By Marty Mulrooney
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman is a point-and-click adventure game created by Phoenix Online Studios. AMO recently previewed the game, describing it as “like a mixture of Gabriel Knight, the Saw films, Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and CSI.” The full game has now been released via digital download and the verdict is in – Cognition is every bit as good as it sounds.
In Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, the player takes control of Boston-based FBI agent Erica Reed, a troubled heroine whose brother Scott was kidnapped and murdered by a notorious serial killer. Three years later, Erica is still haunted by the unsolved case, which has recently been closed by her boss due to a lack of evidence and progress. Everybody is ready to move on it seems, but not Erica – she won’t rest until the killer is brought to justice.
It seems like an insurmountable challenge at first, but it soon becomes apparent that Erica is no ordinary FBI agent. She has post-cognition abilities, abilities that allow her to see an object or a person’s past with a mere touch. However, her powers have recently become confused and Erica is plagued with startling visions of events that have not yet occurred – is Erica seeing into her own future and if so, what disturbing horrors does it hold in store for her?
It would be all too easy to initially dismiss Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller as generic. It certainly emulates mainstream dime-a-dozen American television cop dramas and Erica’s partner in particular (John McCoy – a generic name if there ever was one) comes across straight away as a blatant stereotype. However, to do so would be to rob Phoenix Online Studios of some much deserved credit.
The plot is a cut above your average murder mystery, Erica Reed is a deep and multi-layered protagonist and the supporting characters (yes, even John McCoy) all become fully fleshed out as the game progresses. You should never judge a book by its cover… and you should never judge an adventure game by its basic premise and pre-release screenshots. Of course, adventures gamers should expect nothing less when the legendary game designer Jane Jensen is acting as story consultant. Her inclusion here is more than just a well-known name to sell a game – you can tell she has helped to shape the narrative and make it something special.
Erica’s latest case involves a series of hangings that look like suicides at first glance, but soon start to seem more like murders. The developers do a great job of making the player feel like a real FBI investigator. Locations can be travelled to via an overhead city map and tools such as Erica’s mobile phone and personal computer play an important part in solving puzzles. The gameplay is traditional point-and-click, but Erica’s post-cognition abilities (once she regains them) add an extra layer of depth to the puzzles, with players revealing past events and at one point even delving into the memories of a witness being interviewed.
The graphics are beautiful, with 2D backgrounds and 3D cel-shaded character models. The 3D animation can admittedly sometimes look slightly clunky and there are some instances of graphical ‘clipping’, but the overall art design is so strong that it doesn’t really matter. The 2D comic book style cutscenes are gorgeous and the game often introduces 2D elements into the gameplay too – one scene in an interrogation room sees 2D drawings being displayed upon a table as memories are remembered and it’s a truly gorgeous effect. Furthermore, the voice acting is strong across the board – even the initially annoying voices will soon grow on you – and there seems to be real chemistry between the actors.
Three things in particular make Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman stand out. Firstly, Erica Reed is voiced to perfection (with an authentic Bostonian twang) by Raleigh Holmes, daughter of Robert Holmes, aka Jane Jensen’s husband. It’s an exceptional performance that encompasses a gamut of emotions including grief, anger and sheer determination. Secondly, the soundtrack by Austin Haynes is scene-perfect every step of the way and the song ‘The Taking’ (featuring Raleigh Holmes on vocals) should win video game song of the year, hands down. Thirdly, César Bittar (with a little help from his friend Jane Jensen) and the folks at Phoenix Online Studios have crafted a story that is genuinely involving and extremely emotional. For their first commercial outing, all of these factors add up to a truly incredible achievement.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman is only a taste of what’s to come and as a result it inevitably ends on a cliffhanger. The interface can be frustrating at times, the graphics can be glitchy and the load times are slightly too long between screens… but none of that should impact your enjoyment too much. Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter was an incredibly underrated game and in many ways this feels like its spiritual successor. This is a good old-fashioned adventure game like they used to make, offering a fresh twist on the cop drama, with production values that rival the big names in adventure gaming at the moment such as Telltale Games. It isn’t perfect, but in terms of enjoyment it comes damn close for a first episode. Erica Reed desperately needs your help – take her hand and see what happens.
9 OUT OF 10
GAME PREVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Pinkerton Road Studio)
GAME REVIEW – Gray Matter (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)