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The Council Review

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Episode 1: The Mad Ones

If I may be so bold, narrative fiction games have all lacked pretty heavily in the goals they are trying to achieve.  By narrative fiction I mean the pantheon of TellTale Titles (Walking Dead, Batman, etc.), Life is Strange, and even games that weave it into larger experiences such as Mass Effect.  These games all claim to remember your choices, note them, and use these items to essentially alter the story of the game as you play.  It is in this regard where I feel they all fail. The path never changes, the outcome is always the same, and for the most part the only thing that shifts are the characters involved, which are often just proxies for the ones intended in the cannon.  The only game that shook this was the now cult title Alpha Protocol, which was notorious for several delays, a system behind the scenes that was far too complicated, and a lukewarm reception from audiences and critics alike.  The Council, a new episodic title from freshman developer Big Bad Wolf hopes to buck that trend with a game that focuses heavily on investigation, personality, and decision-focused storylines.  If this first episode is an indication of the overall experience, the next evolution of narrative fiction may very well be upon us.

The story is also compelling for those, like me, who are also history buffs.  It takes place in 1793 and you play a Frenchman named Louis de Richet who is part of a secret society, the leader in France being his very own mother.  When she goes missing at a private island off the coast of England owned by the mysterious Lord Mortimer, Louis is called to come to the exclusive landmass.  When I say “exclusive” I do mean that in every way. You can only go there if invited and to call it posh is to devalue the extravagance of everything you see around you; it seems Lord Mortimer is wealthy beyond standards of any one country.  Whenever you deal with a person of such wealth, it stands to reason that notable individuals will also be drawn to them as well, which then leads to the number of true historical characters in The Council.  So far I’ve met George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte but there were hints at quite a few others, not to mention people you could include in spoilers.   The Council makes no qualms about the fact that all of the plots involving historical characters are fictional, but also throw out that the storylines are based on actual facts.  Others are also woven into the plot that I’m pretty sure are not actual figures of history such as Cardinal Giuseppe Piaggi, who works closely with the pope, and an English Duchess who has grown favor with the Crown.  It makes for a great cast of characters and dialogue connecting real history with fictional, making everything that much easier to believe.

At its core the game plays much like a hybrid role-playing game (the traditional definition) and an adventure title.  You’ll partake in several different activities such as investigation, interacting with just about everything to take in the sites and scenery, and of course conversations.  The art design definitely made the vast estate of Lord Mortimer into a spectacle to match his wealth, so I had no problems indulging in just about every bit of lore I could find.  You’ll frequently be forced into scripted events that are primarily dialogue. The episode is broken into multiple chapters, each allowing you to put points into various skills that primarily assist with this dialogue, but also have uses in your exploration.  Since the character tree is designed to last you, presumably the entire 5 episode excursion, you are very limited in the amount of points you get. This makes the decisions in what to level far more critical in these opening moments as you will frequently see opportunities pass you by unless you spec for them.  There’s no catch-all spec, so don’t go trying to min-max because it’s simply impossible. That very much seems by design, which I find refreshing. To assist you in making some of the skills cheaper you get to pick from one of three main personality types. Each personality type has five of the overall skills and the points required to level those are significantly reduced, but that doesn’t prevent you from being able to focus on a non-personality skill if you’re willing to use a larger number of your scant points for it.  This will either be daunting or enticing to certain players, but I was pleased with such freedom and spec options. You will also gain some points organically based on your decisions, but I never counted on them in either of my playthroughs of the first episode. There are also big decisions to be made when deciding where to go or what to do next, which will eliminate the opportunity to see/experience the other. Think of these decisions as the one’s in The Witcher, neither is necessarily good or bad, but you have to make a choice.  It all comes together when you start applying these concepts to your dialogue, which is a significant part of the overall gameplay.

