Last year we had one of the first world-exclusive reviews of an emerging episodic thriller series with a psychic touch, and coincidentally on Day 13 of the Halloween Special, but Day 6 of the gaming part, we’ll have the last episode. Time seems to fly by… or not.
Phoenix Online Studios has grown as a fanadventure maker to a more established company, but has their Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller series also matured? We’ll see what the fourth and last episode The Cain Killer has in store for us.
Special Agent Erica Reed comes face to face with the Cain Killer, but to catch this person, she also has to work with The Oracle, someone very close to her but also very difficult to trust.
Drawing a conclusive story arc line
The story is much more streamlined this time and lacks interesting investigation work for the most part, which has mainly to do with the identity of the killer and the Oracle already revealed in the former episode. There are still some scenes which offer an intriguing look back into the past, this time with Erica’s mental tutor Rose. But for the rest of the game, there’s much more tension and action which fits rather nicely into the framework of a final episode but obviously takes away some of the former more contemplative experience. There’s less talk and more action, relying on suspenseful moments rather than deep conversations. This wouldn’t usually be a problem if the ending didn’t come as predictable with some clichéd melodrama. It’s less mystery and more standard thriller fare then. It is also telling that diving into the mind of an NPC and finding a tragic and truly touching story there is more interesting than the forced-emotional conclusion of the whole series.
Gameplay-wise, there’s again a good amount of puzzles which are not only to be solved by Erica’s cognitive abilities, but this time in combination with the Oracle’s skills. Switching between the two makes the tasks more complex, but also much more interesting (and unnecessarily cumbersome with the controls), although teamwork in a later action sequence proves a bit differently. This is maybe the greatest strength of the puzzle and gamedesign: having characters which acted on their own in the former episode finally come together.
The difficulty of the tasks at hand is higher this time around without the solutions getting too obscure, which has also to do with the limited scope, the inability to move between different locations. Combining objects doesn’t really feature that much, so drawing logical conclusions in the little riddles the Cain Killer left (intentionally or unintentionally?) behind is where the meat of the game is. Going into a character’s past and piecing together the available information is as intriguing as ever and it requires quite a lot of paying attention to details and finding clues to unravel the mysteries of the past.
No walking in the dead park with new gameplay features
The gameplay has also clearly been inspired by Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series by introducing multiple choices in dialogues which can alter the other characters’ perception of Erica (highlighted by a trust-or-no-trust meter). But unlike the most prominent example of interactive storytelling with an emphasis on personalized gameplay, this simply doesn’t work as well, which is mainly due to the linearity of story and lack of character development or interaction. It means that despite having an option to speak or behave to NPCs differently, the scenes simply play out the same and the player is even forced in many cases to act in a certain way. Introducing this feature so late in the series also prevents other characters remembering Erica’s attitude, making the feature rather pointless (except for an alternative ending) and in some cases in which the FBI special agent has to act under a time limit even frustrating.
Timed events in which Erica can die also add to frustration and one of the them at the end is a bad example of how switching between her and the Oracle can make a puzzle which in itself has a nice original touch more annoying than it needs to be. Another example where controls, visual execution and gamedesign don’t quite gel together is a sort of QTE fighting system. This plays more like a memory test, finding the parts of the enemy’s body to attack in the right order. It looks clumsy and doesn’t really evoke any tension, rather annoyance, compared to what Telltale did in their game.
Same old looks and sounds
Technically, the game again mixes overall good even if a bit exaggerated voice acting and a soundtrack which does not only make some scenes more emotional, but also the action more tense. Unfortunately, the graphics can’t keep up with what the shocking or sad scenes try to convey, mainly because animations are still stiff and facial expressions give them an unnecessarily comic touch. It’s too bad, because some of the backgrounds are quite nice and the drawn comic scenes are still of the highest quality, making a full graphical novel hopefully a future possibility. Still, glitches like characters moving through furniture or even some game freezes and crashes to the desktop are things which could have been avoided, though.
The weaker final link in the chain of events
With The Can Killer, the team of Phoenix Online Studios delivers a mostly satisfying, even if not surprisingly emotional final episode of their Cognition series, which is unfortunately also the weakest of the four installments. Technically, it might not be the beast to handle the (over)ambitious writing, but gameplay-wise, there’s enough to make it stand out from so many other mystery-thriller point-and-clickers which try to implement as many inventory-based puzzles as possible. Unfortunately, the experiment of going the way of The Walking Dead with timed and non-interactive sequences plus a multiple-attitude-choice system doesn’t really work, as both technology and late introduction make these rather redundant features. Still, despite game design, storytelling and technical problems, the developer should be applauded for trying to reinvent themselves with each new episode, hopefully coming up with a more refined game (or series) in the future.
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