By Eric Pankoke on Sat, 12/14/2013
Cognition Episode 1 ($3.99)
3.5 out of 5 stars
Back when graphics were first starting to take shape for computer games, Sierra set the standard for adventures with titles like King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry. The fact that you could actually see your character follow your commands along with the immense amount of dialog made the experience feel as much like an interactive movie as anything. Phoenix Online Studios clearly understands what it takes to make this style of game, and as much as I loved the old Sierra games, I’d say the Cognition series kicks things up a notch or two. More realistic characters, adult subject matter (in a mature way, not like Leisure Suit Larry), and a focus on exploration and discovery (instead of finding an obscure key in a tree to unlock some mystic chest) give Cognition Episode 1 more of a Law & Order bent than anything. It’s just too bad this intriguing story telling couldn’t have come with a better interface wrapped around it.
You play Erica Reed, an FBI agent tasked with hunting down various serial killers. As the story progresses you’ll have to explore crime scenes, visit the forensics “lab” (a room in the main lobby of the morgue building thanks to budget cutbacks), and try to buddy up with the less than charming medical examiner. While certainly not your typical adventure game to begin with, Cognition takes things a step further by giving Erica Reed the unique ability to see into the past. It starts with the simple mechanic of touching an object to see what has occurred in its recent history, but as you continue your journey you’ll learn more about the power and expand it to be more accurate and useful. The combination of methodical analysis of the scenes as well as the use of cognitive powers gives Cognition Episode 1 a unique feel among modern adventure games.
To move Erica around you can just tap the location on the scene you wish to move to, or you can select an object and choose to interact with it in which case she will automatically move to it if necessary. Tapping on an interactive item on the screen brings up a context-sensitive set of icons that depend on what you know about the item and whether or not you have an inventory item selected. Opening your inventory and tapping the hand icon lets you manipulate certain items in your inventory without selecting something in the scene first, and tapping the plus sign lets you combine two items in your inventory. If you tap on a person that has something to say you’ll receive a series of dialogs letting you choose topics to talk about. The interface actually seems very well thought out; but I often have to select things two or three times before the system seems to respond, and sometimes it can be difficult choosing the right item in the dialog tree.
Many folks will probably find the balance of solving puzzles to exploring and talking with others a bit off-putting because it leans a lot more heavily towards the latter. Normally I’d be one of those people, but in the context of this particular game it actually makes sense. What I don’t like is the engine itself. This game is written on top of Unity 3D, and I’ve played many such games without much incident. The first problem with Cognition is that it seems to have to load for every single transition, even when you’re just going to zoom in to a particular part of a scene. This is often accompanied by a black screen for a bit, so you don’t know if the game is just doing its job or if it actually crashed. In one scene I was able to ask someone to recover something for me that I already had in my inventory, so I got to watch him repeat actions that made no sense. Another time Erica just sort of started walking on air in a particular scene, and in the most recent bug when she walked behind a certain area in a scene she’d actually disappear, which made the scene impossible to complete. Thankfully so far anything I’ve run into could be dealt with, but it’s still frustrating to see so many issues in a released game. My advice is that you make sure you save often using the explicit save feature in the menu, since the auto save either only saves when you first enter a scene or randomly decides at one point to save. Either way the auto save doesn’t feel very reliable.
There is a lot of good design in the visuals for this game. The characters look good, the backgrounds are highly detailed, and I like how the scenes often look like paintings. The animation is decent too; though just like the interface, there are apparent glitches like walking through furniture or mysteriously floating on air depending on where you tap to walk. The sound effects are good, and often there is nice use of ambient background noise such as when you go to your office. They also did a great job of casting the voices. The music is well written and does a good job of hanging in the back unless you’re focusing on it.
Overall Cognition Episode 1 is a great game. The story is interesting, the characters seem real, and while you’re not left completely on your own for obvious reasons, it feels a lot more like an investigative scenario than most detective games. The audio and visual elements certainly hold their own among iOS based adventure games as well. Unfortunately the buggy engine prevents me from giving this game the higher marks it deserves. If you can deal with mostly annoying glitches I still highly recommend giving Erica Reed a hand in her endeavors. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.