By Marty Mulrooney
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is the latest point-and-click adventure game from Phoenix Online Studios. AMO interviewed Katie Hallahan (PR Director for Phoenix Online) and Cesar Bittar (CEO of Phoenix Online) about the game in 2011. The indie studio is best known for creating The Silver Lining, a non-commercial game based on and inspired by the King’s Quest series. On 30th October 2012 the studio will release the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – their first commercial outing, with legendary adventure game designer Jane Jensen acting as story consultant.
In Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, the player takes control of Erica Reed, a troubled heroine whose brother Scott was kidnapped and murdered by a notorious serial killer. The opening of Episode 1: The Hangman acts as an introduction to the various gameplay mechanics, with the player taking control of Erica on the night of her brother’s death. Joined by her partner John McCoy, Erica must break into a graveyard at night and try to reach her brother before it’s too late.
Of course, it has already been established by the premise of the game that Scott dies, but that doesn’t mean these opening scenes lack impact – far from it in fact. The 2D backgrounds with cel-shaded 3D character models look fantastic, the grungy music is suitably atmospheric and the gameplay is solid. Clicking on a hotspot brings up an option menu ‘circle’ allowing the player to ‘interact with’, ‘look at’ or ‘use’ inventory items on people and objects. So far, nothing new – but there is innovation to be found and the clue is in the title. Erica also has post-cognition abilities – the ability to see an object’s past simply by touching it. This works fantastically and adds an extra layer of depth to what could have admittedly been a pretty generic adventure.
It’s a satisfying opening that gets the heart racing and perfectly sets up the character of Erica Reed – a troubled Boston-based FBI agent, haunted by the unsolved murder of her brother. The interface is very slick and Cognition also features one of the best hint systems seen in a long time – players can use Erica’s phone to ‘text’ for increasingly revealing hints. Once the opening sequence is concluded, the player is treated to a highly cinematic opening credits sequence complete with theme music, before the narrative jumps forward three years and we join Erica on her latest case.
This is where things start to get really interesting – the game becomes much more open, with Erica investigating a crime scene both traditionally and with her post-cognition abilities. The crime scene also seems to give Erica violent visions that don’t yet make sense – these cutscenes are shown in a gorgeous 2D comic book style reminiscent of the original Gabriel Knight, as are all of the main cinematics. Sadly, the voice acting is fairly mixed, with some characters sounding more convincing than others. Also, there is some graphical ‘clipping’ at times and the character models can look a little bit lifeless.
Thankfully, Erica Reed herself sounds perfect – she is voiced to great effect by Raleigh Holmes, daughter of Robert Holmes, aka Jane Jensen’s husband and accomplished adventure game soundtrack composer. There is also a nice nod to The Scarlet Furies – the band that Raleigh fronts; her dad is also a member – that will raise a smile from fans of Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter.
From what Alternative Magazine Online has played of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman so far… it looks fantastic. Sure, there are some small problems that still need ironing out, mostly on the technical side of things. However, the core gameplay experience has huge potential – this is like a mixture of Gabriel Knight, the Saw films, Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and CSI. Adventure gamers should without question preorder now – it’s probably going to be every bit as good as it sounds.