Earlier this month I reviewed The Hangman, the first episode to the episodic adventure game series Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The series, developed by Phoenix Online Studios, revolves around a troubled FBI agent as she encounters a series of cases, all of which seem to connect to the death of her brother years before. As the month comes to a close the second episode, The Wise Monkey, will see the light of day. And while it may suffer from many of the same problems as the first episode, The Wise Monkey is a step in the right direction.
Continuing the story where the previous episode left off, we find the protagonist Erica Reed thrown into the middle of another case. A serial killer known as The Wise Monkey has at least five victims under her belt, and she has a penchant for taking eyes, ears, and tongues as souvenirs. As with the first episode, the story is one of Cognition’s strong suits. Unlike before, where Reed would have other agents accompanying her along the way, this episode spins a more solitary yarn. It becomes more of a one-on-one battle of wits between Reed and the murderer. However, the story is far from perfect.
There are a few characters with almost painful voice work to be found in The Wise Monkey. These grating personalities seem to be created this way for effect, but it often goes too far. Characters who are supposed to be annoying are so to such an extreme that the attempt is obvious. They become caricatures, which is a shame because Phoenix Online has shown it can create believable people before. While the fantastical does come into play, as Reed does have physic powers, that’s where the fantasy ends. Characters are meant to be flawed yet grounded, and some new characters introduced just fall short.
The major advance players will see is the shedding of lengthy tutorials. While the psychic powers can become somewhat convoluted, the first episode felt the need to sprinkle overdone tutorials in very odd places. Cognition finally let me play it without jarring interruptions. If ever confronted with a puzzle that can’t be solved, resources exist in the game to remind you how the various systems work, but they’re out of the way. You will only get excessive information if you need it. Because of this, the structure of The Wise Monkey as a whole is more enjoyable. Each puzzle works its way logically into one or two other paths the player could then follow. And there are far fewer instances of proverbial “brick walls,” where irrational adventure game logic brings the game to a screeching halt. Check my review of the previous episode for a few specific examples of this, including a picky eater and how he ruined what could have been a great scene.
Unfortunately, The Wise Monkey doesn’t eliminate these problems entirely. There are still a few instances, one being the very first puzzle the player will encounter, where what’s happening in the story and what’s happening with the gameplay just don’t match. For fear of spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail, but during one of the first scenes, Erica Reed sees something happen. She witnesses somebody leave a room, but I then had to solve a puzzle to figure out where this person went. Not to figure out their destination, but to figure out what door they left through, which I just watched them walk through. These examples are few in number, but they seem to appear during the rare occasion where Cognition tries to include some minor semblance of choice.
Many of the same technical problems from the first episode still ring true with the second installment. Walking animations can still be unnatural and stilted, fingers can often bend at extreme angles when interacting with other objects, etc. These flaws are minor, and admittedly don’t break the game, but in a game where immersion is so important, it snaps you out of the experience. Whenever I found myself becoming completely engaged, and losing myself in the story, something always happened which acted as a glaring reminder that I was playing a video game. It was two steps forward and one step back. That being said, I’m much more excited for episode three than I thought I’d be.
As Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller develops, I find myself more interested in what the project will become. While I left The Hangman with a bad taste in my mouth, The Wise Monkey is more palatable. With a few amazingly intricate, yet still solvable puzzles, and a story that still has potential, the second episode outshines the first. Cognition is a modern 3D adventure game on a budget, and if that doesn’t scare you away, it just might be worth checking out.
Cognition: Episode 2 – The Wise Monkey was developed by Phoenix Online Studios and published by Reverb Publishing. It was released on January 30, 2012. A PC copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.