Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman
Murder mysteries lend themselves perfectly to the point-and-click adventure genre, something that’s had a resurgence of late mostly due to Telltale Games keeping the torch lit and others taking things from there. Catching a deranged serial killer leaving cryptic clues for a bright young detective to figure out is something the genre fans can really sink their teeth into, and Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is looking to fill that particular niche with the help from none other than Gabriel Knight scribe Jane Jensen.
With Jensen’s involvement, Cognition has a distinctive vibe that echoes the beloved Sierra titles from the old days. Particularly in its elements from Gabriel Knight that deal with more supernatural elements intermingled with the day-to-day investigative process. Erica Reed is a brassy Boston FBI agent coping with the loss of her younger brother at the hands of a serial killer three years prior while trying to get a handle on her powers of cognition that have been plaguing her lately.
The events of The Hangman find Erica on the hunt for another serial killer who lives up to his moniker by hanging his victims, uncovering a series of suicides that may actually be murders along the way while acquiring tutelage to control her cognitive powers. Cognition‘s writing is wildly uneven, staggering from solid to ridiculously cliché and the characters are unfortunately one-dimensional. While that’s forgivable as we’re just getting to know the cast, practically everyone around Erica is a trope from the geeky lab tech to the older partner more concerned with getting to the bottom of a box of doughnuts than a case.
These characters have been seen a million times before in cop dramas, so there’s really no one that stands out apart from Erica. Hopefully, the characters will grow as time goes on. Erica herself is aggressive and has keen investigative instincts with just a hint of vulnerability as the tragedy of her past looms over her, but as it stands she falls into archetype: the tough, independent female cop with a soft side. As for the actual plot, things end on a cliff-hanger and answers are promised in the ensuing episodes. It’s little more than an introduction to the life of Erica Reed and her backstory, as well as getting acquainted with her new psychic powers.
Where things get a little interesting is in the usage of Erica’s powers. She starts out with cognition—the ability to see past events when it contact with certain objects—which comes in handy for getting leads in the case. Gradually, Erica learns a few more abilities such as using cognition on three items together to set up an ethereal image of past events and regression: the ability to piece together fuzzy memories when questioning witnesses. Her powers never become a crutch for progressing and are used sparingly. They play a pivotal part in completing the first episode, but aren’t the only way to effectively deduce things.
There’s nothing in The Hangman that’s going to truly stump players. It’s very easy to know what needs to be done and jump to the logical conclusion rather than taking the small steps leading up to it. Questioning people and scouring locations for evidence is the productive method of solving the case, as well as turning on the cognition powers to see if there are any ethereal leads. Accessing the FBI’s database is also used quite a bit for evidence and cross-referencing cases, something that Erica herself will comment on from time-to-time. Most of the time it’s obvious what needs to be done, the only question is in what order.
The presentation is a mixed bag. Beautiful, hand-painted backgrounds are juxtaposed with the occasionally craggy and sometimes buggy character models. The atmospheric soundtrack that fits the mold of a dark thriller perfectly loses its teeth in light of some bad dialogue that occurs on an almost frequent basis. Its production is overall solid, but has a few kinks to work out. Animated cutscenes feel slightly out-of-place and it’s never clear if Cognition wants to go for a dark tone or model itself after a comic book.
Cognition‘s first episode shows potential for an intriguing way to solve murder mysteries and teases a much bigger storyline with more paranormal elements, but the characters and writing aren’t quite up to the challenge yet. The game demonstrates a solid understanding of point-and-click fundamentals that work, but don’t exactly set the genre on fire, and what players end up with is an adventure title that has the elements it needs to be intriguing but can’t quite seem to fit all the pieces together yet.