Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 4: The Cain Killer
PCAlso available on Apple Mac and iPad
This review is going to start with a bold statement: if you haven't played any of the chapters that make up Cognition yet and you enjoy games focused on storytelling, go and start playing it from the start now. You won't regret it. Adventure games have seen a steady stream of releases in the years since they were at their most popular, and while the truly great ones have been few and far between (The Longest Journey, The Walking Dead) the average quality has been noticeably rising of late. Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller absolutely deserves to be on the list of modern adventure games that should demand your attention because it's a sublime and involving experience that will get you genuinely invested.
The Cain Killer is the fourth and final release in this series, following on from The Hangman, The Wise Monkey and The Oracle. The games have been released episodically over the past year and while the stories they tell are somewhat self-contained, they all form part of one large narrative and the game is begging to be experienced as a whole. It's become quite a complex tale and really needs to be started from the beginning for complete enjoyment. This is a series that has established its trademarks of strong dialogue, excellent pacing and a not holding back in terms of adult content both in the gruesome visuals and mature storytelling.
Once again you take control of FBI agent Erica Reed, a psion with psychic abilities that allow her to see events from the past. Erica's brother was murdered several years earlier by a serial killer and a new spate of killings have pushed her to the point of obsession. Alienating almost everyone she knows, Erica is moving more and more towards taking things into her own hands as she learns she can't trust people she thought she could. At this point in the series we've become quite familiar with Erica; through some excellent writing and a superb vocal performance by actress Raleigh Holmes, she has become a very well developed character that it's difficult not to feel invested in.
Chapter 4 dives in after the shocking events that finished chapter 3 and barely gives you time to breath throughout the entire experience. It's very clear that things are coming to a head here and everything is moving fast. Still, the pacing remains very balanced as the more heart stopping moments are broken up by puzzles which will cause you pause but not completely ruin your experience. The puzzles are well integrated into the story making them feel crucial to your progress rather than annoying obstacles you need to clear to find out what happens next. The hint system from the previous chapters is still here, disguised as Erica's mobile phone, and once again it serves to just push you in the right direction rather than giving you the answers. Chapter 3 had a couple of puzzles which really were a bit too difficult to solve even with the hint system (if you figured out that safe combination puzzle yourself, you have my respect), but this time around the difficulty is just right. The explosive storytelling and the fact that this chapter is designed for wrapping things up means it feels perhaps a little too short (around three and a half hours) although this is in line with the previous parts. We wouldn't have complained about having a little bit more, though.
Unfortunately, the graphics are really letting the game down. Character models don't seem to have been improved or altered at all since the first chapter and retain an awkward, blocky look with unnatural animations. Going for a more graphic novel style means that a lot of it can be forgiven and the models all stand out from each other and have a lot of expressiveness. It's the voice acting which really brings them to life. As mentioned above Raleigh Holmes provides the voice of Erica and does a stellar job. Particularly in this chapter she is required to go through the ringer in terms of emotional delivery and she absolutely nails it. Erica can be coy, sweet, funny, simmering with quiet anger or screaming in fury and it always feels natural. She has the most to do and she manages to anchor the whole game, while the supporting cast vary in quality and in a few cases are quite distracting. There are also a few bugs we encountered which can cause small problems. For example, in one scene the game wouldn't allow us to walk into a certain part of a room or pick up an item without leaving and coming back in. There's also a sequence which allows you to switch between Erica and another character, but the interface was often getting confused about who we had chosen to control.
Cognition is a series which will unfortunately pass under most people's radar. This first season (we hope there are more to come) has recently been made available on Steam and GOG.com and that will hopefully make people more aware of it. All we can say is that if you enjoyed The Walking Dead then you really owe it to yourself to check this out. While that game is a lot more polished and certainly more emotionally involving, Cognition doesn't fall too far short and certainly has much more impressive puzzle design. The story is complex, the characters are interesting and the game has an excellent musical score. It treats the player as an adult and if you follow it through to the end it will stick in your mind for some time.