When dialogue happens, it’s either in a peaceful setting where you listen to conversations and attempt to make the most of the situation or confrontations.  If you’ve ever played a BioWare or Bethesda RPG, you’ll be familiar with the concept of the peaceful conversations. As with those games, depending on the build you have for your character, you may be given prompts to intercede with additional information or additional response options.  The game also lets you know when you’ve missed a chance at engaging in a side conversation or extra response so that you can note to build those skills in another play, should you wish to see where it goes. There are also a few wrenches in any situation: each person you speak with has weaknesses and immunities while Louis has a limited number of points to flaunt his abilities.  Those weaknesses and immunities are not known at the onset, so you have to discover them as you go and in many cases that will be when you choose a dialogue option. Each person may have multiple immunities and/or weaknesses, but I’m fairly certain they all have at least one of each. I don’t want to reveal any actual answers, but a good example would be to imagine that the philosopher Plato was one of the guests. He would probably be immune to Philosophy and thus any of your misdirection involving philosophy would be countered and identified, but perhaps if there was a sympathy skill he would have a weakness to it that you could exploit that instead.  At the same time you’ll also need to spend points to perform certain targeted actions, which will vary depending on how much you’ve leveled up that skill. As a result, you may not have enough points to misdirect them in conversation and you’ll be forced into canned choices. It’s pretty straightforward in the game, but I can understand if it feels a bit convoluted here. Then there are the moments of direct confrontations, each with consequences, and those require you to either pass or fail a heated interaction. To fail is to potentially close a door and to succeed has the potential to create allies or even see new sequences or areas. I found all of the dialogue sequences to be rather enjoyable as they are a gamified battle of wits.

As much as there are plenty of positive attributes to The Council’s initial episode, there are some glaring faults that may be deal breakers.  For starters the graphics, while impressive, lack in the animation department.  Whether it’s the game engine or the animators themselves, things just don’t always move in a believable way and the voices don’t always sync up with the dialogue.  I know that’s been a common problem in games this generation, but for one so focused on plot and dialogue it’s distracting here. There are also vast differences in quality with the voice acting of characters, most notably your protagonist Louis.  While the cast overall does a decent job, and I was particularly fond of the Duchess and the Cardinal, Louis has probably the most inconsistent voice acting. He’s alright, but sometimes the performance is unconvincing, especially for someone of his role in life.  I also don’t like the way he represents my dialogue choices at times, either. As already hinted earlier, the systems in this game are pretty complex and it’s quite daunting in the beginning to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to do and how to spec your character.  There’s also the fact that points are over-used as a currency – you use them to build skills, use skills, and also quantify how well you did in the chapter but all from different pools so when the game simply uses the term “points” you may not know exactly what’s being referred to.  Finally the UI leaves a bit to be desired as a necessary evil of trying to make the largest audience happy. Role playing fans will love the endless point sheets, notes in the journal, as well as the mystery of what the consequences of your choices will be without any real guidance. On the other hand, a traditional gamer will probably more appreciate the notes on when you don’t have an appropriate skill, the big green and red text to indicate a success or failure of a confrontation, and incessant battling of limited use items for challenges.  As you may expect, both groups can be annoyed by the others’ selling points, so in the end no one is really happy. As someone who would like to think he’s in the middle, I found gripes with both features, but nothing was a deal breaker.

I enjoyed my time with The Council’s first episode, enough to play a second time and see how things changed.  It’s impossible to tell if this title will be able to stick the landing, but I’m going into the next episode with a large degree of optimism.  I like the unknown and the way this title makes you actually role play instead of try to game the system. It’s totally breakable I’m sure, and anyone with enough free time and a pad of paper will probably be able to point out the part where the seams are showing.  That said, it was far more obvious in most other interactive fiction I’ve played in the past. There will be players that are annoyed by the fact that you have to make so many decisions with no idea what the consequences will be, especially because there’s really no way to course correct once the game is in motion.  I would tell them to simply replay the chapter and hope for a different outcome, but the reality is that few gamers finish titles and even fewer replay them, so that’s unrealistic. To me, The Council offers a unique opportunity to play through an elaborate version of the dinner party murder mystery and captures the feel of true role playing better than its peers.  I played the episode twice and had completely unique experiences by making different choices. If you want to become a different character and run through scenarios and experiences, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, flaws and all.  If this is just another game in a growing backlog that you just want to fly through and move on from, you might be better suited to avoid this. The Council looks to be something special, but as with all titles in this genre, we’ll have to wait for the remaining episodes to confirm.  I really wish this game had a demo, if only the first chapter or two in this episode, because asking people to buy the bundle only seems a bit of a stretch.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

A review code was provided for the purposes of this review.  The Council is currently only sold as en entire 5 episode bundle for $29.99 on Steam (Windows PC only), PS4, and Xbox One.  Each episode will unlock as they are released and there is currently no release date for episode 2, although the entire run is promised in the 2018 calendar year.  It took the reviewer approximately 3 hours to complete the episode the first time and this did not change the second time.

This review will update as each episode releases, but a post will be also be made containing simply the single episode’s review.  

Written by Fred Rojas

March 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm

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