Developer: Big Bad Wolf
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Played on: PS4
Release Date: March 13, 2018
Played with: DualShock 4
Paid: $0 (Key provided for coverage)
Episode(s) Available: 1
Note: The Council is not actually in Early Access. Instead, this narrative-driven mystery game is taking the approach popularized by games like Life is Strange and recent Telltale titles: an episodic release schedule. However, I’m not overly fond of reviewing these sorts of games one episode at a time, as the interim reviews frequently lack new information, due to a lack of gameplay variance. As such, after this article (based solely on my experiences with episode one of the series), I won’t be covering the episodes of The Council in any formal sense until the final part is released; at that point, I’ll do a full review of the series in its entirety.
Louis de Richet and Sarah – his mother – are members of the mysterious Golden Order. What exactly this entails is currently shrouded in mystery, though hints of backdoor art deals, occultism, and sleuthing abound. After Sarah pays a visit to the island of a Lord Mortimer, Louis receives a letter, claiming that his mother has disappeared. Eager to find out what’s going on, Louis makes his way to the island, where he finds that his mother was far from the only person summoned. In the absence of Lord Mortimer (whom everyone claims is “occupied”), Louis must interact with Mortimer’s enigmatic guests, in the hopes of discovering what fate befell his mother, who exactly their host is, and why personalities such as George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte have been gathered on the curious island.
What’s immediately noticeable about The Council is just how visually appealing it is. Compared to its contemporaries, The Council opts for a more realistic visual style that’s pulled off surprisingly well. In particular, the lighting is top-notch, especially in lower-lit scenes. Furthermore, the textures are of consistently high quality, from the beautifully rendered paintings that adorn the walls of Lord Mortimer’s manor, down to the cracks in a character’s makeup.
Of course, while visual polish is great and all, what really drew me in to the world of The Council was its intriguing story, supplemented by a fantastic evolution on the now-ubiquitous “Telltale formula”. There are still the standard timed dialogue sections, environmental exploration puzzles, and binary choices that point to clear divergent paths in the narrative. However, there’s also an RPG-lite system, which adds a significant amount of variety to the tale as it unfolds. In a manner similar to Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade system, players can level up various skills to unlock new interaction options, whether it’s a way of convincing someone to open up to you, or the ability to latch onto a detail in the middle of a scene and make an interjection. Completing certain tasks will reward players with experience in specific skill areas, and XP is doled out at the end of each chapter, giving the chance to level up and further customise one’s playstyle.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the skill system, though, is that it’s not a guaranteed trump card. In Mass Effect, it was usually the case that, if you had a Paragon or Renegade option available, there was no reason not to use it. In The Council, this isn’t the case, as each character has hidden immunities and vulnerabilities. For instance, the manor’s servants are vulnerable to the “Manipulation” skill, so using it on them (assuming you have it unlocked) is pretty much a guarantee that you’ll get what you want. On the other hand, certain characters are completely immune to such trickery, and attempting to manipulate them will leave you in a worse state than if you had just given a “basic” answer.
On top of this, making use of your unlocked skills costs Effort Points (EP), with the price increasing depending on the difficulty (and potential reward) of success. While this cost can be mitigated (and eventually removed) by levelling up a skill, this requires a not insignificant investment of skill points, such that I ended up with no maxed-out skills at the end of the episode. If you run out of Effort Points, they can be replenished with consumable items, and are also partially restored at the end of each chapter. Despite this, you’ll find yourself frequently wondering whether it’s really worth spending all your points on your current interaction when there could be something far more interesting down the line.
In addition to the EP-restoring jellies, there’s an item that makes your next skill use free, one that reveals whether your current conversation partner is immune or vulnerable to each skill you can use on them (regardless of whether you’ve previously discovered this information), and one that removes negative status effects. The latter can become incredibly important based on the situation, as status effects can do everything from hiding the conversation timer to making all your skill uses cost an extra EP.
Perhaps best of all, The Council seems to take full advantage of the options made available to you. Playing it really put me in mind of earlier Telltale games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us: games where a different choice on your part often meant more than a minor change to the next line of NPC dialogue. The Council isn’t afraid to throw in countless branching paths, to the point where I was immediately curious as to what a second playthrough would yield once I finished my first. Your choices feel like they matter, and the game does an excellent job of throwing in continuity details that help to sell this notion. If you resolve an early conflict in a certain way, Louis will end up with a prominent scar across his nose for the rest of the episode. A miscalculation on my part during an altercation resulted in Louis being knocked out, cutting the scene short and leaving him with a bruised face for the entirety of the next chapter. Sure, one could gripe about the lack of character commentary on some of these things, as in the latter case, Washington simply complained about my failure to help him, while completely ignoring my mashed-up face. Honestly, though, this was rarely an issue, and the visual carryover was enough to make me legitimately concerned about what the consequences of my actions would be.
That being said, The Council frequently buckles under the weight of its own ambition. While I didn’t find anything that completely detached me from the experience (e.g. Black Mirror), several technical problems came to light as I spent more time with the game. The framerate chugs in a couple of scenes, and a handful of graphical bugs (e.g. Louis getting a bloodless nosebleed) made me grin when I was supposed to be taking the game seriously. There were also a couple of instances where the on-screen text blended into the background, forcing me to make a last-minute decision solely because I couldn’t see what my choices were until then.
Additionally, animations (facial ones in particular) can be stiff, skirting the edges of the uncanny valley on more than one occasion. For instance, people occasionally swiveled their heads in a disconcerting manner befitting of a robot, while Louis dabbing at his nose with a handkerchief bore more resemblance to someone pushing a biscuit into their face. Also, it must be incredibly warm in Lord Mortimer’s manor, as everyone sleeps on top of the blankets on their bed; it’s definitely not because fabric’s tough to animate.
Lastly, the voice acting can be hit-or-miss. While I didn’t have a problem with characters like George Washington and Gregory Holm (though the former’s laugh feels forced, to say the least), Louis is borderline insufferable at times. I was willing to forgive his complete lack of an accent, despite having one of the most French-sounding names I’ve heard in a long time; just because somebody’s French, doesn’t mean they need a snobby tone and a tendency to replace ‘th’ with ‘z’. However, Louis seems to operate on two settings: badly feigned interest, and smarmy asshole. “Surprise” and “passion” aren’t really in the cards, and a lot of his lines come out remarkably flat. I kid you not: his reaction to the news that someone believed dead is actually alive shares more in common with someone remarking on the wetness of water than anything else.
Episode one of The Council is a flawed gem, but it’s a gem nonetheless. I played through the entire episode in one sitting, and rarely found myself losing any interest at all. Despite being mostly setup with little payoff, I was still completely engrossed in the world and characters, finding myself picking favourites after only a short amount of time spent with them. Plus, the amount of depth added by the RPG-lite systems is truly impressive, and it’s rapidly becoming clear that not even two playthroughs will be enough to see everything.
Thankfully, each chapter ends with a summary of where you succeeded and failed, as well as what the alternate paths you could have taken were. Not only does this provide an easy way to keep track of your options, it makes you curious as to how certain goals could have been achieved, especially if it’s not an immediately obvious matter of, “Oh, if I had just picked the other choice here, then…”
Really, that’s perhaps the highest praise I can give to episode one of The Council: despite a smattering of technical hiccups and a sense of overreaching on the part of the developers, I found myself not only enjoying my first playthrough, but loving the second one as well. While it obviously remains to be seen how everything will play out in the end, I’m incredibly optimistic about the direction The Council is heading, and look forward to diving deeper into its mysteries as its episodes continue to release.