Smart Evolution: A Review Of The Wise Monkey

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is an adventure game by Phoenix Online Studios that could have been a mediocre knock-off of any crime drama on television. At its worst, Cognition could be reductively described as NCIS meets TellTale’s The Walking Dead. And oddly enough, that’s what so brilliant about it. 

The first episode of Cognition, entitled The Hangman, introduced players to FBI detective Erica Reed’s post-cognitive abilities and her quest to track down her brother’s killer. The second episode, The Wise Monkey, adds to her plate the kidnapping of her partner, Sully.

While other adventure games like Resonance and the more recent Primordia have no shortage of grittiness, the fact that Cognition isn’t afraid to set its similar brand of grime in the real world (Boston, Massachusetts) speaks volumes about the game’s confidence. By eschewing a dystopian future setting, Cognition’s plot twists and violence leave the player with an added sense of uneasiness.

As previously mentioned, another game of similar ilk is The Walking Dead. But again, this isn’t a derisive statement: the things in Cognition that mirror The Walking Dead are the things that move these kinds of games forward as entertainment. For example, the cut scenes are rendered like a graphic novel, which lends a certain sense of realism.

Additionally, the episodes of Cognition are set up more like television episodes, replete with dramatic opening scenes and introductory credit rolls. Playing the episodes back-to-back feels like taking part in a procedural crime drama, a la NCIS.

Embracing the breaks inherent to episodic storytelling is beneficial for the player, because it helps alleviate most problems associated with delivering content this way. Though the construct is still artificial, everyone is familiar with how television episodes works, including shows where there is a running narrative. Staging a video game this way helps the story feel more natural by providing context for the breaks, and proving that they no longer need to be arbitrary.

Aided by this format, what works particularly well in The Wise Monkey is tension. While it initially feels like Reed’s drive established in The Hangman is completely lost, small nods to that first episode help create the sense that the mounting stress is taking its toll on her ability to reason. Harkening back to the comparison to television, Cognition handles these references very well, and players just starting with this second episode won’t feel completely lost.

Cognition does have its problems, though. The Erica Reed illustrated in the graphic novel panels only kind of resembles the Erica Reed that you play in the game, which leaves you with a certain disconnect every time you see the cut scenes. Additionally, it doesn’t always feel like the voice acting matches the character models or what they are doing, which is also disengaging at times.

But damning a series for a subjective opinion on art direction is like hating a record because you hate the font used in the liner notes; it’s important to remember that these issues are minor when considering Cognition as a complete work.

Cognition has now spent two episodes crafting an extraordinarily compelling story rife with tension, and it represents a remarkable leap for the group at Phoenix Online Studios. The team’s understanding of narrative and storytelling certainly makes them noteworthy, and it’s interesting to think that a game as solid as Cognition marks their first commercial effort. Adventure games are sometimes too much of a “pixel hunt” to be considered engaging, but Cognition can stand proudly with other modern titles that advance the genre past that.

Pixels or Death gives The Wise Monkey (episode two of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller) a 4 out of 5.