The gruesome murder mystery saga of Erica Reed continues in Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 2: The Wise Monkey, the next point-&-click adventure from Phoenix Online Studios. Picking up almost immediately from the ending of the first episode, this is a taut and moody thriller. If you haven't played The Hangman then enough information is provided that you will be able to get your bearings without any real issues but continuing players will find this a more rewarding experience. The game does assume that you are familiar with previous events and seeing as the first episode was quite good fun, it's worth checking that out first if you haven't.
The Hangman had the task of laying all the groundwork meaning that The Wise Monkey is able to dive straight into the story with very little preamble. If you recall, Erica Reed is an FBI agent with a tortured past and emerging psychic abilities. Her brother was murdered by a serial killer and she's been somewhat obsessed in tracking this person down. However, her investigation has been shut down and she was assigned to a new spree of serial killings. The first chapter dealt with your investigation into The Hangman and ended with the tragic death of your boss.
The Wise Monkey deals with the fallout from those events and Erica inherits a new investigation as things appear to take on a much more personal angle. The plot concerns the murders of a group of Berklee College music students who each had their ears, eyes and tongues removed but quickly becomes a critical case for Erica as her friend is taken right in front of her and she needs to find him before he's killed. The lack of exposition needed this time around makes for an engaging experience that moves quickly. This episode is considerably shorter than the first, clocking in at around three and a half hours, and this turns out to be a decent length as it manages to hold your attention without feeling padded. The story here is again a well-written tale and contains some decent twists which connect back to seemingly random events in the first chapter. It demonstrates a confident narrative which has had some forethought and planning put into it. This is not a game for the squeamish, however. Much like The Hangman, it doesn't hold back and in some cases exceeds that chapter in terms of gore and violence. Thankfully it's not gratuitous and does serve the game's story and Erica's motivations well - still, if you're not a fan of eye-gouging then proceed with caution.
Once again, Raleigh Holmes gives an excellent performance throughout the entire game as the voice of Erica and is required to deliver some strong emotional material which she handles well. And once again the voice work for the peripheral characters is a mixed bag. It sometimes feels like little attention was given to any character other than Erica - animation and character models can appear to be less refined than hers and the writing quality notably dips in places (for example, your new boss once again gets some pretty lacklustre treatment). Erica also seems have the most useless and lazy partner in the world as once again John refuses to leave his desk or assist you with anything. Erica plays through the entire game alone and it's easy to see that a lot of fun could be had if he were with you.
We praised the The Hangman for its detailed world and storytelling and can happily report that The Wise Monkey continues that tradition but this time around the world feels smaller and more personal. There's a slightly more emotional side which comes out this time around which is a welcome shift.
Any adventure game fan knows that good examples of the genre rely on both the story side and on the quality of the puzzles. It's never an easy thing to get the puzzle difficulty balanced out and Phoenix Online seem to err on the side of caution and never present anything too complicated or illogical here. It's always clear what you need to do to continue and if you do happen to get stuck the game's hint system is able to point you in the right direction with a clue rather than a direct answer. Generally you'll be using your inventory items in clear and obvious ways, but during the segments which require you to use your psychic abilities you'll find it to be important to have been paying attention. Your abilities can help other people remember things more clearly or allow you to see events that happened in the past (very useful), but in order to make that work you need to recreate environments in certain ways or find things which were connected to the events you need to see. When the mechanic works, it's quite good fun. At other times it can feel like an unnecessary slog to match things up to a photo in exactly the right way - note-taking is an important step here.
The flowing narrative allows for some moments of humour and light amongst the oppressive tones and they don’t feel shoehorned in (a particularly funny sequence involving the suspect’s room mate comes out of nowhere and Erica’s reaction is the icing on the cake). We are presented with a good deal of variety in the investigations and it all builds up to an end sequence which is something players will find either quite frustrating or a lot of fun. It's gruesome and nasty and can require a bit of luck if you can't quite get your head around the clues provided, but it's a pleasantly over-the-top section requiring you to sort through various victim’s body parts. The vicious yet slightly ridiculous nature of it fits into the world of the game.
This is an improvement over The Hangman despite the shorter length meaning you get less bang for your buck. Everything feels a little bit more settled and confident and it moves quickly. Perhaps the whole thing is a little too easy but the mixture of standard adventure game inventory puzzles and the more unique psychic power mechanic needed to solve several keeps things fresh. The ending will pique your interest as to what really is going on and why Erica is involved as you start to suspect and question many of the characters and events around you. Phoenix Online have tapped into something good here and hopefully the next chapter will deliver in the same way.