You emerge from a scrapyard in a mysterious complex with only your cold metallic skeleton and occasional guidance by a few derelict robots. You are Cogmind – Location: Unknown, Core: Stable, Your Goal: Escape.
Cogmind is a sci-fi rogue-like that tasks you with exploring and ultimately escaping its procedurally generated world by building yourself up with scavenged parts to engage or avoid roaming robotic enemies.
You are just a frame with limitless potential. As you explore your surroundings you’ll find piles of scrap and components left lying around or blown off other robots in combat. You weld these parts to your body to build a hulking armoured killing machine or a high-tech gadget covered sleuth, and anything in between. You decide whether to sneak and hack or fight your way out in turn-based tactical combat.
Build what you will, but being a rogue-like, it’s unforgiving, and will bring you right back to the start with nothing more gained than a hard knocks education to propel you even further your next run.
I was immediately intrigued when I first saw Cogmind – but not sold on it in the early stages. The game is dense and detailed, with so much to learn that it felt overwhelming. However, this should not be a deterrent in moving forward, as the complexity is not trivial and serves to deepen the experience of the game. In fact, it gives you so much to discover and so many options to approach it that the number of vastly different runs will constantly draw you back to try new strategies.
You can jump in and play quite easily by just engaging in combat, but you won’t understand much of what is happening if you do. You’ll have to spend some time piecing together and reading the comprehensive list of stats – as well as how each component or weapon impacts those stats.
Although the developer does a pretty good job making the UI as clear as possible, labeling items in the world, and ranking components in a tier system to sort through the multitude of stats, it still takes a while through examination and trial & error to really understand the implications of everything. But these and other design choices do streamline the process of learning the game that would otherwise be unnecessarily confusing.
Battlebot or Battle Not?
You begin at level -10. Each level has several exits either to lateral branching areas or to the next floor above. Each time you move up a floor, you gain a “level” and are greeted with an Evolution Parameters screen that allows you to upgrade two of your component slots: Power, Propulsion, Utility, or Weapons.
There is a constant balancing act of the four component slots and the measures that impact them. Determining your strategy for success and immediate survival involves your: Core (life), Energy (power source), Matter (multi-purpose substance for ballistic projectiles and attaching components), Heat (thermal output of components), Coverage (how much of your frame is protected), Movement Speed (how many movements you can make relative to your opponents once in combat), and Mass (how much you can hold on your frame based on propulsion choice). This non exhaustive list of stats demonstrates how complex it can be for beginners but also how deep it is for more experienced players.
This balancing act is no more evident than when you are manically pilfering eviscerated robots strewn about the complex floor like a desperate scavenging cannibal. Don’t get too attached to a handy little gadget or cool looking weapon because they are merely a disposable tool to fend off the legions of robotic defenders. This is certainly not a criticism; this is what makes the strategy so great and where some of the skill creeps into frame.
There is no better feeling, nothing more rewarding, than being chased as you frantically search for the next exit, hobbling on some busted titanium legs without a weapon to fire back – and then slowly amassing an arsenal only to return to demolish your harassers.
The combat is deceptively fun and interactions can be exciting as you dash for the exit knowing you will surely die if you stay, overrun by robots with Terminator level tenacity. At first glance the simplicity of turn-based tile movement and the two possible actions when faced with combat: attack or run – gives you the impression that there isn’t much strategy, let alone skill involved.
Really there is so much that can happen in any given interaction, with components blown off, managing your heat so you don’t overheat, balancing your energy by swapping out or deactivating certain components or fully destructible walls being destroyed and rebuilt around you.
Sure, if everything goes perfect, it’s pretty straight forward. But it’s not designed that way. There are so many things that can go wrong: enemies blocking both exits forcing you into combat in a tight corridor, a worker robot getting in the way, or a scout robot raising the alert level and bringing more enemies to join the party. There are innumerable variables that change the interactions and influence your ad hoc strategy. Cogmind is more of a skill-based game than one where the player is reliant on luck, though there is some of that – it’s about adaptability and strategy.
While most people will probably indulge in combat there is an option to be far less or almost entirely non-violent. In the early stages it can be quite difficult to avoid contact with enemies, and it may be in your best interest to dispatch opponents immediately, but there are often other ways around any given situation.
By upgrading and entering new areas Cogmind can specialize to become a stealthy, technological marvel. In this sort of build your utility component slot is your best friend. It allows you to equip a plethora of mutually leveraging gadgets. For instance, a sensory array finds robots in the area, and with the addition of a signal interpreter you can find out more information on the type of signal these robots are giving off, in other words whether they are friendly or hostile. These and other gadgets work together to keep you at a distance from enemies and allow you to search the level for the exit undetected.
Hacking is another part of such an approach. Not only by hacking other robots to bring them to your side or shut them down with a Data-jack tool, but to infiltrate terminals that can give you information on your surroundings, including the exits. There is no mini game where you hack into the system, just a probability of detection where you must weigh the benefits and consequences – a higher alert level and more enemies.
Little Boxes, Little Stories
The mysterious complex you explore functions as a completely immersive robotic ecosystem. It is not only filled with enemy robots whose express purpose is to destroy you, but also innocuous working robots that are generally indifferent. Some of these non-threatening robots transport scrap, clean up debris, some will salvage components to turn into matter by bringing them to recycling machines, some dig tunnels, and others will rebuild destroyed walls right in front of your eyes.
It’s not just impressive to consider and watch unfold, but it also adds yet another layer to the game. Something occurring around you that can impact your interactions with the world from combat to simply picking up components. For instance, recycling units can scoop up parts lying around if you’re not quick enough.
Aside from the soldier and worker robots there are those that exist beneath the surface in the dark recesses of the cave system, kept down and discarded – errant robots known as Derelicts. They provide an interesting, small source of spontaneous story and a certain level of guidance.
There isn’t necessarily a traditional story to follow in Cogmind, but plenty to uncover and many different endings to unlock. You’re initially dropped in the complex without any reasoning other than a brief enigmatic explanation from a friendly robot, called Revision 17. You can find out more about what is going on by reading lore files from hacked terminals, but not much further than that.
What develops the story in an individual way is the use of random and delightful little untethered vignettes – like a derelict bursting from the shadows to warn you of dangerous robots and deciding to hold them off telling you to RUN! in epic action movie style. These brief moments are unexpected, sometimes helpful, other times just hilarious – they’re small but so much fun to come across in the course of a run.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. The sheer amount of detail and the successful attempts to elevate the genre carves this game into a niche with likely only moderate appeal widely, but undoubtedly something that will find massive love from strategy and especially rogue-like players. I’ve logged something like 12 hours in this game just to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities.