I had will be addressed in the next episode, but they’re not utterly gamebreaking.

You can get Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: Episode One: The Hangman via Phoenix Online StudiosGamersGate [a season pass that includes the digital comic is also available], Gamestop [season pass], Green Man Gaming, Gamefly [season pass], Rain Digital Games [season pass], and the game is up for voting on Steam Greenlight. Each episode sells for $9.99, and a four-episode season pass that includes the digital prequel comic is $29.99. Cognition is available for both PC and Mac. Try out the demo here.

A digital Cognition prequel comic and MP3 soundtrack are also available. These started out as bonuses for Cognition‘s Kickstarter backers, and the developers have made them available for purchase at the store. The prequel comic has absolutely lovely art (I’m assuming it was probably done by the same person who did the artwork for the cutscenes). It definitely fills in some gaps that aren’t necessary for playing the game, but are really nice to know, and I have a feeling some of the events portrayed might come up again in later episodes. The soundtrack is also really nice – I particularly enjoy the chorale tracks, but the incidental music is also of a high quality.

Let me know what you thought of Cognition: Episode One if you’ve played it, and check back on January 30th for my review of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: Episode Two: The Wise Monkey!

[Disclaimer: A review code was provided for me to review this game.]

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9 thoughts on “Review: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: Episode One: The Hangman

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