Cognition Episode 1: The Hangman
Cognition Episode 1: The Hangman arrived at the tail end of 2012, and it embodies everything about the past year in gaming. 2012 was the year that Kickstarter became a renowned funding source for indie games, and Cognition was one of those success stories. 2012 also saw the adventure game genre explode back into the mainstream with Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, and Cognition is another fine example of that same genre. Among the embarrassments that the gaming industry faced in 2012 was relentless scandal over sexism, but Cognition features a female lead who fights crime without needing a rubber nun costume.
Every other year game critics say that the adventure genre is dead. In between, they proclaim that it has returned. But the truth is that adventure gaming never left, and there are dozens of talented developers creating excellent tiles year round, every year. Cognition is a new adventure franchise by Phoenix Online Studios, who fans might recognize from the unofficial King’s Quest games The Silver Lining.
Adventure fans may have also heard of the “Story Consultant” who worked on the project, Jane Jensen Of Gabriel Knight fame).
Jensen’s influence is clearly visible on the project; the visual design is similar to her last game Grey Matter, Jensen’s daughter-in-law Raleigh Holmes provides voice work for the main character, and the story has the powerful emotional impact that marks all of Jensen’s work.
Cognition is about an FBI Agent named Erica Reed who is harrowed by the loss of her brother in a case from years past. That unsolved mystery plagues her as she works on a new case that involves a series of suicides which might be more than they seem.
Erica has a supernatural power that aids in her work as an agent; she can see what happened in the past of a particular object or location. This lets her (And the Player controlling her) solve puzzles that no one else can. In the early parts of the game, this works as a linear clue system which highlights locations and practically screams “Click HERE dumbass”.
However, as the game progresses, Erica gains more control over her powers and will eventually tackle some very tough puzzles that require players to determine which objects in a room share a common history, or to unravel confusing memories.
This use of psychic powers is a fun new mechanic for adventure gamers. Locations are revisited as Erica’s abilities increase, and this keeps up the variety. Eventually, she gains the power to see other people’s memories, and this is used to create some very dramatic scenes as she helps other characters deal with painful memories.
Aside from Erica’s special powers, she’s also an FBI agent who has to use traditional detective skills to piece together evidence. She can’t reveal her abilities to certain characters, so this means that she has to use old-fashion police work sometimes. Players will need to assess crime scenes CSI style and present their findings to other agents. This has a bit of the Phoenix Wright style of play, and forces players to do actual detective work.
Trial and error still pops up, and a there are a few moments when the designers’ logic doesn’t make sense. This can lead to running around until players find the right NPC to talk to, but there are a couple of hint systems built in to keep players from having to resort to Googling a walkthrough.
One of the hints features is a button to highlight useful items in each scene, however Erica happens to be from a family of law enforcements types, so she can always whip out her cellphone and send a text message to “Dad” for a hint. Yes, modern communication has made it far too easy for players to find solutions to adventure game puzzles, but the designers at Phoenix Online Studios have found a clever compromise by just letting their characters demand hints from fictional characters.
Cognition’s indie budget is clear in terms of its animation. It uses slightly animated still images for cutscenes, and the in-game engine has a comic-book look to it, rather than an attempt at realism. The sound, however, is excellent. Music is evocative, and most of the voice work is great, especially Raleigh Holmes’ Boston accent (“There’s a wicked killah on the loose”).
Cognition is an episodic story, and Episode 1 The Hangman shows a good deal of promise for the rest of the series. There is a lot of backstory that had to be dealt with in this episode, and several new sets of mechanics that had to be taught to players. It ends with a gigantic cliffhanger so hopefully Episode 2 will hit the ground running when it releases later this month. It is out now for PC, and a demo is available for players who are still cautious about this very promising new IP.