The Council Review: Episode One-The Mad Ones
Release Date: March 13, 2018
Developer/Publisher: Big Bad Wolf/Focus Home Interactive
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Price: $29.99 for the season, $6.99 for Episode One
Narrative-based games had a Renaissance of sorts the past few years, with developers like Telltale busting out several licensed stories based upon a solid formula. While quality, unfortunately even a Renaissance ends up becoming stagnant again. While still amazingly fun games for those interested in them, most of these narrative games have fallen into a predictable pattern. You still get a new, exciting story, but a lot of the games involve you influencing the world around you, not yourself. Even back in the days of the Choose Your Own Adventure book, you were a force on the world. The Council does a good job of flipping that around, by allowing you to grow as a character, learning new skills to help you investigate the mysterious disappearance of your mother at an intimidating mansion on a lonely island filled with imposing characters.
The Council prides itself on showing you that each choice you make has consequences. Playing as Louis de Richet, you are a member of a secret society run by your mother. She runs off by herself to investigate a lead to take down an evil organization. Suddenly, Louis gets a communication from the owner of the mansion stating that his mother has disappeared on the island, and he requests Louis' support in finding her. Upon arriving, your first, and perhaps most important, choice happens: another guest asks what you've been up to, and you can then craft Louis' history. At the beginning, you can be a detective, a diplomat, or an "occultist"-knowledgeable of religion, arcane ways, and a master of manipulation. This allows you to hunt for information in different ways. As you go on in the game, you can develop skills in other fields, but your base skills will be easier to develop in your chosen profession.
Here's where it gets interesting. You are always searching for the same end goal, but as you play you see obvious ways that a different profession would get you different results. A master detective will catch clues to determine weaknesses in other characters, allowing you to press just right and squeeze out information. A diplomat might know more about another character's life and profession, and their warmth may convince someone to talk more. Meanwhile, the occultist might take a direct approach by knowing how to pick locks and sneak into others' rooms when they aren't around to scrounge for information. With the right skill, your particular Louis could know the answer to a riddle that a different profession may have to research to solve, or sweet talk the angry person into giving up a juicy tidbit of information.
For this, the first episode of The Council, this does create a few frustrations, as you might see an interaction you simply cannot do because you don't have the skills needed even though the choice looks obvious. It also suffers from the thing I wish most narrative games had, making it difficult to fast-forward/rewind to see different options, like a branching tree. The developers are really pushing how choices are permanent though, so I can see this as an intentional issue. You can even anger someone enough that they physically attack you, leaving you with a permanent scar. It really shows how, in the real world, you might say something that you can't take back.
The game pushes on, whether you find clues to advance the story or not. The permanent changes in the game really appear to branch well here in the first episode. In this review time, I took two trips through the story, only making a few different choices in the three to four hour trip. At the episode-end cliffhanger, run one left me waking one morning to finally meet the mysterious owner of the mansion who has the key to finding my mother, while run two found me rudely awakened by the other guests accusing me of murder. There are three save files, but there are no optional branch save changes. In order to get a "different" story playthrough, you have to start at the beginning again and push through. Again, I feel it is intentional, with the developers wanting you to see your first iteration of the story through to the end to understand the impact of choice. As an episodic game, though, we are leaving gamers impatiently waiting to see more, and likely going back and trying different ways. If I were to read through variations of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I'd not reread pages I remembered, but The Council has no fast-forward for scenes you've already watched, meaning that second run through is going to start out very similar. With the two disparate endings I got to Epsiode One with only a few small decisions different, I would assume that this becomes less of a problem in later episodes, but I'd love to see something like, say, the end-of-scene choice options popping up early on scenes you've already reviewed on a second play through. Perhaps, if they would take my suggestion, this is something that could happen after your first playthrough of all five chapters, letting people better see some of the different branches.
I really like how gameplay flows. You get some time to investigate, be it snooping around or having small chats with other guests (who are dignitaries like Napoleon Bonaparte or George Washington). When it comes time to dig for a major clue, you go into a "battle mode" of sorts. These conversations have several key points, and a blunder at the wrong time can change an opportunity for information into absolutely nothing. It will change the trust level others have in you and how they interact with you.
I have a few concerns with The Council, but they can be overcome. Character skins hit the oddball uncanny valley, with realistic textures on old people's wrinkles, age spots, and even a powdered face. When they talk to you and their eyeballs stay pretty well centered, or their mouth opens just right showing their teeth at an odd angle, but most of all they appear odd in different lighting. The game starts at night, and the elderly looked rather off putting, but they looked better the next morning in the natural sunlight. Secondly, there are some good voice actors in the group, but others could use some help. Sadly, one of them is our main character. As a Frenchman, he seems to have a rather traditional American accent. Last, with the choices available there are bound to be some places where scripted conversations seem odd, but a bit of editing would help. For example, I had a two-part conversation with a man who was at first disgusted at my choice to not help a damsel in distress, who then turned around and spoke of how much he trusted me for keeping his secret from a previous interaction. Had they been in the reverse order, it would be natural, but thanks to how it was presented he looked like he was positively irate with me, and instantly began complimenting my properness.
There is a lot more game to go, having only played a fifth of what there is to offer. I'm excited to see where the story goes, and to be honest during this release window is likely the best time to play it. With no established canon, I'm seriously not sure whether it will simply be political intrigue, whether we are going to fall into occult mysteries, or whether I'll be hunting down an official criminal responsible for my mother's disappearance. Or, even better, if we'll pull a Clue Movie and have a different endgame depending on your decisions. A lot of this intrigue is going to fade when all five episodes are out, with a hundred YouTube videos and reviews like this one (I promise I'll keep spoilers to a minimum as the game goes on).
The Council is rough around the edges, but provides enough variance to the tried and true narrative format to provide a new challenge. While the variety of paths will provide amazing replayability, it still is to be seen whether your choices will provide drastic enough reason to go through again, especially if it pulls a Mass Effect and shoehorns all play paths back to the exact same end game. A lack of splitting save files at a choice or decision tree makes it hard to see varying tales, but this could be intentional to further drive home the permanence of decisions in the game. The Council is value priced, and if the other five episodes have as much gameplay time as the first, will give you plenty of entertainment even in one play through. I'm looking forward to the remainder of the episodes, though the press kit currently does not have a release schedule. Be sure to follow The Gamer's Lounge on Facebook or Twitter, or follow me personally, to keep up with release windows and future reviews through the end of Episode 5!
-Choices make a strong impact on the story, and can even leave literal scars
-Leveling your character gains new abilities, opens new paths
-Auto-saves and sudden decisions really play on how you can't go back on real-world choices
-With no set license to follow, the mystery could literally go anywhere.
-The dedication to the "permanent choice" makes it hard to see other branches-no story tree, no splitting save files, no fast forward through scenes you've seen, no starting over with more leveled skills
-A little work could be done to improve voice acting and character models, but it can be overcome
Special thanks to Big Bad Wolf and Focus Home Interactive for providing a copy of this amazing tale for review.