Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey

Cognition: an Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey, is the next chapter of the ongoing supernatural FBI/mystery adventure series that premiered last year.  The PC version is a good follow up to the first episode and, in some ways, is better. Episode 2 has a lot of the same strengths as Episode 1, and it even expands a little bit upon the psychic gameplay from the first chapter.  It does, however, have many of the same flaws. The episode has now arrived on the iPad, which is a natural platform for a point-and-click adventure game.  As with the first episode, the formula still works on this device, but the technologically superior PC version is definitely the better one.

Given how significant the events in the first episode are, jumping right into the game with this episode is not recommended.  The story in The Wise Monkey picks up merely hours after the end of The Hangman.  Erica Reed is back and on the case again, still a bit melodramatic, determined to get revenge on the villain who wreaked such havoc in Episode 1.  Pretty soon though, her attention gets diverted to a brand new serial killer case.  It is yet another grisly series of events that is reminiscent of a movie like Seven or a game like Heavy Rain.  By the end of Episode 2, Erica has solved another mystery, but there are even more questions left unanswered.

Speaking of melodrama, some of Erica’s lines still come across as overemotional or corny, as if they belong in a 1980′s cop drama.  She frequently does something that either should get her fired, or she reacts to something in a way that seems unprofessional.  These problems aren’t enough to spoil the story, but they keep her character from being one of the best parts of it.  In this reviewer’s opinion, a protagonist modeled after a more level-headed cop like Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs) or Olivia Benson (Law and Order: SVU) would have made a stronger main character.

By now, this series is starting to show its strengths in using the episodic format.  Each episode is a self-contained murder mystery, but there seems to be some kind of connection between all of these crimes and an overarching storyline that ties all of the episodes together.  The mysterious “helper” who provided you with clues in the first case is back again, sending you cryptic hints and indications that there is some sort of method to his/her madness.  It is a solid story that is progressing at a nice pace, and this episode ends with a great climax.  At the end, you will probably be anticipating the next one so that you can find out what happens next.

Episode 2 sort of stumbles out of the gate, however. It begins with a crime that seems too implausible.  Without giving away what happens, let’s just say that the FBI field office where Erica Reed works has worse security than a Burger King.  Everyone’s reaction after the crime seems unrealistically subdued.  Other than the fact that a replacement boss has been brought in, it seems like business as usual around the office.  Your pal, John, still leans back at his desk doing basically nothing while the couple of extras in the office peck away at their keyboards.  A great opportunity to give the story some weight by showing how it affects the characters was blown here.  The flaw is forgivable though, because The Wise Monkey quickly gets into the good part of the story.

As with Episode 1, most of the gameplay is standard point-and-click adventure fare (or, on an iPad, "point-and-tap").  However, it is stronger in Episode 2 even if the improvement is subtle.  The gameplay feels more like detective work, and less like a series of linear game puzzles.  The logic seems a little bit more sensible, and the last puzzle of the game is a good one that requires you to apply everything that you have learned in the episode.  In addition, you now have a new psychic ability — Synergy.  With this ability, you can use your cognition skill on items in your inventory to construct past events.  Combined with the abilities that you learned in the first game, you wind up doing lots of psychic investigating.

Through your investigations and your reconstructions of prior events, you actually get to know one of the victims and her personality a bit.  The victims in this series feel like they were once vibrant human beings with their own hopes, dreams, and flaws.  Cognition‘s biggest strength so far is that you not only want to catch the killer to finish the game, but to get justice for people who are actually worth caring about.  Your work feels important, and it is that feeling that gives you an emotional connection to the story.  While a lot of games may have well-developed living characters,  the Cognition episodes might be the only ones with well-developed deceased characters.

The beautiful style, with static 2D backgrounds and cel-shaded polygonal characters, also returns.  The artwork continues to be fantastic, which is a big reason why the story works and the atmosphere always feels like it should.  The colorful apartment of a hippy is relaxing, but the lair of a criminal or a crime scene photo is suitably unsettling.  The visuals combine with the music and the supernatural theme to lend the game a somewhat unique atmosphere.  I find myself growing especially fond of the Boston city map music — it has a little bit of a “Mass Effect galaxy map” vibe to it.

Cognition is a series whose mechanics translate fairly well onto the iPad, but the movement to a portable platform is a fairly rough one.  It is especially rough with Episode 2.  Although it doesn’t require a powerful machine to enjoy on the PC, the iPad is still pushed to its limit by the game.  There are frequent delays between tapping the screen and then seeing something happen.  Dialog will occasionally end up out order, as if one character said his or her lines faster because the device loaded them faster.  Sometimes, if you try to move Erica, nothing will appear to happen on the screen for a few seconds, right before she magically teleports halfway across the screen while running or walking.  Worst of all though, Episode 2 is highly unstable on the iPad, or at least it was on mine.  I was rarely able to play the game longer than about 30 minutes without it randomly crashing to the desktop.  This copy was a pre-release code, crashes can be patched, and I don’t know how widespread this problem is, but I would still recommend buying the PC version of this game if it is a viable choice for you.

Overall, Cognition: an Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey is a solid step forward for this promising mystery series, even though the technical issues on the iPad are a bit of a drag.  The point-and-click gameplay does feel somewhat outdated, but it is devoid of the pixel hunts and illogical hilarity that has ruined past games of the genre.  The unpredictable story is very good, and the writing is solid, albeit not perfect.  This episode is a quality experience, and since Episode 3 is also out on the PC, the story is worth investing yourself in.