Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller from Phoenix Online Studios has given adventure-game fans a solid experience since it launched last October, with each episode expanding on the titular FBI agent’s growing psionic powers and ironing out the problems with its sometimes frustrating puzzle design. Episode 3: The Oracle (5-6 hours long) removes more of these wrinkles, but it also elevates the drama in a tight, well-controlled setting, and that makes it the best chapter so far.
Previously (in Episode 2: The Wise Monkey, which released in January), Erica learned that a bigger player was toying with the killers she thought might be behind the death of her late brother, Scott, and other recent victims, all of whom bear some connection to her. In The Oracle, her new boss, Samuel McAdams, yanks the investigation out of her hands (not for the first time), but once Erica sniffs out a trail of evidence, she refuses to let it go. This time, it’s leading her straight to McAdams and a case he worked on years ago.
These new clues bring her to the Enthon Towers, a fancy apartment building that has now served as the stage for multiple homicides. A big surprise comes rather early, so it’s hard not to talk about the person whom Erica quickly learns has organized everything from the beginning — whacking off old killers like the Hangman and Wise Monkey as well as the unfortunate agents caught in the crossfire. Let’s just call him/her the Hat Killer.
The entire episode takes place within these towers and, specifically, the Hat Killer’s apartment. We learn about the suspect’s family and their dealings through interactive storytelling — not just by watching cutscenes or tapping into memories with Erica’s powers but by actually controlling the murderer’s body and solving events through a kind of back-and-forth method of investigating. Essentially, Erica and the killer can communicate — across time and through shared psychic knowledge.
This dynamic fixes the problem that arose with the long and complicated interrogation/regression puzzle from Episode 1. It streamlines the process, adding (mostly) appropriate game hints through the optional and slightly refined help system and offering two separate perspectives: Erica’s and the Hat Killer’s. How one sees past events and even the objects in the apartment is very different from how the other does, and this sense of depth transforms the apartment building into a much bigger set-piece than first observed, as everything you interact with resides within its walls. That proves a much easier and more convenient approach than the tedious traveling between locations in previous episodes. When you’re stuck on a puzzle, it’s good to know there’s only so many places you need to look.
Like the other installments, Episode 3 does have a puzzle or two that will likely stump you, and I ran into a rather nasty bug that crashed my game and set me back an hour’s progress. (Thank goodness for multiple save files.) But at the same time that players juggle many angles of the investigation at once, the game arranges them in a focused and very balanced manner, so players never lose sight of the case at hand.
The story makes major strides in this episode as well, which only makes me more curious for Episode 4: The Cain Killer — named for another murderer whose identity is revealed at the end of the current episode. At this rate, Cognition is only improving, and one thing is certain: Phoenix Online Studios knows how to keep tensions high and the drama thick.