Published on December 19th, 2012 | by James Kulas
Cognition: Episode 1 – The Hangman
I’ve talked before about my love for the point-and-click adventure genre, so naturally I jumped at the chance to investigate the fruit of Phoenix Online’s successful Kickstarter, Cognition. Similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, Cognition will be delivered in four episodes, the first of which I am now qualified to judge before your very eyes.
Heralding the first wave of crowd-funded creations, the quality of these forerunners could have a significant impact on our willingness to cough up for what often amounts to concept art and promises. We’re inhabiting an experimental bubble of hope and possibility, but like a bubble it’s extremely fragile, and as much as I want to see the model succeed, it makes me nervous. I fear it’ll only take one high-profile catastrophe to send Kickstarter and the like into an irrevocable death-spiral. So is this the game to allay my fears, and bring contentment to my nay-saying neurons?
We assume the role of FBI agent Erica Reed in her pursuit of a serial sibling killer, tracking him to the gates of a foreboding Boston graveyard. After a brief introductory tutorial and some basic puzzle solving we’re familiarised with the first of Erica’s titular ‘cognitive’ gifts. Flipping into ‘cognition’ mode highlights objects with a tale to tell, while selecting them reveals a flashback generally used to solve a puzzle. Anyone familiar with J.J. Abrams’ eclectic blend of pseudo-science and gritty drama will find themselves in familiar territory.
Sleuthing my way into an old mausoleum at the expense of my beautiful knees, I discover my brother at the mercy of an elaborate trap. Employing my newly discovered hocus pocus I defuse the device and scuffle with its creator, a conflict he seems surprisingly unwilling to continue after I set fire to his Christmas jumper. If only his Nan had realised what a fire hazard those things are. Inevitably my efforts are in vain, my brother breathes his last in my arms as I look skyward through the falling raindrops, and the prologue fades to black.
The sudden change of pace between initial tasks like “shoot lock with gun” and “dig hole with shovel” and the introduction of a timed multi-stage bomb defusal problem is quite jarring. It also highlights some general interface clunkiness; disarming the device requires using your cognition power on six different wires. In practice this means clicking on the sphere in the bottom-left, clicking on the wire and then the sphere again to activate a vision. With so much pointer-mileage this gets pretty tedious by the sixth time, a keybinding would certainly have helped.
Both bomb defusal and the ensuing fisticuffs require you to act fast or perish. Having successfully adjusted my expectations, this mechanic is immediately abandoned; I can only recall one other example during the final sequence where it’s reused. It’s worth noting again this is part one of four, so there’s a lot of scene setting and establishing of mechanics which will presumably be called upon later, but when you’re selling each part separately it’s important they can stand on their own to a certain extent.
Skipping forward three years to the present, Erica’s trauma serves both as her motivation for justice and a trigger for the development of her abilities. Story points are delivered in an often-beautiful hand painted style, but there’s no escaping the heavy handed clichés. Given the comic-book and film noire overtones, perhaps clichés are to be expected, but Jane Jensen’s involvement had significantly raised my expectations.
Gameplay sections are brought to life with gloriously detailed hand-painted backdrops, the quality of which draws attention to the somewhat inconsistent 3D work. The ‘posterise’ style filter is occasionally capable of terrifyingly unnatural creations and facial expressions, particularly during speech, doing little to lend the story gravitas. Similarly, animations are mostly serviceable but you’re never too far away from your next Thunderbirds marionette moment. These unwieldy exaggerations can shatter any hard-won tension that may have been established.
My single greatest criticism is the agonising load time seemingly associated with every action. Just moving across a room summons the wrath of the fearsome loading disk, consistently outstaying its welcome just long enough to remind me I’m waiting. During dialogue exchanges it manifests as awkward pauses, stripping conversations of their momentum. As you progress, more areas become accessible from the city map, making the issue increasingly prominent when checking several locations in search of your next move, or exiting an area by mistake.
Your spiritual guide, Rose, is a definite low point, but her contribution is thankfully minimal. Conversely, Raleigh Holmes grows into the role of Erica as the story progresses, producing some nuanced dialogue and believable banter in places. Occasionally sentences appear cut short or hastily spliced together, but the overall impact is fairly low. There’s also a disappointing lack of humour, particularly when attempting unusual item combinations. Offering a dishevelled witness a doughnut (who specifically stated he was hungry) yields a deflating “those things won’t work together”. Perhaps Erica was using her powers to uncover his dietary requirements? Spacebar reveals an abundance of inconsequential items in each scene which I initially endeavoured to inspect, bracing for charming or sarcastic dialogue. Alas, my only reward was uninspiring furniture commentary.
While these issues can be jarring and frustrating they don’t irreparably damage the beating heart of Cognition. Once Erica develops the ability to summon spiritual representations of past events, and repair shattered memories it opens up the potential for some genuinely meaty puzzles. Episode one only has time for a couple of these before drawing to a close, but it’s a taste of things to come.
Cognition Episode One isn’t a catastrophe or the harbinger of doom, but I’m not sure I’d be walking on sunshine if I were one of the Kickstarter contributors in the $1000 bracket. After a while I did begin to warm to it, although I’m not sure if that will be enough to hold my interest for the next instalment. I will say that there is definitely potential here, and if Phoenix Online can unlock some of that with a little more polish and attention to detail in future episodes, it could make a fine addition to the genre.