By Marty Mulrooney
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 3: The Oracle (PC) is the third and penultimate instalment in the Erica Reed series of episodic point-and-click adventure games created by Phoenix Online Studios. Following on directly from Episode 2 (which Alternative Magazine Online described as “a masterfully woven point-and-click adventure thriller”), players must once again take control of Boston-based FBI agent Erica Reed as she tracks down a killer – and this time, players will also take control of the killer too!
Following the close of Episode 2’s credits, an unseen hooded assailant threw serial killer Joey Goethals (The Wise Monkey) from the top of Enthon Towers, another – literal – dead end. Erica receives a call from her partner John McCoy about this while she is still at the hospital bedside of her on/off boyfriend Sully and, after quickly hugging her father, she rushes to the scene of the crime. She arrives expecting chaos and is instead greeted by a lone police officer and a very angry FBI Director. McAdams ignores Erica’s questions and forbids her to enter Enthon Towers. Does he really think this will stop her? Furthermore, why does he want to stop her?
The cliffhanger ending of Episode 2 is quickly resolved via the use of Erica’s post-cognition abilities – we know who the killer is from the outset (although their identity won’t be spoiled here). The real question now is why – it doesn’t add up. Whereas previous episodes saw Erica jumping between locations throughout Boston, Episode 3 takes place solely within the confines of Enthon Towers. It’s an engaging setting and a surprisingly enjoyable change of pace – staying in one main location allows the developers to tie the puzzles in with the progression of the story beautifully.
Erica has the power to see into the past by simply touching a person or an object (a bit like Johnny Smith in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone) – and in Episode 3 it is revealed that she isn’t the only one with such powers. Erica’s recent acquaintance Cordelia – who also lost her brother – has the ability to see into the future. This changes everything and makes the story of The Oracle especially intriguing. Cordelia doesn’t just live in the penthouse of Enthon Towers – her family owns the entire building. Flashbacks show Cordelia and her brothers in rooms that are now empty as Erica explores them.
Players can accrue several different memories of past events at once and swap between them at will. These memories will often only progress further when new information is discovered by Erica in the present. Perhaps even more bizarrely, it seems that Cordelia and Erica share a connection so strong that they can actually pass knowledge across the gap of intervening years, which figures heavily into the puzzle-solving. It’s a creepy, wonderful twist that raises as many questions as it answers. All families share secrets, but there is an especially perverse pleasure to be had as the lives of Cordelia Smith and her brothers become unravelled, a ball of blood-soaked string rolling toward the future with malice and harmful intent. This family is severely messed up.
The press build of Episode 3 featured several non-game breaking bugs (mostly small graphical glitches) but Phoenix Online Studios has reassured reviewers that these issues will be ironed out in time for release. Elsewhere, the animation is still pretty clunky and doesn’t quite live up to the beautifully painted comic book-style cutscenes. Erica’s ‘finger point with attitude’ animation crops up frequently (to smile-inducing effect), but it’s easy to forgive the occasional low production value when the gameplay and storyline are so well implemented. The soundtrack by Austin Haynes is fantastic too, beautifully composed and heightening the emotion of every scene.
It must be remembered that Cognition is actually a fairly low-budget adventure game – each episode succeeds far more often than it fails. The deficiencies of the character models are largely negated by the stellar voice acting. Raleigh Holmes in particular once again sells each and every line, delivering a powerful performance imbued with emotion. Whether angry, sad, sarcastic or defensive, Erica always feels like a real person regardless of whether or not her character model is successfully conveying the same emotions. This extends to the other characters too – budgetary restraints can be readily forgiven when the heart of a game beats this strong and true. An engaging storyline and developed characters have nothing to do with budget. Instead, these elements are fuelled by passion, which Phoenix Online Studios displays in abundance.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 3: The Oracle (PC) continues forward with the strong momentum of the previous two episodes. The use of one main location (along with the ability to actively participate in memories that took place in this location several years before) condenses the story into a potent murder mystery where questions continue to arise. Why is the killer doing this? What do Erica’s visions mean? Who is Jeff Therrien? Some of the puzzles fall into the adventure game trap of being clear to the developers but not to the player – even when exhausting the hint system – but the ending is startling and perhaps most important of all, earned. Episode 3 admittedly has some rough edges, but it delivers where it counts. Playing the final episode will be a bittersweet experience indeed.
8.5 OUT OF 10
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GAME REVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Raleigh Holmes (Erica Reed, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan (Phoenix Online Studios, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Pinkerton Road Studio)
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INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)