Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is a mature point-and-click (P&C) adventure game heavily focused on storytelling and puzzle-solving with high doses of drama, thrills and unexpected twists which grab your attention right from the start. Set as a gritty murder mystery theme with supernatural elements, you follow Erica Reed, a FBI agent in Boston, trying to unveil and take down the Cain Killer who murdered her brother. While the concept may sound a bit convoluted, it does its job surprisingly well, enough to express gratitude to its godfather, the Gabriel Knight series, for the inspiration and stand on for its own merits.
The strongest point of Cognition is perhaps in its story and narration. Firstly, Cognition is not for the faint hearted. Unlike most P&C adventure games which are traditionally light hearted and occasionally “cartoony” in tone, that is absolutely not the case here. Instead, it is a totally fresh approach -- albeit nothing new per se –- for adults looking for a genuine thriller. As stated earlier, Gabriel Knight is clearly a big inspiration, however Cognition pushes that envelope. What starts as a simple search for the Cain Killer, it eventually turns into a complex story where Erica finds out that there are more killers similar to him, each with their own creepy personalities and unique, yet gruesome, ways to kill their victims and how other characters turn out to be not what they might have seemed at first glance. Almost everyone is hiding dark secrets, and there are plenty of legitimate moments of unexpected twists which you would have never thought of. It can be argued that the game feels like a B-type movie, but if that were the case, it would be amongst the best. Cognition boasts many moments of shock horror, tension and emotional rollercoasters in its journey; sometimes to its own detriment, funnily enough. As much as the story is solid throughout the game, at times it does feel a bit forced with the whole mature content and the melodrama from some of its characters in certain situations, as if the developers tried really hard to make an emotional impact on the audience. So yes, it is forced at times, but nevertheless it is good to see that they are taking risks and throwing all they got into your face. So, on a personal note, it does have an impact. In the end, after the shocking revelations in Episode 3 and seeing the final conclusion, I felt for the characters. Although the story does stumble upon some pacing issues typically midway through an episode, they all start and end on high notes. Lastly, Erica Reed is an exceptionally well-written female protagonist. A bit cocky at times, but as her character development grows with each new episode you start to like her even more and sympathise for what she has to go through. Plus, the voice actor for her is amazing. There is rarely a moment where she cannot deliver a line appropriately.
The most unique game mechanic, even for a P&C adventure game, is Erica’s supernatural cognitive powers which allow her to see events from the past when touching objects. This makes puzzle-solving and the gameplay in general fresh and interesting, setting them aside from the traditional and mundane mechanics of clicking around to see what happens. Moreover, each episode introduces other new abilities and mechanics which allow her to perform various other tasks. In general, the cognitive mechanics are ingenious, functional and most importantly fun to use.
The hand drawn artwork and backgrounds capture that comic book vibe brilliantly and set the mood fittingly. Likewise, all the cutscenes never seize to be so captivating and tense. There is nothing not to love about them. On the other hand, there are possibly two grips with them: the character drawings move statically during the cutscenes and some of the hand drawn backgrounds can look a bit rushed and unpolished in some areas. But with a great soundtrack as well, Cognition’s setting and atmosphere are well established.
The puzzles here never feel hard throughout most of the game, but they can still be challenging (especially in the second last episode) and sometimes silly. Yes, there are a few puzzles which seem a bit out of place (ie. lockpicking the boss’s office in full view of everyone else) which can break some of the immersion, but in most parts Cognition provides interesting approaches to puzzles with its cognitive mechanics. The puzzles get even better with each new episode, except in the final episode which lacks as many puzzles as in previous episodes and instead focuses more on tying all the loose ends of the story.
Surprisingly, through a first playthrough, the game can last as long as 20 hours, at least in my case. Thus it provides quite a lot content for its current price tag; substantially more than other adventure games out there, even compared to high budget ones. Even through a second playthrough, now knowing how to solve all the puzzles and where to go to look for clues, the game is perhaps around 15 hours long, which is still remarkable.
As much as Cognition seems to be like the best new P&C adventure game in years, it has some major flaws which can harm what it sets to achieve. Firstly, graphically it is not impressive at all and by that I mean the character models. Since it uses the Unity engine, the characters look like plasticine. Moreover, the animations are not impressive either. There will be moments which they can break immersion if you are a nitpicky person. If you are looking for something as fluent and polished up as The Book Of Unwritten Tales’ graphics for example, Cognition is not what you are looking for. And that is a big problem because it makes Cognition look unprofessional on the surface. While the artwork is great and praise-worthy, seeing average looking models with clunky animations on top of beautifully hand drawn backgrounds can be underwhelming. Luckily, if you own the Game of the Year Edition, most of the animations are much smoother and polished up, but nothing too drastic. The transition from the hand drawn characters in cutscenes to 3D does not work.
Secondly, due to the scope of the game and the size of the team, there had to be some compromises on realism. For instance, buildings can be rather unpopulated. The FBI station’s main office is a long room with no more than around six people (not all interactive) including Erica inside. Surely the FBI has a lot more agents in a single room in real-life. It is understandable that being confined by a small budget and probably lack of manpower stopped the team from adding more realistic details. And on the topic of realism, in a way it fails to realistically capture how FBI agents actually behave and work due to some improbable dialogues and situations which you would not see in real-life. While the story is gripping and it is its stongest point, Cognition is not very realistic in some aspects.
Lastly, the support characters can be corny and cliché at times, but plausible if you can accept them as they are.
Conclusively, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is a blasting experience from start to finish which will sure leave a good lasting impression after finishing its long gritty story in the style of Gabriel Knight and Jack The Ripper; even despite its flaws due to the lack of resources that well-established companies like Telltale Games have at their hands. It is good see such a young and talented developing team taking risks with their mature story and unique gameplay mechanics. It definitely rivals acclaimed games such as The Walking Dead and even Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight in the story department. So if that is enough incentive for you to give this game a chance and get past its undercooked graphics and animations, it will be the best $10 you will ever spend. And yes, I would proudly say this was the best point-and-click adventure game of 2013. Highly recommended!