Greenlight Spotlight: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Greenlight Spotlight is a recurring feature in which we preview, play, and interview the developers of games seeking publication through the Steam Greenlight process. Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is developed by Phoenix Online Studios and published by Reverb Publishing. A copy of episode one of the game was provided for the purpose of this feature.

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Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is the second labor of love from Phoenix Online Studios. While the team’s first project The Silver Lining was based on the popular King’s Quest property, their second project took an original direction, with Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller being the fruits of their efforts. An Erica Reed Thriller is an all-new point and click crime drama adventure at its core with a psychological twist. Our heroine Erica Reed is an FBI agent working out of Boston armed with a sixth sense. This advanced form of a woman’s intuition allows Erica to interact with objects and see moments from the past. Using basic detective skills, finding and collecting evidence, interviewing individuals, the power of the internet, and her bizarre and unique visions, Erica is tasked with solving crimes and catching murderers.

When we first meet Erica in Cognition, things are all but black and white. We take control of Erica as she’s hellbent on saving her brother, who has been abducted by a serial killer known as the Cain Killer. This particular killer targets pairs of siblings and the unfortunate Reed family is but the latest on the killer’s hit list. This pressure-filled introductory scenario leads Erica and her partner John (the stereotypical big dumb teddy bear persona) to a graveyard. Inside the graveyard Erica is greeted with a series of intricate puzzles leading up to the location of her captive brother. While we don’t want to spoil too much, we will say that the game’s introduction chapter leads to a confrontation that sets the scale and tone for the rest of the game.

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We were lucky enough to play entirety of the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller to get a feel for just what the team at Phoenix is aiming for with the franchise. When you step into Erica Reed’s world, the first thing that you’ll notice is that the game is made up of a combination of beautifully rendered hand-drawn art and real-time cel-shaded graphics. While many of the game’s environments and cut scenes are made up of atmospheric sketches, in-game characters and other select environments are designed as 3D environments. While the pre-rendered work is great to look at the modeled characters, environments, and animations won’t win any awards. Fortunately for Cognition, the visuals weren’t really meant to take center stage.

What does take center stage in a point and click adventure game such as this is the story and audio. The team in charge of the game’s soundtrack did a great job with the first episode of the series giving the game plenty of memorable melodies that set the atmosphere throughout the game as the story unfolds well. Cognition’s score brings back memories of murder mystery television shows from our childhood with its combination of dramatic and mysterious tunes. The music that accompanies Erica’s shocking, violent, and disturbing visions of the future is an example of particularly strong execution by the team in charge of the game’s audio.

Enough about aesthetics however, what makes or breaks any point and click adventure is the story that it contains and the challenges that it throws at the player. The first episode of Cognition does a good job at pulling the player into the investigation that Erica is enthralled in. While some of the game’s voice acting will leave you scratching your head or rolling your eyes, it’s pretty hard not to get sucked in by the thrill of trying to put the pieces together to solve the case. Catching a murderer or murderers is the name of the game here, and despite a fair amount of cheese along the way the core of the game keeps sucking you in. The game does have its faults; namely annoying pauses and load times as well as the occasional objective that forces the player to run around and waste time just for the sake of it, but given the episodic nature of this title we’re hoping Phoenix will continue to fine tune their formula as the series continues.

Phoenix Online has hinted that the release of the second episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller isn’t too far off. Given the cliffhanger ending of the first episode we suspect that many will be left in suspense waiting to see what happens next. After concluding the first episode of the game for ourselves, we talked to Phoenix’ very own Katie Hallahan, who serves as both a Game Designer and PR Director at the studio. During the interview we talk about the adventure genre, Erica Reed herself, future episodes of Cognition and more. Below you will find the text of our conversation.

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The adventure genre has been making a strong comeback over the past year or so. What makes Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller so unique?

Erica’s post-cognition powers are a very unique part of our game. With these, Erica can see past events and interact with them, and she learns new ways to use her powers as the story continues. She learns how to not only see a person’s memories, but how to help them remember things they think they’ve forgotten. With another power, she can use three objects together to recreate a scene from the past. It makes for some really interesting and challenging puzzles!

We’ve also got a really interesting story—it’s one of the things reviewers and fans have loved most about the game. Inspired by shows like Dexter and Fringe, and games like Heavy Rain and Gabriel Knight, it’s a great mystery, and we worked with Jane Jensen herself as our Story Consultant! Not only was that a dream come true for us, but her insight and advice has been great in keeping the story focused and making it shine. Erica haunts down different serial killers over the course of the game, haunted by the death of her brother at the hands of the Cain Killer, who was never caught. As she investigates her most recent case, however, she notices that someone’s leaving clues that only she can find. But who’s leaving these clues, and how do they know what she can do? More importantly–what is it they want from her?

What is it with this Erica Reed character? Putting her name is the title seems to give her quite the significance. What’s the deal with her?

