The episodic format in games lends itself to a suspenseful thriller which makes the player wait for each new instalment with high expectations, especially when it comes to finding the identity of a mysterious serial killer. If Phoenix Online Studios can deliver on that promise with The Oracle once again, will be seen in this review of their third episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.
FBI agent Erica Reed has to investigate the murder of a psychopath in a high tower and discovers a family secret which is closely connected to her own fate and the identity of main killer she has been chasing all this time.
Learning from past highs and lows in storytelling
The first instalment in the series was quite ambitious in its narrative approach to characters, the game world and the overall story arc. The second episode lost some of its drive and made the mistake of turning certain characters into sidekicks and also substituting its former mystery with a rather lukewarm TV-quality thriller story for most of its playtime. There are still some overdramatic elements to be found in this third outing and it takes some time until the suspense and horror kick back in, but the decision to have a select number of characters and places to visit does not necessarily turn it into a more streamlined gaming and storytelling experience. Rather it offers a multi-layered plot with an interesting twist on the connection between past and present and puzzles which play with the same concept.
Two stories intertwined
It’s refreshing to see that the third episode finally merges together story strands of other episodes and at the same time engages the player on two different levels of narration, namely by introducing Cordelia (the FBI agent’s acquaintance when visiting her brother’s grave) as another playable character who shares Erica’s ability to see into the future. This makes for some interesting twists in the story when the different times and viewpoints switch from one to the other. New mysteries are uncovered, relationships between characters become more obvious and the overall suspense level is turned up a notch, especially at the end.
This interdependence between past and present is also reflected in the way how Erica and Cordelia are mentally connected and share their experiences or new information in order to progress. This also means that one action in the past can affect the future, even though the game never goes as far or abstract as a title like Day of the Tentacle with its time travel mechanics did in the 90ies. The solutions to the problems at hand might not be the most original, but compared to the second episode, they demand quite a bit of lateral thinking and are therefore similar to the difficulty of the first one.
Puzzle factor X minus Y
The puzzles are varied and range from simple combinations of inventory items to finding out codes, which of course isn’t particularly new to the genre. This usually works quite well, but there are also instances when hints are sparse and the annoying trial & error method of classic point-and-click adventures shines through. There aren’t many locations and revisiting them again and again can get a bit tiresome as well. Still it’s certainly a change of pace compared to the constant use of the map in the other episodes.
The overall linearity of the game is broken by the ability to switch between Erica’s present and the different past memories of Erica. This is done by clicking on the appropriate time line icon on the bottom of the screen. As has already been mentioned, information has to be transferred from one to the other in order to achieve certain goals and progress in the story. Even if the order in which the problems in these segments are tackled can be chosen freely, they all have to be solved at the end. It’s an interesting way to engage the player on both a storytelling and gameplay level. Observation and investigative skills are required in the former and a high degree of patience and concentration in the latter, making it a much more demanding game and more interesting story than The Wise Monkey.
The older generation of presentation
The cel-shaded graphics and voice acting still have the same problems as before: characters moving like puppets which at times results in rather unintentionally funny moments when their gestures or facial expressions don’t do the appropriate drama justice, while dialogue lines are often exaggerated making some scenes lose their serious tone. The music itself is again quite atmospheric in suspenseful or creepy sequences, but some piano notes seem too trying on the heart strings to evoke sympathetic emotions in the player, which is actually unnecessary considering the overall good quality of the script and the dialogues.
Of course the hand-drawn stills which serve as cutscenes are beautiful as ever with some pretty disturbing and shocking imagery. It’s also nice to have only a few minor technical problems in this review version compared to the rather buggy and glitchy second episode (even though most of them were fixed on release day).
Third one’s the charm
The Oracle is a brave attempt of Phoenix Online Studios to offer a less streamlined approach to both storytelling and puzzle design. The latter could have needed a few more hints at some points for novice players, but together with a strong story and unique gameplay ideas, the long playtime with over 5 hours justifies the amount of cerebral work the player has to put into it.
For the most part this fragmented style of telling a story works quite well, as it is more involving for the player to fit together all the pieces of both past and present, even if it takes a while and at times lacks the same sense of thrill and suspense the first episode managed so admirably. The family drama can feel a bit clichéd and cheap at times, but how the former cases are connected and the different elements all gel makes for an interesting tale nonetheless, especially with some nerve-racking conclusion which sets the expectations for the final episode higher than ever.
(I usually don’t give half-points, but to make it clear that this episode sits quite comfortably between Ep. 1 and 2, that’s the best compromise I could come up with)
Buy the PC/Mac game on
the Cognition store
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