With the smashing success of The Walking Dead, we should probably expect lots of episodic adventure game series to come out over the next few years to take advantage of the newfound acceptance of the format. Cognition: Episode 1, or, more formally, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman, is part of a new adventure game series that hopes to ride this wave. This Kickstarter-assisted, point-and-click adventure game succeeds because of its writing and characters, but doesn’t stray very far from the somewhat stale gameplay format of the genre. There is nothing particularly wrong about it though; it is a thoroughly competent game. Overall, it is a game that is worth your time if you enjoy a good story and are not put off by fairly mundane gameplay.
Cognition: Episode 1 is the story of FBI agent Erica Reed. Reed is a tough-as-nails special agent with a “Baahston” accent and a supernatural gift. With her gift of cognition, Erica can reconstruct past events and gain clues about her investigations. She can view a crime scene’s past by focusing on a specific object, or help a witness recall an event by rebuilding memories. She’s on the case in this episode trying to track down a murderer. To solve this crime, the player guides Erica as she collects evidence from crime scenes, engages in all kinds of discussions, and solve typical adventure game problems: get object A out of the drawer and give it to someone to get object B. Combine object B with object C to get object D. Yes, you know the drill.
While it is not technologically impressive, Cognition features a colorful, cel-shaded art style that makes it quite pleasing to the eye. There is a variety to the scenery, much of it colorful and beautiful. At first, the cel-shaded style feels a little bit gimmicky but as you play through the game, it suits it well. Furthermore, the supernatural twist in the game wouldn’t work as well in a game with more realistic visuals. Suffice it to say, Cognition gets a lot of mileage from its graphics with what was probably a small budget. The same cannot quite be said of the voice acting which is pretty good for most of the characters, but the main character doesn’t fare so well. The voice actress for Erica Reed gets a little melodramatic at times and speaks some of her lines with an inappropriate amount of emotion, as if read out of context.
As far as its plot goes, the first episode of Cognition is somewhat vanilla. It follows the gritty, serial killer formula established by movies such as Seven and Saw, and videogames such as Heavy Rain and Condemned: Criminal Origins. Veterans of these works may find the plot points to be somewhat predictable. This criticism shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the story isn’t good, however, and that is because of the game’s great cast of characters. The story excels because Erica and the people that she encounters feel like real people with real emotions, whose fates you actually care about. Even one of the victims that you investigate is fleshed out well enough to form an emotional connection to. Given how dialog-driven the game is, this is an important accomplishment. It allows you to remain engaged in the story despite the occasionally poor line delivery.
The story, more specifically, the characters, are good enough to capture you. The gameplay, however, is standard point-and-click fare, for the most part. As such, it suffers from the same internal logic problems that just about every point-and-click adventure game has suffered from since the genre was invented. You might know how to solve a problem, but you can’t solve the problem until you do some other tasks in a specific order. You can predict how an object is going to be used, but you can’t use it that way until you do something else first. You sneak into places and take stuff that doesn’t belong to you in a way that would probably get you fired in real life. If these games fell out of favor with you, then Cognition: Episode 1 probably will not change your attitude about them. Over the past ten years or so, freedom and open-ended problem solving have become more and more common in games. A return to the rigid, linear, puzzle solving of the point-and-click genre feels like a trip back to the Stone Age.
That’s not to say that the gameplay is a complete loss. There are no boneheaded puzzles in the game, and it generally errs on the side of being easy. This is good news for those of us who don’t want to hear “I can’t use that here” fifty thousand times. The cognition/ESP mechanic is implemented well. It shines especially bright during a prolonged interrogation scene, where you use your detective and cognitive abilities to help a witness reconstruct his memory. During that scene, you get to use your detective skills and your supernatural skills simultaneously. It is the part in the game where it truly accomplishes what it sets out to do. It is also the scene where the story reaches somewhat of an emotional climax, cementing it as easily the best part of this episode. Episode 1 would have been excellent, had there been more of those moments.
Despite its problems, Cognition succeeds at immersing you in its emotionally charged, supernatural mystery. If you are fond of mysteries and adventures, you won’t regret the time that you spend with the first episode of this promising series. While it shares lots of flaws with its brethren of the genre, this point-and-click adventure game has enough going for it with its story and cognition mechanics to make it worth playing.