Halloween 2012 Gaming Special Day 6: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, Ep. 1: The Hangman (PC, Mac)
We still want…need your brrrrains
Need a break after the brain-teaser Vampires!? We’re not done yet with making your brain do more than the usual work. Adventure games haven been considered to be a relaxing pastime over the past few years with puzzles aimed at a more casual audience, tired of that too? There might just be a game which satisfies both lovers of suspense and intriguing puzzles…
A curse of Knight past
Serious adventure games might not always succeed in pulling the player into a compelling story world as they usually fail with flat characters and a clichéd plot. Mystery/crime stories are especially hard to get right. But with Cognition, one developer might just have the right ingredients to make you believe again in maturity in adventure games which started with Gabriel Knight back in the '90s, but more or less lost its way since then. Still thanks to Kickstarter, indie developers going stronger every day, it’s finally here…at least the first of four episodes.
So get your pen and paper ready, your brain cells together and prepare for some adventure game which will suck you in and won’t let you out…
FBI agent with the ability to see into the past (and future to a certain degree) is investigating some suicides which were apparently triggered by a serial killer.
Out of the ashes of a fan adventure
Phoenix Online Studios bring their first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller with the title The Hangman to the download indie public. After sucessfully reinvigorating Sierra’s King’s Quest saga with the fan adventure The Silver Lining (still waiting for the last episode) and greenlighting this project with Kickstarter funds, it’s an unusual project for the developer, but before release, it became already under public notice when Jane Jensen (fame for her highly acclaimed Gabriel Knight series) became involved as consultant story writer.
Cinematic storytelling at its best
In their fan adventure project, the writing talent of Phoenix Online Studios was felt through every line of dialogue and the overall, quite dark story. In Cognition, the storytelling is certainly at its peak. Believable tragic characters, which are on par with or even better realized than in Telltale’s recent The Walking Dead episodic game, tell their own sad stories. Some touching moments and even brutal sequences make the player feel for them, and even if the story itself doesn’t appear to be more than generic thriller fare, it has enough interesting ideas and surprising twists to never bore, but keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Touch me tender with those notes you play
The drama and tension is also achieved with the music which is simply fantastic. Like a suspenseful thriller the score reinforce the impact of the violence and get the player involved in the action scenes (of which there are quite a few and some are pretty bloody) and touches in ways only low piano and acoustic guitar tunes can capture the mood. Sadly the voice acting can feel a bit off, at least at the beginning or in more dramatic scenes in which the actors are trying a bit too much to say their lines.
Like a comic imitating life
Special mention has to go to the cut scenes which are moving comic strips come to life and are drawn with the hand of an artist who knows his job. Together with some weird camera angles and sudden changes of the pictures it’s a rather unique idea to present a story. What is also a very interesting way of getting the player involved before the actual game starts is to give him the opportunity to read a prequel in the form of a downloadable comic.
Life can’t be imagined with graphics
The background visuals are also quite nice (especially the moody cemetery which looks like a beautiful and sad painting). The only downside is how the cel-shaded characters’ animations are quite outdated, as the game can’t hide its fan adventure heritage. Facial expressions are rather stiff, only the near-synchronized lip movements provide some credibility. It’s quite a shame as the way the story is told could have been enhanced by a better graphics engine (the real-time shadows ARE impressive, though, and so are some of the lighting effects). With not a lot of moving background details, it’s of course a good compromise for low-end-graphics-processor owners (even if the loading times are a bit too long for such graphics), but it nevertheless distracts a bit from the overall perfect comic book presentation.
Old school vs. new school adventure
Adventure games rarely deviate from their typical gameplay templates: have dialogues with characters, put everything you find in your inventory, combine items in a not-always-logical fashion, and puzzle your way through to the end.
Innovative ideas are of a sad minority, and usually they fail to capture the audience’s attention as it’s typically an unforgiving community who likes to have their old-school classic point-and-click mechanics intact.
Cognitive skills and perception are everything
Cognition manages to incorporate many of tried-and-tested formulas (most of the inventory puzzles are actually quite good because they’re logical, even if a bit standard), but is also original in many ways it uses additional gameplay techniques. As the title suggests and if one believes Wikipedia, it has to do with “processes such as memory, association, concept formation, pattern recognition, language, attention, perception, action, problem solving and mental imagery.”
