Adventures In Episodes: Review of “Cognition, An Erica Reed Thriller, Ep. 2: The Wise Monkey” (PC)

One of the most exciting classic point-and-click adventure games of 2012 gets its newest episode, but will it live up to the expectations and reward those who waited for all these months? A new sense of direction and storytelling are sure to raise some eyebrows…

Cognition, An Erica Reed Thriller, Ep. 2: The Wise Monkey (PC)
(USA 2013, developer: Phoenix Online Studios, publisher: Reverb Publishing, platform: PC)

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A psychopath called The Wise Monkey kills people and collects body parts which are related to sensory functions. As one of Erica’s collegues, who’s working on the case, is kidnapped, the cognition expert has to find out if the prime suspect, a former university student, is really responsible for all this, or if there’s more behind the mystery.

Slowly creeping horror in storytelling with some clichés
After an even more dramatic and violent start than the first episode, action and suspense take a backseat and watch how slower pacing and an emphasis on investigative work take over. This in itself is no bad thing, and it’s an interesting approach to have Erica find out more about the background of the FBI’s prime suspect. But it also means that the plot becomes very similar to countless other TV-thrillers, even though the depiction of violence is much more graphic here (and one can also say in some instances simply gratuitous). The connections to the mystery which spans the whole season are only made in a few scenes (and an unnecessary recycling of visions), which feels at odds and sometimes detrimental to the individual episode’s content, as it slows down the pacing even more.

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What made the first episode so great was the introduction of Erica as a woman trying to cope with her cognition powers and how old and new relationships to other characters were established and developed. It was simply something new and exciting, giving the player a strong and at the same time weak lead character who had to find direction and was confronted with all odds against her. The second episode is more concerned with a case which is simply not that special and becomes more predictable and clichéd. Other characters (and recycled locations) feel less connected to Erica’s world, as they’re simply there to help out in a less intriguing way and could have been better integrated in the story and not be turned into extras waiting for their cue.

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Freedom in closed spaces and environmental puzzle hazards
This becomes especially obvious when Erica is looking for a certain item or asking for some advice she could have found anywhere else. This of course also has to do with the nature of linearity in adventure games, but it’s even more prominent here. It’s true that Erica has more leads to follow, places to go and people to interview at first, but at certain points, the gameplay, which tries to offer a realistic portrayal of police work, shows linearity at its worst, e.g. when the player finds a ventilation shaft whose cover is fastened with screws. But instead of finding one in the vicinity or asking another character, it takes a while until Erica finally acquires it with another lead. This is also true for some items and interaction points which can’t be picked up or accessed directly before the protagonist makes up her mind that she is in need of it. This might sound logical in the real world, but it can get frustrating and tiresome to get back to an already-visited location just to have the right item for a current puzzle.

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The difficulty of the game has decreased dramatically with its easier puzzles (even though at the end there’s an exception which will probably have some people scratch their heads, as it stands in stark contrast with the rest of the game’s difficulty) and a refreshing change of investigation and deduction which is more streamlined and less obscure as in the first episode. But this has not only a positive, but also a negative effect on the overall gaming experience. It’s certainly a good thing that the player can concentrate more on the story and knows what to do next, especially since some locations become only accessible or unavailable over time. But it also means that the immersion in the world, which is the backbone of a classic point-and-click adventure, i.e. working on different problems and remembering all the hotspots, people to talk to etc., suffers. While the first episode had some mind-boggingly difficult, but also innovative puzzles, The Wise Monkey simply offers a standard menue which can be found in other games as well.

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Cognitive powers recharged and renewed
As the conventional solutions to puzzles are less engaging than the way Erica uses her abilities, it all boils down to the implementation of a new feature called synergy. It enables Erica to combine inventory objects which are in some way related which then unlock a vision of the past to provide essential clues to further progress in the game. For a short time, this works, but this ability is put so often to use that it becomes quite tiresome and a bit boring. Synergy is certainly a nice addition to the other abilities, but as these become less important, a more homogeneous mix would have given to the gameplay some more variety.

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Same old presentation
Graphics and sound are still a mixed bag with some highs and lows. Some wonderfully drawn backgrounds, well-made cutscenes and a great soundtrack (even if it is recycled and doesn’t offer a lot of variety) add to the atmosphere, while the jerky character animations and puppet-like facial expressions plus some overdramatic voice-acting (especially in the case of Erica) make some scenes lose some of their impact.

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Despite the outdated engine, some awkwardly long loading times make progression in the game more tedious than necessary. Clipping errors are also not uncommon, and some other bugs are irritating as well, considering that there was quite enough time for testing (which didn’t really show in the first review build, but fortunately the newest one, which should also be the release version, has eliminated nearly all of them).

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A good game which takes a different route from greatness
The Wise Monkey is not the sequel which reaches the same level of quality and content than the first episode. This is mainly due to its more streamlined approach to narrative and puzzle design, which makes it more accessible to a wider audience but also less original in its execution of ideas. It’s too bad that emotional moments of characterization are rare as well, and even if the story delves into some mature themes, it’s still not enough to make the player as engaged and interested than in the first episode while the references to the overall storyline of the season feel displaced. A playtime of 3 hours is acceptable for episodic content, but as the first episode offered nearly the double amount, it’s also a bit disappointing.

If this all sounds a bit harsh, it has to be taken into account that the first episode pushed the envelope of interactive storytelling in episodes like no other game in the last year. Even if The Walking Dead offered the same level of emotion (of a different variety), Cognition stood out because of its variety in puzzles and convincing game world. Now it all feels downsized, which is a shame, as there’s still enough potential to deliver more than most serial-killer-of-the-week TV series offer.

The second episode is still a good adventure game, and compared to last year’s overblown Memento Mori 2 which alienated with its puzzle design, it’s recommendable that Phoenix Online Studios try to find the right balance between lateral thinking and more mass-compatible story progression. But it shouldn’t lose its focus on the kind of involvement complex puzzle design inherited from games like the Gabriel Knight series.

Rating: 8/10

Buy the PC/Mac game on
the Cognition store

Official Website

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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