Cognition Episode 2: The Wise Monkey Review (PC)

(Adopts stern American accent) Last time on Cognition: after losing her brother to a devious serial killer, FBI agent Erica Reed was assigned to track down the perpetrator of a series of hanging-based murders. After using her burgeoning psychic abilities and know-how to solve a series of puzzles left by either the killer or a cryptic benefactor Erica caught up with The Hangman, but was unable to prevent their escape – nor stop them from taking another victim, Erica’s boss Davies.

As the latest episode begins, while being shouted at by her new boss, her close friend James Sullivan is kidnapped by the serial killer he was on the case of, called “The Wise Monkey” for reasons not really explained (at least “The Hangman” made immediate sense, anyone else a fan of Japanese proverbs?). Erica is put on the case and has to find Sully before it’s too late. Expect twists a’plenty, but no spoilers on that.

Melissa. Hippie, scatter-brain, poor singer. The highlight

As a story, The Wise Monkey definitely feels like an episode in an Erica Reed TV series rather than the slightly more movie-like feel of The Hangman, and suggests that Cognition is going to have Reed on the trail of a different psycho with a weird calling card every week. This isn’t a problem though and Episode 2 eventually ties itself into the overall (and now apparent) theme of the series in an interesting and intriguing way. Furthermore there are several twists, and in a move that was in the first episode but I forgot to laud, there are a couple of moments of player choice too. They don’t alter the entire storyline or anything but at least one scene plays out completely differently, which is welcome. On the whole, the story kept me entertained.

The puzzles, less so. I don’t know if it’s my imagination but this episode seemed shorter than the last, and was mostly extended by some really annoying puzzles in the second half. One involved the precise placement of six metal charms around a crime scene, where location and exact point mattered, and if you get it wrong the only way to check the details again is to slowly gather up all the charms and use your new Synergy power on all six (which takes far too long). The final section of the game is even worse, as it both quizzes you on half-remembered facts from the episode and asks you to painstakingly go through various memories for further details, which you then have to guess at. I haven’t had to use a physical paper and pen to take notes from a game for a long time – I don’t object to it, but this went too far into irritation territory.

There also seems to be a regular moment in these Cognition episodes where the game fails to give you any clue what to do next, forcing you to rely on the Hint system. “Talk to your partner” should not be a puzzle solution you have to work out, nor should asking for a request form from a receptionist. Furthermore, you shouldn’t need to use your psychic powers to work out that a killer escaped through a nearby wide-open blood-splattered fire-door. It’s these moments of silliness, irritation, or just “not quite there” puzzle design that are currently holding me back from recommending Cognition.

Curse those handsome devils!

Still, there’s one thing I definitely like. To use as an example, in the first Professor Layton game on the Nintendo DS (Curious Village) the story eventually gives a reason why you’re encountering puzzles all over the place. Subsequent games have dropped explaining this, but Cognition by the end of Episode 2 seems to be suggesting a similar idea: that there’s someone out there deliberately leaving puzzles in your path. Despite my earlier criticisms most of the puzzles are totally acceptable and nicely head-scratching occasionally, with no totally madly crazy ones like adventure games of yore – a few are just far too annoying and drag my opinion down.

One thing I am going to take note of once again are the technical aspects. Firstly thank you Phoenix Online for making some effort to smooth out some of the area transitions, now you don’t have to wait for Erica to walk all the way over to the elevator, find and press a button, then get in before you can exit the FBI headquarters and go to the Boston map. You still however have to manually click on the tiny ‘Drive’ icon to get anywhere, you can’t just click a location on the map to get there, and when going back into the station you still have to wait for the elevator doors to slowly close before you can move. Also, it takes 11 seconds to get off your in-game computer. Sigh. As I said in the first episode’s review, these moments slow up the game and just serve to discourage player exploration. Not good. Oh, and please allow us to skip anything we want to guys, particularly the damn recap cutscene at the beginning and the credits at the end.

Furthermore, I’d quite like to see a few more animations on Erica (her constant “curse that Caped Crusader!” fist-shake was always unintentionally hilarious, as is the “Silly Walk” she breaks into when she starts running, or indeed the characters in general, as they’re all looking quite stiff. The receptionist looks particularly dead-eyed. Still, as 3D adventures go it’s not too bad. Not up to The Walking Dead, but for such a small team more than acceptable. The background art is at least consistently nice, wisely eschewing 3D modelling for a hand-painted look that makes things look more stylish.

Erica having a nice phone conversation with her Dad, with nothing out of the ordinary

One other thing I’m not too sure on is the characters. There are a few interesting personalities, including (fortunately) Erica herself, but the vast majority are complete stereotypes. The hard-ass boss, the doughnut-scoffing cop, the science nerd, the surly doctor, the hippie chick (who’s actually quite funny), far too many I’ve seen before. Particularly as Rose, the lady who helps focus Erica’s psychic abilities, is quite blatantly the Voodoo Lady from the Monkey Island series.

Things feel like they’re going to start hotting up in Cognition, and while nothing’s blowing me away in general I am enjoying the series. However, certain things definitely require a strong polish, and I hope Phoenix Online has time to make improvements before the next episode. Puzzles and signposting could do with tightening up, as could a few technical aspects, but the storyline is fortunately strong enough to keep my interest. If the series gets a bit smoother to play in future episodes the score should creep up. Let’s hope so... but I totally know who the killer is already.

Top Game Moment: Hippie chick Melissa singing to a Ouija board, then Erica having to use her cognitive powers to mend the girl’s scatter-brain. A rare sweet moment.

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