Gabriel Knight is often cited as having a profound impact amongst adventure games. It took game writing to a new depth and interwove detailed research into the stories to add a level of authenticity. It seems odd, then, that few adventure games since have really seemed to be influenced by these factors or taken advantage of them. Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 1: The Hangman is a game which certainly can't be accused of that. The strongest part of this game is the merging of writing, story detail and voice acting which all contribute to provide a memorable experience and get you just that little bit more invested in what's happening. Indeed, Gabriel Knight's creator Jane Jensen is even on-board here as a story consultant.
Cognition tells the story of FBI agent Erica Reed, a fairly tough woman who has suffered personal tragedy at the hands of a serial killer. She also has a special gift: psychic abilities. Upon touching certain objects, Erica can see into the recent past and witness events as they happened - quite a useful tool for an agent investigating murders. This first chapter in a planned series of four has Erica investigating a series of hangings as well as trying to get to grips with her expanding psychic powers and unresolved issues from her past.
That's quite a lot of story to tell and fortunately the writing here is - for the most part - of quite a high quality. The characters feel real and the city of Boston gritty. Time is taken to get to know Erica and the people she encounters, and it's not uncomfortably shoehorned in but rather a natural process. There is mystery here which is kept compelling, and also some quite brutal moments which have good shock value. Characters have distinct personalities, although in a few cases this goes over the tipping point into caricatures and stereotypes. While Erica and her partner have a very relaxed and natural feel to their personalities, Erica's boss is a cartoon cutout of the angry, impatient FBI director who wants answers NOW and can never be pleased.
These issues are exacerbated by a somewhat mixed quality of voice acting. High praise should certainly be given to Raleigh Holmes who provides the voice of Erica. She runs a gamut of emotions here and excels at all of them, giving a very natural quality to the character and a delightful Boston accent. Similarly, Ed Crane provides a very relaxed and pitch-perfect voice for your partner John. Other characters do not come off so well, notably the aforementioned hard ass that is your boss and a grating, stilted performance for the antiques dealer/psychic guru Rose. The good news is that the majority of the game is spent with very enjoyable voice work.
Graphically, the game is vibrant. Colours are used beautifully to provide very rich and atmospheric hand drawn backgrounds. The direction here is for a comic-book or graphic-novel style, so while there isn't much detail in the drawings there is a lot of energy and soul. They all look rather gorgeous. The game uses 3D character models over 2D backgrounds, and the two integrate together quite well. Keeping the same artistic style, the characters aren't particularly detailed but each has a lot of personality. They have a similar look to characters of The Walking Dead, though certainly not as refined. What lets them down is the poor animation often employed; Erica's walk cycle is fairly comical as she uses long, low strides which look uncomfortable. The use of shadows is a bit too extreme with it sometimes looking like people have ink stains on their faces, and it's hard to know whether this is an intentional style or a side effect of the game engine.
For cutscenes the game switches to subtly animated comic book panels, which are just as moody as the rest of the game and fit in very well. The entire thing comes across as extremely stylish, if occasionally lacking polish. Music is also used to great effect and even integrates itself into the plot at one point. Both the intro sequence and end credits use powerful music which immediately creates an atmosphere fitting to your investigation. There is a slightly industrial, rough edge to the instrumentation used and the accompanying visuals during the titles are reminiscent of the opening to the film Se7en. It lets you know what you're in for, and coming off the back of a vicious opening sequence which really hits you quite hard is very effective.
Cognition uses a very streamlined and simple interface. Left-clicking on an empty part of the screen will have Erica walk there, while double-clicking will have her run. Clicking on an interactive object will bring up a radial menu allowing you to look at the item/person, interact with it or use an inventory item on it. Unfortunately, these menu options are context sensitive, so if you can't interact with an item then you won't even be given an option to. This has the effect of making the game fairly simple; you will quickly be able to figure out what you need to do because there are often only one or two items on the screen with which you can actually interact, whereas all the other items only give you the option to "look". It restricts experimentation a lot, but does help the game flow.
The psychic abilities from which the game gets its title are a welcome addition. Clicking on a button to activate the powers will allow you to look at a scene in a different way, with certain objects highlighted which you can then investigate. As the game progresses you are able to unlock new abilities, but the game makes you work in order to utilise them properly. It's a clever system and isn't overused.
As with many other modern adventure games the game comes with a hint system which is creatively done - you have the option to send text messages to Erica's father asking for help. These hints are always subtle pushes in the right direction and are never too explicit. It's unlikely that the need to use it will come up too often, as the game never becomes fiendishly difficult. There are some frustrating moments where the puzzle logic does seem to go out the window - your partner refuses to leave his desk which comes across as contrived and forces you to play the majority of the game by yourself. There's an enjoyable section of the game which is brought to a screeching halt when you need to give a character something to eat. The box of doughnuts in your inventory is apparently no good for this, and instead you have to go and find something else to give him. After that he'll accept the doughnuts. No explanation is given for this other than a standard, "that won't work". It's a frustrating left-over of game design that players were tired of back in the 1990s, and there's no real excuse for it to still be on display here today.
Luckily, these moments don't occur too often and the driving force of this game is the story. For an episodic game, the first chapter of Cognition is longer than you might expect, clocking in at around five to six hours of play time. It lays a solid foundation of an intriguing story with an interesting, likable lead character and strong writing that feels like a step up from a lot of murder mystery adventures. The game opening is especially powerful and it manages to keep that momentum for a while before feeling like it's slowed down too much. It ramps things up for a fun interrogation sequence and an exciting ending.