Too “fan-made” for its own good

The fourth and final episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is finally here! Does the last piece of the puzzle deliver a chillingly satisfying conclusion and live up to the potential that’s been growing over the previous three chapters? Well, no, not really – but there’s enough to it that it’s worth talking about anyway. Read on!

If you’ve been following along, you already know all you need to know about the graphics, sound, voice acting, and mechanics of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. (And if you haven’t, episode four is definitely not the place to jump in – go back to part one and start from there.) In that regard, The Cain Killer is more of the same, with the addition of a new mechanic: your conversational choices now have an impact on how much other characters like and trust you, and therefore how they react to you – and how the game ultimately plays out. Say the right thing and the ghostly face of your conversational partner in the lower-right corner of the screen will slowly fill up with light; say the wrong thing and it will drain out.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 4: The Cain Killer

It’s an interesting idea, and obviously it’s smart to be on good terms with everyone, but in a practical sense it really doesn’t add anything to the experience. Conversational options are almost always binary – “I agree with you/I disagree you with” kind of thing – and there’s never any doubt about which one will score the brownie points, nor pressure (or any reason at all) to opt for the negative choice. By the time the game was over I was effectively BFFs with virtually everyone in the game, including a lunatic serial killer and my boss at the FBI.

The Cain Killer is a shorter chapter than the ones that have gone before it and places a greater focus on the supernatural, as Erica and Cordelia must use their unique powers in concert to solve the mysteries that vex them both. One sequence of mid-game puzzles is rather obtuse, even with the help of the hint system that all but tells you the solution, and the absence of an option to skip puzzle segments may prove frustrating for gamers who are in it for the story. The frequency with which you’ll need to flip back and forth between the two characters in order to solve these challenges can also grow tedious, but on the whole it’s fairly straightforward adventuring.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 4: The Cain Killer

The fourth episode ofCognition wraps things up on a reasonably satisfying (if somewhat predictable) note, but much like the previous chapters, it’s weighed down by a disjointed plot and awkward, unnatural dialog. It can be tricky to follow along if you weren’t really paying attention to the previous chapters, and the recap sequence that opens the game is more a scattershot series of images stitched together with smash cuts than a coherent synopsis of previous events. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the whole thing is that the big cliffhanger than ended the third episode goes almost completely unaddressed through the entire game, which actually begins well after that moment with Reed none the worse for wear physically or psychologically; and the surprise twist at the end is so poorly executed that even after watching it twice, I wasn’t entirely, beyond-all-doubt convinced about what actually happened until I talked to other players about it.

Unsurprisingly, The Cain Killer also suffers from other problems that plague Cognition as a whole: a narrative that’s sometimes painfully contrived to accommodate puzzles, and those puzzles more often than not being silly; Sierra-style affairs that might have cut the mustard in King’s Quest – and in 1987 – but that have no place in a macabre, f-bomb-laden tale of supernatural serial killers. Shortly after the game begins, for instance, Erica must go undercover, but due to time constraints her boss allows her to ask only three of a possible five questions about the job, resulting in a dearth of information that got her killed more than twice before I was able to get to the end of the sequence. It was wildly out of place, and only slightly less silly than Cordelia having to climb in and out of a window repeatedly rather than just walking around the other side of a couch.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 4: The Cain Killer

It also feels rushed on the technical side. Visual glitches, including funny walks, characters who slowly turn while “floating” on a single spot, and bizarre bits of contortionism, are distressingly common, even more so than in the previous chapters; at one point very near the start of the game, you can walk to a spot you’re not supposed to be able to reach, only to be told that you can’t get to it – even though you’re standing right in front of it.

Developer Phoenix Online Studios was originally founded as a tribute to the dearly departed Sierra Online, and so a certain amount of this kind of gameplay is probably inevitable, but Cognition goes way over the line: a grown-up game demands a grown-up approach to puzzles and storytelling, and this just doesn’t have it. There’s definitely potential here: Erica Reed herself is a fantastic character and could very easily support her own Gabriel Knight-style series of adventure games. But Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is way too rough around the edges to place her in that kind of esteemed company. It’s not terrible – it’s just a little too “fan-made” for its own good.