Potential spoilers ahead! If you’ve yet to play the first episode of Cognition, this review (for obvious reasons) contains some spoilers about what happened in the previous game. If you intend on playing Cognition Ep. 1: The Hangman and don’t want the ending ruined for you, you probably shouldn’t keep reading this review until you’ve finished the first episode.
After three months of waiting, Phoenix Online Studios finally release the second episode in their Cognition series today, the point-and-click thriller that marks their commercial debut. Cognition Episode 2: The Wise Monkey picks up where we left off. After the death of Director Davies at the end of The Hangman, Samuel McAdams has swiftly returned from Washington D.C. for the first time in three years and is interviewing his agents regarding what has transpired when the game begins. The mood is set straight away with the help of the talented voice actors and the soft melancholy music. It’s late into the night and fatigue hangs in the air as Erica and Sully is trying to lighten the mood in spite of the tragedy surrounding them, making the game’s connection to the first episode feel realistic and true. Sully is talking about his new case where the main suspect is a woman who cuts out the eyes, ears, and tongues of her victims. The killer is aptly dubbed “The Wise Monkey” after the pictorial precept The Three Wise Monkeys (“see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”). After a cup of coffee an exhausted Erica is taken in to see McAdams and is scolded because of her insubordination and lack of consistency since the death of her brother at the hands of the Cain Killer (back in the beginning of The Hangman, three years earlier). Suddenly they are interrupted as all hell breaks loose and a woman kidnaps Sully inside the federal building, leaving his cut off ear on the floor. The kidnapper drags Sully out of the building and escapes. Cue the opening credits and it’s wonderfully gritty main theme…
Cognition raised the bar for adventure games last year with The Hangman, not only in the independent gaming community, and to follow that up is no easy task. But the second episode is proudly handed the torch burning with the excellence of it’s precursor and does not disappoint. Where the first part had the element of surprise and the deep sensation of mystery, The Wise Monkey has the tighter writing and a more disturbing feeling to it. There are some grizzly scenes in this episode with separated body parts, blood splatter and an absolutely brilliant scene in which Erica calls her dad in an attempt to calm herself during a panic attack. For everything seemingly lost since last time, episode two offers something new and equally great in its place. Where The Hangman were more action packed and mysterious, The Wise Monkey is definitely more psychological and intelligent.
Sure, there are the usual adventure logic. Such as Erica being taken off the case of her murdered boss because of her personal involvement with the case only to be tasked with finding her abducted partner and on-and-off love interest instead. But this isn’t sloppy writing, this is adventure game writing. Sloppy writing could never produce a story so firmly held together. Story consultant on the game is once again (and for the coming two games) point-and-click legend Jane Jensen and I can’t help but feel Cognition shares the beautiful and sombre mood of The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, Jensens haunting epic werewolf mystery from 1995 and one of my personal favorites of the 90′s. Whether this is because of her direct influence or just the fact that the people over at Phoenix Online Studios are obvious fans of her work I can’t say and it really doesn’t matter. The way both episodes thus far not only tightly holds together a story of its own but also manages to set the stage for the inevitable exeunt omnes is impressive to say the least. Episodic gaming is becoming more and more popular, and many people dismiss this as the studio and their writers making it easier for themselves. I would say it takes tremendous skill to weave together a series of games like this and make sure every episode in a series delivers an equal amount of all necessary ingredients. Something designers Katie Hallahan and Cécar Bittar truly possess.
Of course the main puzzle solving revolves around Cognition’s special game mechanic that is the supernatural cognitive powers of Erica Reed. The Wise Monkey introduces yet another, this time a power called “synergy” allowing Reed to focus her special sight on items in her inventory. The puzzle solving is perhaps a bit easier this time around which can make the game feel slightly shorter than The Hangman, but all in all they are both probably about the same length. Some new places to visit are of course also introduced to us, yet again showing off the amazing artwork. The music of Austin Haynes is, again, of course wonderful but the lack of range in the leitmotifs are a bit disappointing. One can never forget however that this game was “Kickstarted” to life and that lack of money forces compromise, even if Phoenix Online Studios is very good at hiding this fact. There is never a point when something feels repetitive or underachieved. But in keeping with the spirit of breaking trends however, they don’t save the best for last. While there are some nice plot twists in the game the ending does feel a bit anti-climactic, consisting mostly of a lengthy puzzle as opposed to The Hangman that had it’s action scene and the sense of tension right up until the end. The game epilogue gives some clues as to what the next installment, The Oracle, have in store and it does seem to be a bit of a shift in focus coming up from what little one could tell.
The Wise Monkey is a more introvert and tightly held together episode than the first installment was. There’s less action and more focus on the emotional toll Reeds investigations are beginning to take. There is also a lot more grizzly imagery and some rather disturbing scenes. The second episode of Cognition is an episode that is more daring in many ways. It doesn’t feel it has to keep a high pace or pack a lot of action or suspense to keep the player invested in the story. Instead it feels confident in its writing and the more narrow focus it has on the psychological parts of Cognition. This is almost the perfect move for the series and if it hadn’t been for the fact that the puzzles have become easier and that with the slow-paced storytelling the ending suffers and becomes a bit of a let down I probably would have given The Wise Monkey the highest possible marks. But the score speaks for itself, this was the best game of January 2013.
Technical: 4.0 / 6.0
Presentation: 5.0 / 6.0
Gameplay: 4.0 / 6.0
Overall: 5.0 / 6.0
AVERAGE SCORE: 4.5 / 6.0