Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey Review

It’s still not adventure gaming gold, but episode 2 is a definite improvement

A funny thing happened about halfway through the second installation of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller: it stopped being terrible.  I actually almost started to think that I could possibly end up maybe kind of enjoying it. It was still clunky, overwrought and flat-out silly, but somewhere off in the distance I saw a glimmer of something I honestly did not expect: hope.

I did not enjoy the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The best thing I could say about it is that it was better than the unfortunately-named Phoenix Online Studios’ first effort, the King’s Quest tribute The Silver Lining. So when the Cognition Episode 2 review landed on my lap, I cringed; I was, to paraphrase the great Bruce Springsteen, like a dog who’d been beat too much with awful adventure games. But ever-fearful of the wrath of my Gamezebo masters, I plunged in.

Cognition, for those who missed the first part, is a point-and-click adventure starring Erica Reed, an FBI agent who possesses remarkable mental powers. As a “psion,” she is capable of seeing into the past, pulling forth forgotten memories and even of capturing the “memories” of inanimate objects. The first episode tracked the awakening of her powers in the years following the death of her brother at the hands of a serial killer; in this chapter, the story deepens as she tracks yet another murderer but also begins to realize that something far more sinister may be afoot.

The first couple of hours of gameplay seemed to confirm my fears that this episode was going to be as torturous and nonsensical as the first. The voice acting is passable (although even now, I can’t decide if Reed’s accent is legitimately subtle or just poorly performed) but the character art and animations are awkward and ugly, and the faces can be downright creepy. There are also plenty of irritating little glitches, like clipping errors, choppy, broken animations and characters interacting with out-of-position objects, and the introduction of Reed’s new power – “synergy” – is contrived and ridiculous. Seriously, learning to harness a new latent psychic ability is easier than just getting a phone book?

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 2: The Wise Monkey

And just like the first game, Cognition Episode 2 betrays its dark, mature storytelling with gameplay straight out of Leisure Suit Larry’s Book of 100 Best Adventure Game Gags. I hate to drop spoilers, but at one point the thoroughly unpleasant medical examiner refuses to let Reed examine a body, for no better reason than that she’s a miserable human being. Reed has to go upstairs, pull the fire alarm, hide, wait for the coroner (who is apparently the only person in the entire building) to go outside and then sneak down into the morgue to get what she needs. I wouldn’t bat an eye at this kind of thing in Space Quest, but pulling it off in a game that’s supposedly a grim, Criminal Minds-style affair absolutely destroys any session of immersion or believability.

It wasn’t terribly long after that moment, however, that something changed. It was still goofy and melodramatic, but it also very suddenly seemed to become more consistent in its fiction, dropping the semi-random “use this on that” exercises in favor of more logic-based puzzles. Far more importantly, it became interesting. I found myself wanting to know what was going to happen and legitimately surprised (and confused, but in a good way) by the completely unexpected plot twists. In fact, there are twists upon twists, but unlike so much of the rest of the game, they don’t feel forced or roughly shoehorned in. And although the game ends on a cliffhanger – which is to be expected, given that it’s part two of five – it’s a satisfying conclusion that will very likely leave you honestly wanting more.

Make no mistake, Cognition Episode 2 is still pretty far from good, but – and I really did not expect to say this – it’s not bad, either. The obvious question is whether the strong finish to this chapter proves to be a fluke or sets the stage for even bigger and better things in Episode 3. I certainly hope it’s the latter, but for now we’ll have to settle for optimism: After a very rough start, Erica Reed has stepped up her game, and Cognition is rather surprisingly showing signs of being worth a second look.

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