Due to the tremendous capacity for focus on story and characters, adventure games are a great fit for the episodic format. This fact has repeatedly been established by Telltale’s many successes in the genre and format. Pheonix Online Studios, another Adventure Specialist, sent an episodic adventure thriller called Cognition to sample. Let’s see if they did the formula proud.
Cognition tells its story and presents its gameplay in a number of ways. Most of the gameplay comes in the form of polygonal characters and props atop a static background, a style I usually compare to the old Resident Evil games. The game is based on the Unity Engine, and thus doesn’t have the bells, whistles, and polish that has led the Unreal Engine to homogenize the industry, but it is attractive enough. Rather than focusing on realism, the game tries to capture a pseudo comic book feel, with clear divisions between color levels, strong outlines around characters, and frequent cuts to motion-comic cinematics. While not impressive, the game is at least well presented.
With that said, there are some weaknesses to the game’s visuals. The animation is… rough. Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by the motion capture that’s become so prevalent these days, but the characters move in a decidedly awkward fashion at times, like the characters from Team America or Thunderbirds. Unless I’m mistaken, there was a bit of Inverse Kinematic animation to help position the feet, but that led to some wacky cut scenes, with an injured Erica walking with one foot on one stair and the other on the next one. She also got out of the way for someone by walking across the top of a table. Once or twice I noticed a graphical glitch like a person floating in the air beside his chair rather than sitting in it. These glitches weren’t everywhere, but where they were, they were consistent.
Overall the graphics do their job, but a bit more polish would have been helpful.
This is a reasonably well executed adventure game at its core. You move around by clicking the environment, double clicking if you want to run. Interactive objects bring up a wheel of options when you click them, usually allowing you to inspect, interact, or utilize your inventory with them. It took a moment to get used to the method this game uses to deploy inventory items. Rather than pulling up your inventory and dragging an object, or perhaps clicking interact and choosing an object, you queue up an object in the inventory slot at the top of the screen, then choose the inventory option off of the context menu to use it. In a way this is helpful, as it immediately makes it clear what objects do or do not require an item.
Two things about the game stuck out as being particularly unique to me, one for its realism and the other for its supernatural nature. One of the tools available to our hero is one that you and I have come to rely upon in real life: the smartphone. Just as in reality, your phone is your notepad (you can actually type notes into it), your camera, your research tool (complete with web search) and even (wonder of wonders) a communication device! I don’t know why, but there was something satisfying about tackling some of the puzzles in the way I would do so in real life. “Oh, you need to know a restaurant near a train station? Let me look that up…” The phone also serves as the game’s hint system. Though I didn’t use it much, the hints were actually two-fold. First, you have a list of active puzzles about which you can ask for advice. Just seeing the list was often enough of a reminder for me to move forward on a subject I’d forgotten I’d set aside. If you’re still stuck, you can send a text to your current adviser (it changes from time to time) and he or she will nudge you toward the solution.
The other aspect of the game that sets it apart a bit is the eponymous “Cognition” powers. These are psychic powers of intuition that give Erica Reed, our protagonist, an investigative edge. In the beginning you’re limited only to catching brief glimpses of the past of certain objects, but as the game progresses you’ll learn to do things like restore people’s fuzzy memories and conjure up images from the past. To keep you from groping around blindly with these abilities, you activate them with a click to the “cognition sphere” and are greeted with a color coded list of glowing hot spots that will work with various abilities.
Another thing about this game that stood out was the fact that dialogue options can have some severe impact. I’ll admit, in a lot of games I just hammer through the dialogue with the expectation that in any given tree I’ll get a bunch of fluff and one actual clue. Doing so in this game can bite you in the butt. You’ll be asked questions based on the clues and statements you’ve encountered, and the game is more than willing to throw a bunch of incorrect answers up there with the correct one, which can lead Erica to seem like an idiot and be called out as one. You’re also frequently given choices of different ways to do things, which with drastically affect how the game moves forward and how people will behave around you. Do you force someone to do something with authority or blackmail, or do you decide to catch your flies with honey instead of vinegar. Being nice now will earn you a favor later, while being mean will necessitate a different solution to a later problem. Even a question as simple as “Do you want some coffee?” can have major implications.
As you progress past the first episode, the gameplay deepens further, eventually giving multiple characters to control and more complex puzzles to solve. With the exception of a few non-obvious puzzles and a little bit of tedious travel, I’d be hard pressed to find anything particularly wrong with the game.
Cognition’s audio is notable. All of the characters are voiced, though the level of skill that goes into that voice work is a mixed bag. Erica and her partner John put in good performances, but other characters like Terrance or Rose seem a little amateurish at times. The music is heavily synthesized, but maintains a reasonable atmosphere of tension. Prominently featured are a few songs by an actual band, which comes as a nice change of pace when it shows up.
I didn’t check to see what the nation of origin was for this game, but there were a few phrases that struck me as a little non-Bostonian (the game is set in Boston, you see). “I gave you the phone so you would answer it when I ring you” is a good example.
Though initially I felt differently, as it developed I really came to feel the story of Cognition was one of its strongest points. You follow FBI Agent Erica Reed as she investigates a case with a strong Saw vibe to it. She’s a little emotionally unbalanced thanks to a recent loss at the hands of one of the perpetrators she was investigating. On top of that, she’s grappling with psychic powers she doesn’t entirely feel comfortable embracing. It seemed like it was going to be a somewhat standard police thriller, albeit with a few interesting gimmicks, but once you get to episode two it becomes clear that the game isn’t pulling any punches. Two words: “scalpel” and “ear”. The story twists and turns in ways that would be spoilerific if I were to expand upon. It all had the feel of high quality dramatic miniseries, right down to the “previously on Cognition” vignettes that begin each chapter.
One of my favorite parts of the way in which the game presents its story, by the way, was the fact that you get an “episode zero” comic book to set the stage for you. More games should do this.
If you like Adventure games, but would prefer one with a bit of an edge, Cognition is worth a try. It isn’t without its rough edges, with a few graphical glitches and the like, but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded by a complex and engaging story and a steadily expanding set of gameplay options.
7.5 / 10: After a few glitches and a slow start, Cognition grows into a solid adventure game with a strong story.