Review: Cognition Episode 1 ungraves believable drama, and you’re holding the shovel
I think I’m starting to like adventure games — really “like them,” like them. The last time we were together was The Book of Unwritten Tales, and before then, gosh. Not since The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel on DOS in 1992. That’s a long separation. Now that I’ve played the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller (funded on Kickstarter last year), I’m starting to wonder why we ever broke up.
Episode 1: The Hangman is everything a modern adventure gamer could want. It treats the first date right, pulling you in from the opening moments to make sure you stick around, drama or no drama. And oh, you’ll see loads of it, and all the good kind. The beginning throws you into a murder case in its last moments, and special agent Erica Reed is closing in on the Cain Killer, who only attacks siblings. He has kidnapped her brother, and she’s not about to wait for backup. What happens in this first hour or so shocks you into long-term commitment — you’ll be so amazed at what ensues and the highly active role you assume that you’ll wonder how the next four of five hours can be half as exciting.
They are, but for different reasons. The following stretch of gameplay takes place a few years later, and Erica and her partner John McCoy are investigating a different case: one that involves a suicide by hanging. As the clues form a picture, Erica begins to suspect that the old Cain Killer case — which was never solved — might be related, and someone is helping them to connect the dots.
Nearly every character you meet and interact with is so personable and well defined, you’ll actually care if they wind up on the growing list of victims — like Terence, the funny forensics guy you’ve known since college, and Rose, the caring antique shop owner who helps you with your psychic powers. Erica is a psion, which means you can use her abilities as they develop and stabilize to advance the investigation. Cognition (or your intuition) lets you check the environment for remnants of activity, Projection derives information from three correlating items, and Regression helps a person remember old information that could prove crucial to the case.
It feels a bit like cheating, but you’ll still do plenty of the normal sleuthing: looking around and talking to people, combining and using items when appropriate, and so on. The heavy user interface takes a little puzzling out at first, but it’s not too much to handle once you learn it. And the possibilities during gameplay are always reasonable: Selecting dialogue from the conversation tree works like it should, with Erica asking questions or making comments that make sense according to the option you chose. No single location overloads you with tasks you need to do or objects you need to interact with, either, so it’s a manageable amount of detective work even when you can visit multiple locations at once.
The acting successfully immerses you although Raleigh Holmes, the voice of Erica Reed, sometimes goes a little overboard. The music underscores the drama and is a great fit for the game. Cutscenes resemble the visual style of a graphic novel, and the captions look like speech balloons from a comic. The characters move nicely against the colorful and illustrated backgrounds, but you might not be happy with the antialiasing — I was never able to adjust the settings to where this issue didn’t bug me and take me out of the experience.
But like with all successful first dates, more dates follow — more drama, action, and puzzles. And eventually you hit a dud, and your relationship is thrown into doubt. For Cognition, that moment happens when you acquire the Regression ability and you dig into someone’s mind. This skill is not only difficult to master but also a huge pain. The interrogation where you use it is easily the biggest chunk of the game, and you’ll be grinding your teeth every step of the way. It’s overly involved and consumes way too much time, and the logic behind the puzzles doesn’t always click. You’ll spend most of your time trying everything you can think of and then everything you already tried — the eternal, unforgivable flaw of the genre. Now I remember why I left.
I’ve gotten older, though, and something’s admirable about the way adventure games have changed. They’re catching our attention like it’s the ’80s all over again, and new effort is going toward making them socially likeable. Maybe they’re not just for niche gamers anymore. This time, I think I’ll stick around.