The past few years have seen a resurgence of adventure games, and one of the newer entries in this renaissance is Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. Set to release in four episodes, the series will focus on high stakes crime investigations and Saw-esque murders. With a team that includes comic artist Romano Molenaar and game designer Jane Jensen, there’s enough talent for an amazing series. And while the premise is an interesting one, the game seems cluttered and often just plain boring. The first episode, titled The Hangman, falls short in more ways than one.
The Hangman tells the story of special agent Erica Reed, an FBI agent troubled by the untimely death of her little brother. She finds herself obsessed with finding the serial killer responsible, and when mysterious murders start happening a few years later, she makes the obvious logical connections. Then, along with the rag-tag group of fellow agents, Reed tries to track down the killer. As the story progresses, Reed picks up a few psychic abilities, which allow her to look into the past, and aid in her investigations. The quality of the storytelling never really goes beyond that of a television crime drama, but that’s not the problem. I actually enjoyed what is shown so far of the story, but it’s held back by one too many antiquated mechanics.
While playing the first episode, its roots in old-school adventure games are clearly evident. There are moments when the game tries to use more modern game design to its benefit, with certain story beats reminding me of what made something like The Walking Dead so great. But far too many of these instances are ruined when archaic, or just plain illogical design rears its ugly head. Without ruining any of the story, there’s a part about half-way through Hangman where you must interrogate someone.
A fair amount of investigation leads up to this point, and the story becomes heavier than usual as you sit down to question someone about some pretty heinous stuff. But after a few questions, I hit a brick wall, and was unable to progress. After much trial and error, I found out I had to leave the interrogation room, then leave the police station, then travel to another location to sit through a ten minute tutorial. Why, after all of this build-up, would you pull the rug out from underneath a scene like this? Any emotional impact the encounter could have had was gone, as it simply became another string of meaningless tasks, one of which involved getting the guy three different types of food. And yes, that included bringing one type to him, having him refuse it, etc. With few exceptions, scenes that should have real power are riddled with what seem like meaningless errands.
One could argue that this is simply inherent to the genre, but it isn’t. Games like The Walking Dead and others have shown that, if you give the story enough time and focus, it can be enough. Each step along the path doesn’t need to be filled to the brim with things to do and items to collect; each action should cause something and progress the story. Far too often I found myself with simply bored with the game. Yes, I wanted to continue the story, but I didn’t want to do the menial tasks it was asking me to do. It didn’t help that moving through the game’s various locales isn’t very streamlined. Even when running, Reed takes longer than expected to travel from location to location, and you’ll be doing this a lot.
Like many older adventure games, there’s an overworld map full of the locations you can visit, and you often have to run through two to three screens just to get back to said map. This is exaggerated by the occasional technical problem, which usually involved Reed getting stuck in an animation, and having to wait upwards of thirty seconds for the game to right itself. My gripes with the general structure of the game aside, there are a few puzzles within The Hangman which are truly satisfying. The problem is, the time in between these occasional moments of brilliance is filled with a lot of boring nonsense.
The artwork used in the game is definitely one game’s more appealing aspects. There’s a hand drawn, almost painterly look to each environment you encounter, and the talent of the team’s artists is obvious. Problems only occur when you start to analyze the character models. The overall design is meant to be reminiscent of a comic book, and they do evoke this aesthetic, but when the models start to move, it falls apart. Faces tend to only switch between a few pre-set emotions in a very deliberate and mechanical way, constantly breaking the immersion and reminding you that it’s a video game. The life that is present in other, larger budget adventure games isn’t there, and you will take note.
An impressive soundtrack blends with the look to give the game a pretty impressive wrapper overall. I found myself genuinely enjoying the music, and each track differentiates itself, while still keeping to a uniform theme. But, continuing with the sound design, the quality of the voice work is often mediocre at best. Boston accents seem to come and go, and while playing I’d often forget characters were even supposed to have them, until the occasional overdone line.
There’s potential for the future of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. With a decent story, and other scattered high points, it could become something great. That being said, there’s far too much working against the first episode to recommend it. With the release of the second episode due January 30th, I’ll keep my eye on the series, but I’d suggest waiting until we see more before jumping on board.
Cognition: Episode 1 – The Hangman was developed by Phoenix Online Studios and published by Reverb Publishing. It was released on October 10, 2012. A PC copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.