The trials of FBI agent Erica Reed continue in the third episode of Cognition, the next point-&-click adventure game from Phoenix Online Studios. If you have played any kind of episodic adventure series before then you might expect by the third chapter for things to have settled into a familiar routine - not so here. A variety of gameplay changes are introduced and the episode is overall much more focused and developed than the previous two (The Hangman and The Wise Monkey). As with the last episode, The Oracle picks up where events left off and does expect you to have some familiarity with what has come before. A recap of the story so far is given but by this point things are getting pretty detailed so while you may well be able to dive in it is recommended that you check out the first two installments. Everything is intended to form one big story.
Erica's psychic powers have played a large role in the previous games, but they are really pushed to the forefront this time around. These powers enable you to touch objects and gain insight into events that have occurred in the past (cognition), help piece together other people's memories (regression) or combine associated items together to get a more detailed image of a specific event (synergy) - for example, using the cut-off head of a flower and the knife that was used to do it together lets you see exactly where that happened. In addition to those abilities, Erica finds she is now able to access somebody else's mind entirely and the game allows you to take control of a new character for significant sections. We won't spoil who that character may be, but if you've been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the story so far then you should have a good idea.
Things feel a lot more focused this time. In previous episodes you were given free reign over various locations in Boston but The Oracle takes place almost entirely in one building and while this may at first seem limiting it actually works to the benefit of the game. It allows for a tight story which moves forward at a pace and enables you to fully explore. The developers are also quite creative in how the location is used as you participate in events at the same place but during different time periods. You'll get around three to four hours of playing time out of this episode depending on how skilled you are at adventure game puzzle logic - which, for the most part is kept relatively simple in this game apart from one particularly tricky moment involving a safe combination which may cause you to pull your hair out and then make you scream "What?!" once you resort to finding the solution in a walkthrough. The bulk of the game has found a good balance of giving you a sense of accomplishment as you progress.
The trademark gore and nastiness of the series doesn't really appear until you approach the ending of the episode and the squeamish will be happy to hear that it's not quite as brutal as what has come before (that's not to say it isn't bloody). The ending does show that the story has been well thought out from the beginning and contains good twists and shock value, leaving you eager to play the fourth and final chapter.
Indeed, the characters and narrative have become so well developed and interesting by this point that the technical limitations only become more apparent now and make you feel that these games deserve better. Character models remain stylish but undetailed with blocky limbs which seem too long for the body. The graphic novel quality allows them to still get a lot of personality across, but the animations are very poor and continually recycled throughout. They stand out against the very attractive hand drawn backgrounds and the gorgeous animated cutscenes.
We've spoken before about how the voice actors for the main characters are doing an excellent job, and this is still the case, but The Oracle pushes supporting characters into the spotlight and unfortunately they really do not fare as well. The weakest links from previous chapters (Director Davies and Director McAdams) are given significantly larger roles here and their delivery feels stilted and almost lapses into comedy performances at times. We can try to give Phoenix Online the benefit of the doubt and assume that the over-the-top voice acting is an intentional device to assist in you disliking the characters.
For the first time in the Cognition series there are moments where you can almost feel echoes of Sierra's old Police Quest adventure games. It's an easy comparison to make given that they both involve crime investigation and murderous vendettas against the protagonist but Police Quest was always much more concerned about getting the player to engage in correct police procedure. Cognition never quite ventures down that path but some early moments in The Oracle do suddenly cause flashes of nostalgia. This is a great adventure series which has chosen to focus on the narrative side of things and is all the better for it. This third chapter is the best so far. It's a shame that the game's presentation can't quite match the ambition, but we are eager to play the fourth and final episode. Maybe any future adventures of Erica Reed will be able to have the polish they deserve.