Erica Reed is an FBI agent in Boston, but a very unique one thanks to her post-cognition powers—not only do the make for cool gameplay, but they affect her life. It seems like the kind of thing that would be really handy for an FBI Agent, but they’ve caused her issues both professionally and personally. Erica’s an interesting and very developed character: she’s dedicated to her job, stubborn, intelligent, kind of a badass (we like to say she’s a female Jack Bauer!), but she has her flaws, too. She has trouble opening up, she often rushes in or acts too quickly. And her voice actress, Raleigh Holmes, has done an amazing job in bringing her to life.

Episode One of Cognition is available for download now and it appears that the development team has at least three more episodes planned. Is each episode going to be a new case, or is this one continuing story?

There will be four episodes in total, and it’s a little of both, actually. Each episode focuses on a specific case, with a plot that follows her investigation into that killer. But there’s also an overarching storyline that connects all of them, which focuses on figuring out who has found out about Erica’s powers and what they’re up to.

Whats the time frame for the release of the other episodes? And assuming the game gets the Greenlight, when can we expect to see Episode One go up on Steam?

Episode 2 is releasing on January 30th–that will be available at our online store, shop.cognitiongame.com, along with the other episodes. We’re aiming to keep the releases as close together as possible for Episodes 3 and 4, but we don’t have set dates just yet. As for Steam, Episodes 1 and 2 will be ready to go as soon as we get Greenlit!

This isn’t the first time that the team has worked in the adventure genre. Phoenix Online released a series called The Silver Lining before starting work on Cognition. What lessons did you gather from working on that episodic series that you carried over to the development of Cognition?

The Silver Lining, which is a free fangame based on the King’s Quest series, was a huge learning experience for us. When we started on that game, we really had no idea how to actually make a game. We were a group of fans who wanted to see our favorite series get the swan song we felt it deserved. So we spent about ten years making that game in our free time, learning everything from how to organize an online team to programming, production, testing, and some hard lessons about keeping the scope of a game manageable: all the things that went into really making a video game! It was our training ground to prepare us for what would come next. When we made the leap into creating our first commercial product, we brought in the people who’d really proven themselves on TSL to work on Cognition, and they’ve only continued to improve. We switched to Unity, a game engine that is much better for our purposes, we knew what kind of tools we wanted to create, and once we were working full time, we had Episode 1 done in ten months. Quite a step up from ten years!

Cognition is drawing comparisons to Telltale’s episodic adventure based on The Walking Dead which was awarded Game of the Year from several outlets including our sister site XBLA Fans. Is your team proud of or scared of this comparison? Whats similar and whats different between the two games?

It’s very exciting; The Walking Dead is fantastic! Telltale did a great job with that game.

Both games have a graphic novel art style–ours was inspired by the work of Romano Molenaar, the art director for Cognition, who’s a well known comics artist. He’s worked on X-Men, Batman, The Darkness and Tomb Raider, among others, and his work is just beautiful. It lent itself really well to the story we wanted to tell with Cognition. They are also both adventure games, but they have different leanings within that genre: Cognition is more like the classic point-and-click adventure games, with a lot of investigating, dialogue and inventory puzzles. The storylines and subject matter in both games are fairly mature—there are horror elements in them, they have their share of tragedy and death, and the characters face hard choices and dangerous situations.

There are some pretty big differences, though. Erica’s story takes place in a very different world from Lee and Clementine, and she’s a very different character. She’s an FBI agent chasing serial killers in Boston, with something of a procedural feel to it, using a power she can’t explain to work her cases, and always hoping to find the serial killer who killed her brother. In Cognition, the dead certainly haunt Erica, but only metaphorically!

Here’s your chance to speak directly to our audience. Tell our readers why they should vote for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller on Steam Greenlight.

Cognition is a unique adventure game with a fantastic visual style, a gripping noir-like story, and classic point-and-click gameplay with a supernatural twist. We’ve gotten consistently great reviews, averaging around 80%. Fans can’t wait to see what comes next in our Jane Jensen-approved story. And we have two episodes ready to go the moment we get that Greenlight! If you’d like to try out the demo for yourself, you can get it for free at our website, www.cognitiongame.com.

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Phoenix has clearly embarked on a journey that they are committed to with episode one of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller which represents a solid start for the game/franchise. While you can download the first episode now or try out the free demo through the game’s website, Phoenix is working to get the game published on Steam through the Steam Greenlight process. If Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller has made your sense of adventure (or your spider sense) tingle we suggest you head over to the game’s Steam Greenlight page and vote for it to help get the game published on Valve’s digital platform.

About Ryan Reynolds

As a life long gamer with experience in a variety of fields , Ryan has written about games on and off through his life. When he was fourteen he started his own gaming site that had him attending expos at the tender age of eighteen. Now, at the age of twenty five, Ryan has been with the Involved Fans Network for two years. He resides in upstate New York, where he also serves as an elected official and works in management. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanReynoldsIII.