The coffee in Boston's FBI offices must be a really special kind of black sludge, capable of turning ordinary investigators into relentless machines. Or maybe Special Agent Erica Reed has just transcended the need for rest or relaxation, for a mere day after the traumatic events of The Hangman, she's back at work, solving another gruesome case.
Cognition's second episode, The Wise Monkey, has clearly been developed by a team growing in confidence. It's a tightly-paced thriller, more comfortable in its homage to televised serial police dramas than its predecessor. Yet, sacrifices have been made to keep up the tension, and some missing elements stop this from being the significant improvement it could have been, leaving it lacking in the characters and relationships that make dramas compelling.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - The Wise Monkey (iOS, PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Phoenix Online Studios
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios
Released: January 30, 2013
MSRP: $9.99 ($29.99 for all episodes)
Still reeling from her showdown in Boston's Old Meeting House, Erica is not given a moment of respite. Minutes after The Wise Monkey begins, her colleague and romantic interest, Sully, is brutalized and kidnapped right in front of her eyes, the latest victim of The Wise Monkey serial killer.
While the many unanswered questions over her brother's murder and the events of the day before still fill Erica's mind, her main concern in The Wise Monkey is the rescue of Sully, and she has a new boss -- an intolerable man in an appalling pastel blue suit -- breathing down her neck.
There's no timer counting down to Sully's demise, but the personal nature of the investigation, as well as the fact that it appears as if nobody else is doing anything about it gives agency to the adventure. It's quite a bit shorter than the previous episode, but it's also more focused. During much of The Hangman, Erica was dealing with the dramatic shift in her abilities, and there was a large amount of exposition -- this time it's all about taking down a serial killer.
Erica's new boss, McAdams, is a bit of a shit, but he makes it clear that rescuing Sully should be a top priority for everyone. So, it's a tad strange that Erica has no back-up or aid whatsoever. In fact, the two times she needs help from the FBI, she has to break the rules, potentially losing her job, when she is pretty much ignored.
Even her mentor and sometimes partner, John, is of absolutely no help. In fact, the fat, donut-gobbling fellow spends the entirety of the game sitting at his desk. It's an odd shift from the previous game, where Erica spends quite a bit of time working out the case with her colleagues, each time getting a new puzzle to solve in return for their assistance.
Barely any of the characters established in The Hangman get more than one short bit of dialogue, actually. Erica's IT buddy doesn't even feature at all, his desk sitting empty with a sign saying "AFK." I found most of the characters to be two-dimensional at best, so I had hoped to see them fleshed out a bit more this time. I guess making them completely unimportant barring Rose, Erica's psychic mentor, and Cordellia, her comrade in misery -- and even they get only the smallest of roles -- is one way to solve that problem.
The upside is that this forces Erica to be something of a lone hero, a role she handles with aplomb. Her dialogue and Raleigh Holmes's performance makes up for the lack of other interesting characters quite a bit, and Erica spends much of the game in a believably frustrated state. She clearly doesn't have time for bullshit, and when she's not getting angry at suspects, she's making sarcastic remarks about some of the idiots she has to deal with.
A particularly memorable scene sees Erica interviewing the ex-roommate of a suspect, who unfortunately happens to be an irritating new-age forgetful ditz and tarot fan. A lot of the scene is played for laughs, and it may have felt tonally out of place in a thriller if it wasn't for Erica's obviously thinning patience, having to put up with this idiot when she has a friend to rescue.
One of The Wise Monkey's most obvious improvements are the puzzles, which I found hit or miss in the first episode. Erica's cognition abilities are far more prominent, and they make for the most intriguing head-scratchers. On top of the abilities she uses in The Hangman -- all of which return -- she gains a new power where she is able to see the past via interacting with multiple inventory objects. It's put to good use over the course of the game, and gives greater meaning to some of the items she picks up.
Outside of the cognition puzzles, everything else is logical, though not without some degree of challenge. I confess I was stumped for a wee while a couple of times, and not due to unnecessary obfuscation. My only real complaint in regards to this aspect is the not-insubstantial amount of backtracking, with several puzzles running across multiple scenes, and some areas being used with quite a bit of frequency, leading to them outstaying their welcome.
The case itself is a grisly investigation, with the victims' corpses being horribly desecrated, and one with far more compelling twists and turns than its predecessor's. Its climax will undoubtedly leave some unsatisfied, however, although I suspect it will be a matter of taste, as Cognition episodes seem to revel in cliffhangers and creating more questions.
Though The Wise Monkey is not all it could have been, it's a strong second episode. Much of it, however, felt almost like filler. The murder of Erica's brother and The Hangman case remain effectively untouched throughout most of this installment, and it does worry me that it has now set up even more mysteries while answering absolutely nothing. I don't doubt that it will all tie together somehow, but Cognition throws so few bones to the player that even the enjoyment of speculation is fruitless.