And in a way, the game successfully implements these concepts into the gameplay: Erica is a profiler who takes a step further in analyzing what happened in the past. By clicking on a specific button, her viewpoint changes into a world where the player can find certain items or interaction points. It’s then possible to reconstruct what happened with these highlighted areas. This is integrated in the puzzle design as she later gets the ability to connect three things which are related to each other to form a coherent whole of a crime scene or event in the past and therefore reenact that specific situation in time.
Additionally in a rather mindbending interrogation scene, Erica has to make a suspect remember a specific situation. But his memory is lacking certain information which the FBI agent has to provide him with step by step. Without taking too much away, it’s a brilliant way to make puzzles and storytelling become one. In a way the interrogation and remembering sequence was seen partly in Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter which unfortunately suffered from bad puzzle design, stereotypical characters and overall poor execution of gameplay and storytelling (not to mention all the technical issues).
A page-turner of a story
But even without these unique gameplay ideas, the way the player progresses in the story, is extremely well done. Jane Jensen herself couldn’t achieve with Gray Matter the same eagerness for investigation which made her original games such a joy to play. Phoenix Online Studios definitely learned from her early works and offers the player a rich experience of finding out what is really going on. There might be a bit of downtime when trying to find the evidence and do some investigation work with the computer, but it’s all in the interest of delivering a (relatively) realistic portrayal of FBI work and a story which becomes more and more interesting the more clues she gathers.
Call me or use my computer if you can
Another gameplay element which is worked quite well into the framework of the puzzles is the smartphone. This can be used in different ways for looking something up on the internet, making notes (actually the player is required to type in what he likes), playing music and other things. It’s also possible to write emails to Erica’s father who can help her with tasks at hand, a help-system mentor so to speak.
Add some real investigative work with Erica’s desk computer by going through crime and suspect databases among other things, and one finds a lot of things to do here, compared to other games in the genre where the player is usually directed from one scene and puzzle to the next without real involvement in the story.
Not suitable for minors…or players without skills
The only problem the game sometimes has is that the difficulty curve is (even with the hint system) too steep to be suitable for beginners or even advanced players. It happens quite often that there’s a lot of foot work needed to find the right clues, connections and progress in the story. Granted, it’s also very satisfying to find the solutions with real detective work. But with some technical problems it isn’t always fun to revisit the locations when one is stuck.
The game has some shortcomings which will hopefully be taken care of in future episodes: the map is rather annoying to use. It’s not possible to quickly travel from one place to another as Erica has to first leave the location she is at the moment. With some animations which can’t be interrupted and a few screens to click through, this isn’t much fun. Even less fun is the fact that the map only shows a certain district of the city, so (with some loading times) the next one has to be travelled to before going to the desired destination. In Episode 1 there are only two districts, but if the game gets more complicated, it can become quite a chore to change between the individual places.
Repetitive patterns of behavioral dialogization
Sometimes it’s also a bit annoying to hear the same lines spoken by Erica when she looks at a specific object or her surroundings before actually interacting with it or them. The same holds true with some repetitive dialogue lines from the other characters. In one part, when listening to a recording device, it’s also not possible to skip the rather long spoken text. These are of course minor issues which could easily be fixed with a patch, and hopefully be absent from future episodes.
A very good start of a series and candidate for adventure game of the year
Phoenix Online Studios’ first episode The Hangman is both an achievement in mature storytelling and great puzzle design. It is the spiritual successor of the Gabriel Knight series, but with its own unique ideas. Even if it has some technical hiccups and the graphics are dated, it has more substance than many other “serious” adventure games of late. The game also sets a new standard of episodic content with a long playtime of at least 5-6 hours and unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead (which is without a doubt amazing in its own right, but less a game than a cinematic experience) demands a lot of cerebral thinking with its successful implementation of investigative work, cognition abilities and overall involvement in a believable game world.
Rating: 9/10 (Even if an 8.5 would leave room for improvement, I don’t give half-points and unlike a lot of 8/10 games, this is actually a very original and engaging adventure game; and the developer has to be applauded for trying something new with his resources at hand; we’re very lucky to have Kickstarter…)