Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 4: The Cain Killer

Usually in a “whodunit” type story, the killer is revealed at the end and the story wraps up quickly.  There might be an action scene where the killer is apprehended, but in a good thriller or mystery, the story doesn’t drag out very long.  This thought occurred to me while playing Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 4: The Cain Killer and I wondered, “why does this episode exist?”  The Cain Killer was revealed at the end of Episode 3.  Cordelia’s role in the story was revealed too.  What else is left but to chase them down and put them in handcuffs?  Episode 4 feels from the outset like it should have been the finale of Episode 3, and that the series should have ended there.  It is an actual episode though, albeit the shortest and most linear one of the series. It also includes some new gameplay concepts that aren’t explained or implemented very well.  The episode does have its high points including good puzzles and that the story comes to a satisfying conclusion while setting up a possible season two.  Despite that, Episode 4: The Cain Killer is the weakest entry in what has been a pretty enjoyable series.

Erica Reed is back to wrap up the case of the Cain Killer.  Her newfound "frenemy," Cordelia, is also back.  In this episode, the pair reluctantly work as a team to track down the Cain Killer, travelling to different locations and solving puzzles together.  A few big puzzles involve using Erica’s flashback abilities in tandem with Cordelia’s precognition abilities.  This combination leads to a few great puzzles that involve your intuition and common sense while taking full advantage of all the abilities learned in previous episodes.  As such, the puzzles here are the best in the series.  Solutions make logical sense, and they don't require you to try and get inside the brains of the developers.  This is, ideally, how an adventure game should work.  There is more to this episode than its puzzles though, and those other areas are where it falters.

One thing that you can say about Phoenix Online Studios is that they don't rest on their laurels when it comes to gameplay.  Each episode introduced a new gameplay element, and Episode 4 is no different.  This time, an influence system has been added to dialog sequences in an apparent attempt to add an RPG element to the game.  Supposedly, what you say affects how much characters will or will not like you and the actions that they ultimately take.  Unfortunately, this system is halfheartedly implemented and it doesn’t fulfill its intended function.  As far as I can tell, I wasn't given any meaningful choices with this new system.  It feels more like a multiple choice quiz where only one of the answers gives you a desirable outcome.  I found that this answer is always the empathetic option, and never the line that involves scolding or disagreeing with the other person.  This is a big problem, because most of the “good” options align with someone who is either a sociopath or a complete asshole, when what you really want to do is punch them in the face.  You might want to select a hostile dialog option that reflects what you think Erica or Cordelia should really say, but that leads to the occasional fail state.  This feature feels like an ill-fated attempt to mimic what worked so well in The Walking Dead.  Instead, it just detracts from the psychic puzzle solving and investigating that has worked so well throughout the series.

Speaking of fail states, there are tons of them.  There are more “game over” screens in the first hour of this episode than previous episodes combined.  Most of them are the unavoidable results of purely trial-and-error challenges that don’t let you use common sense or observational skills to avoid them.  One example of this problem is when Erica is cornered by a couple of guys in a small room.  You have the option of either trying to talk your way out of the situation or shoving your way past them.  If you choose the “talk your way out of it” option, its instant fail.  Why?  There is no on-screen clue or indication that this is the wrong option.  Since it is a story-driven adventure game, you might expect the nonviolent option to be viable.  It isn’t, and you only find out by trial and error.

An even worse example of this problem is in the game’s one instance of melee combat.   Yes, this episode has combat – sort of (let it never be said that this episode is predictable).  You don’t use one button to kick and one to punch, however.  You click the body part on the screen that you want to attack, and you either succeed or fail (and instantly get killed).  It is a pure trial-and-error sequence where you memorize what clicks make you get killed and avoid those long enough to win.  The game gives you no graphical clues on how you should proceed, or any information that allows you to use your common sense to win the fight.  I understand that a violent story needs to have some action, but there has to be a better way to pull it off than this.

The underdeveloped dialog system and the melee combat give this episode the feel that it was either rushed out the door or bloated with extra content to justify its existence as an episode.  The game itself feels like it is rushing you to the end.  There is rarely a moment to catch your breath, and after each puzzle or dialog tree there is almost always a cut scene as you are whisked away to the next location.  Some important events, such as finding a critical secret door, take place in a cut scene when they should be part of the gameplay.  Exploration, which was especially strong in Episodes 1 and 2, is almost nonexistent here.  I hate to criticize a developer for ambitiously expanding on their gameplay, but it looks like Phoenix Online bit off more than they could chew when they chose to augment the dialog system.  I can’t help but think that the episode would have been more fun if they had just stuck to the series’s successful core mechanics.

Episode 4’s story does a little bit of meandering before it finally reaches its conclusion, with Erica getting caught in a couple of the Cain Killer’s torture traps before the day is done.  It is somewhat anticlimactic, which is expected, since 25% of Cognition's story is being told after its climax (the end of episode 3).  Her supervisor, McAdams, plays a larger role in this episode, and unlike the previous episodes, he is an interesting and somewhat sympathetic character.  The ending also includes a quick scene to show what happened to John (the partner that you accidentally shot at the end of Episode 3).  Based on the episode’s marketing campaign and the dialog system, the ending appears to have been set up to where what happens to Cordelia, the Cain Killer, and John depends on your actions in the game.  After one playthrough, I couldn’t tell where my actions made a difference though.  Once again, the system feels undercooked.  For what it’s worth, I was very satisfied with the ending that I received.

Episode 4 struggles to fill its time more than the other episodes, but it is good enough – good enough to bring the story to and end and make you feel as if the hours that you invested in the first three episodes were worth your time.  It is a little bit limited on the point-and-click gameplay, but the few traditional puzzles that are in the game are some of the best in the series.  The new additions don’t work out very well, but I would love to see what could be done with them if there is a season two.

Cognition – An Erica Reed Thriller provided an interesting ride for me this year.  Thanks to its great art style, well-written, sympathetic characters, and quality music, it told a great story, as well as some interesting mini-stories in Episodes 1 and 2.  The art style, in particular, complemented the game’s psychic/supernatural abilities, which wouldn’t have fit as well into a game that was shooting for realism.  It probably also helped to smooth over the game’s corny dialog and adventure game contrivances (like in Episode 1 when Erica pulls a box of doughnuts out of her pocket).  The puzzles, while not breaking new ground, were at least above par for the genre, especially when they gave you the feeling of doing genuine detective work.  Corny dialog was a persistent weakness of the series and at the end, the gameplay faltered when it tried to accomplish too much.  Overall, this series is worth starting if you have yet to jump in, and it was more than good enough to have me looking forward to what I hope will be Season Two.