Published on May 16th, 2013 | by James Kulas
Cognition: Episode 3 – The Oracle
It’s been a few months since last I wandered through Boston’s sinister back alleys in my heels and snappy trouser suit, guided by elaborate clues and supernatural hocus pocus. It’s no secret that we didn’t get along too well last time around, but it’s a complicated relationship. Like a disapproving parent, I was more disappointed by Cognition’s unrealised potential than angered by its tentative missteps. Deep down I still cared, but my stern façade was for its own good. “So can the third instalment turn things around?” you ask, peering out from under your detective hat. Firstly, that’s a nice hat. Secondly, yes it can.
We pick up the trail at the ever-so-fancy Enthon Towers, where our previous bad man has taken an involuntary swan dive off a 32nd floor balcony. The crime scene is conspicuously spotless, and there’s a snooty man in an expensive suit who’s a little too eager to get rid of us. There’s something fishy going on in there, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.
Unlike its predecessors the action is confined to a single location, allowing much finer control over pacing and narrative. Spaces are revisited from different perspectives throughout, and clearly benefit from the extra attention. Likewise Erica’s arsenal is slimmed down and called upon logically, playing to the strengths of the concept rather than overwhelming the player with disposable gimmicks. I’m also pleased to see the back of the horrendous loading times which made ‘The Wise Monkey’ so frustrating, allowing the story to frolic through summer meadows at its intended speed.
The series has been a bit of a voice-over roller-coaster; with our protagonist occupying the peaks of this dubious metaphor, while perhaps the most menacingly named character of all time – Skorobeus – languishes in a trough at the centre of the Earth. His voice work is so catastrophically awful it may have been better to cast a Sat Nav.
Fortunately, Cordelia and her late brother Max deliver more natural performances via this episode’s new party trick – the ability to connect with similarly gifted individuals across the mists of time. This bond enables Erica to explore past events vicariously, shedding light on puzzles in the present and raising brilliantly unnerving questions about your colleagues. You’ll suspect everyone at some point, and that constant shifting makes it hard to trust anyone. You’re on your own.
Similarly, puzzles have been hit or miss up to this point but benefit immeasurably from the tighter focus. Defeating the safe combination puzzle made me feel like a real clever clogs, and padded my review notes with several pages of working in the process. The volume of illegible scribbling before me is a tried and tested gauge of greatness, and the pay-off for figuring things out is what makes adventure games are so rewarding.
Striking a balance between challenging and obtuse is an astonishingly difficult skill worth celebrating, and a testament to the extra layer of polish Phoenix Online have mustered for ‘The Oracle’. Hand painted backdrops and story sequences remain a feather in the studio’s cap, accompanied by an hauntingly atmospheric score. Even the 3D work (while still not perfect) is much improved, with characters less prone to walking through solid objects or flailing around like tangled puppets.
Producer/designer Cesar Bittar said in a recent blog post:
“It’s the one episode that will make or break the game for anyone following the series.”
And that certainly was the case for me. Cognition: Episode 3 is not without its faults, but in the context of the series it’s a tremendous leap forward. Taking more time between instalments has given Phoenix Online the opportunity to smooth off those rough edges, and the result is an exponentially more enjoyable sleuthing experience. If the team can build on this momentum, we’re in for thoroughly exciting finale.