When I started the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, I truly wasn’t prepared for the intense emotional rollercoaster that I was about to embark upon. My word document of notes began with technical comments and criticisms, but as I made my way through the episodes, it turned into a load of feelings-ridden, caps-lock heavy, mildly-incoherent ramblings – and that just about sums up my feeling on Cognition. It started off as a technically imperfect crime thriller point and click adventure, but as I fell in love with the main character and the storyline, it turned into so much more.
The game is centred around Erica Reed (not shockingly, given the title), a skilled detective struggling with mourning the loss of her younger brother Scott, who was kidnapped and killed in a gruesome incident three years ago. This kidnapping case, in which Erica was personally unsuccessful in her attempts to rescue him, has plagued her ever since and though it is technically closed, it was never quite solved. As you move past the introduction it becomes clear that visions of that fateful night are frequently creeping into Erica’s mind and are affecting the inexplicable psychic abilities that she uses to aid her in solving crimes – again, not always successfully. To share any more details of the story would take away from the experience, but I will say that – like in every good crime thriller – it is Erica’s past that is at the forefront of her investigations, and once she realises that there is a link between a recent crime and her brother’s killer, it quickly becomes less about being a good cop and more about finding justice for those who never had it.
Put simply, Erica’s psychic powers allow her to touch an object and see it’s past, a mechanic that becomes very helpful throughout the game;s four episodes, and makes for a refreshing gaming experience. One power eventually turns into several, and soon Erica is able to see people’s memories, or to combine objects to see their shared past. At first these cognition powers seem like something of a gimmick and that they’ll be irritating to use more than anything else. Throughout the first episode I frequently forgot that they were there, and was often frustrated due to my own inability to work out how to progress the story. But as time went on, I learned to love them, and they actually added some really interesting elements to the gameplay. Only objects that are useful to you in some way will be highlighted for use with your cognition powers, so you don’t waste a whole lot of time clicking on unnecessary objects, which is one of my biggest adventure game pet peeves. So that was a nice change. It’s also worth noting that there are no puzzles that feel shoved in there just for the sake of it, which is a trap many adventure game developers fall into, and I always feel the need to commend people when they manage to avoid it.
In the opening sequence, I was worried that Erica was going to grate on me quite quickly, and I was going to spend four episodes running around as a character that was essentially an oversized brat – but oh, how wrong I was. She does yell at people a lot, but usually at times when I find myself sitting her yelling at my screen as well, and given some of the things she goes through, it never seems unreasonable. Plus, it helps that the way she interacts with others can be manipulated to a certain extent, with some of her dialogue choices affecting how easy it is to reason with people later on. She’s a little brash, and some of the situations she gets into are frustrating, but she handles herself well, and in the end I absolutely adored her, genuinely caring for her well-being This is actually a sentiment that I’d generalise to the whole game – the characterisation is amazing. By the end, I loved and felt for every single one of the main characters, and I found myself understanding the reasoning of even some of the most vile and misguided villains of the game, which I think is quite an accomplishment. It’s easy to feel for heroes, but no character in this game is painted black and white, and that takes a truly skilled writing team.
Technically, the game does have flaws, but it isn’t so often that this is a real bother. There is a bit of tedious backtracking in the first two episodes, given that cases can only be reviewed from Erica’s desktop at the bureau, but in the third episode you become able to review cases from your phone, and that removes a lot of frustration. Graphically, the game is a little inconsistent, as some of the cutscenes are gorgeous and contain artwork reminiscent of a graphic novel, while others are glitchy and a little creepy – and not for the right reasons. The story is very, very dark, and some of the artwork actually made me gasp – this might be the time to note that this really is not a game for children; some of the themes are extremely mature and, quite frankly, nightmare-inducing – but there are also parts that are just poorly animated, and it makes it hard to take some of the cutscenes seriously. In half of them the characters’ eyes look like they are rolling back in their heads, creating the impression that they are either possessed, or huffing constantly like insolent teens – neither of which are good things in my book. The ability to skip cutscences is horribly inconsistent; at some points I simply wanted to skip a line or two of dialogue and ended up missing huge chunks of plot, whereas at other times I was forced to endure entire boring sections.
With all that said, I’ve found myself excusing most of Cognition‘s technical flaws because I am honestly so captivated by the story. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that my notes became incoherent ramblings, because it absolutely is that involving; by the end I was nearly crying. Once I started playing I never wanted to stop, and the amazing dialogue and fleshed out characters and relationships are enough to justify a whole-hearted recommendation, I just beg of you to excuse some of the technical glitches. Maybe this has affected me personally for some reason (it’s mildly linked to psychology, and I’m a psychology student, so maybe I’m biased) but I haven’t been this involved in a storyline for a long time. So that’s a good sign.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller by Phoenix Online Studios.
Also, since the almighty Matt is a little pre-occupied at the moment, the header image here is a dismal mimicry of his usual format. Please excuse that.