Cognition is a multi-part episodic mystery series with an emphasis on the dark and supernatural, taking us into the world of Boston FBI homicide. Players assume the role of one Detective Erica Reed, a talented agent with a set of unrefined psychic abilities and a haunted past to inspire her passion for catching killers. The game kicks off by launching head-first into a flashback of Erica and her less than likable partner John arriving at a cemetery and frantically trying to gain entry. A serial killer who relishes in sibling murders has abducted her brother out of some sick infatuation with their family and wants Erica to solve a twisted set of puzzles in an attempt to save him.
The game immediately establishes itself as an artistic and musically inclined powerhouse; the gorgeously hand-painted comic book characters and environments are accompanied by a hauntingly atmospheric industrial soundtrack which work together to help drive the abruptly dramatic opening sequence home as hard as it can. It was a decided misstep to be thrown into the middle of this early high-tension sequence; I found it set the tone for my lack of emotional investment in the characters for the majority of the episode. Despite the rocky start and theatrically eye-rolling resolution of the prologue, the audio/visual aesthetics remained a gripping factor not to be ignored. After the action concludes and first nifty cognition ability is showcased we flash forward to the present where the game really takes off as we are assigned our first case; the hangman.
Arriving at the first crime scene I begin to survey the area for potential clues, with certain items giving me the outright option to use my cognition ability while others arbitrarily refused to cooperate with my psychic powers as Erica ham fistedly hints that she can check them out later on. The guidance for investigation can sometimes feel heavy handed with blatant clues being obscured by something trivial rendering them inaccessable to me, meanwhile I’m discovering tiny hidden items beneath dressers like someone phoned in an anonymous tip to my brain. Your starting ability works as an item specific rewind, allowing Erica to tap into the ‘memories’ of objects to decipher what may have transpired with or around them. This is used in clever ways with investigation techniques to give the player more insight into crime scenes, however once you understand how the mechanic operates in regards to puzzle solving it becomes a hit or miss formula that has trouble standing on its own for long.
The cognitive psychic powers are what set this game apart from your usual detective adventure saga, and the game is at its finest when it makes good use of these abilities. Eventually you get to unlock two additional powers, each progressively more interesting than the last and adding a grand total of three ways to detect your way around a crime scene. Once you have this selection at your disposal it really ups the ante with investigation and helps the game shine for what it is, keenly blending the synergy of different abilities together makes you feel like a crime solving rock star. The world you are given to explore has depth and an open-ended feel to it, with multiple locations throughout the Boston area to explore and travel between I never felt artificially boxed into a certain puzzle or situation. While the story suffers from a slogging pace for the better half of the episode things manage to get exciting again just in time, picking back up in a big way for the episodes’ conclusion.
These slower moments mark the lowest common denominator for Cognition, where shooting the breeze with your co-workers and unearthing evidence might have been intended to make you feel like an FBI sleuth, they come across as artificial and pedestrian. A wealth of cliché land mines lay in wait for anyone attempting to carry out a crime thriller storyline, yet I couldn’t decide whether the writers have embraced these pitfalls or simply fallen victim to repeatedly stepping in them. The voice actors are dressed to impress, but no amount of professional voice work can cover up a poor writing job; something that can be a death sentence in this genre. Characters are two dimensional at best, with the short tempered “on my desk two hours ago” police chief, socially awkward lab technician with a heart of gold and wise-cracking uninterested slob of a partner making up some of the more contrived archetypes to be found in the Cognition cast. It’s a shame because when things get heated, the tale can get absolutely riveting and all that other fluff seems to melt away during these exquisite set pieces. Probably the games’ biggest flaw is that I find myself inhabiting these in-between down time voids far too often, and not nearly enough in the fleeting moments of twisted mystery delight that give this game the shot in the arm it needs.
There’s an interesting concept here, a diamond in the rough that has yet to be cut. It’s important to keep in mind that as the first entry in the series the main goal of hangman was acting as a primer to launch into future episodes. While it falters with an uneven script, dialogue and puzzle premises that can sometimes border on the inane, its potential for greatness is unmistakably present. Cognition needs to capitalize on its strengths with the psychic abilities and the core compelling thriller-mystery storyline while cutting away the dead weight and bad writing that’s holding it back. Even with its abundance of cracks and imperfections inviting a raw critique, hangman manages to end with such strength for the series’ continuation that it could find itself sitting amongst the upper echelon of point-and-click episodic adventure titans if they can tighten things up in upcoming episodes.