"...the absurdity of it is effectively countered by the layers of intrigue the eccentric cast of characters adds to the already mysterious plot."
The adventure game genre, particularly the narrative and graphic adventure subgenres, has undoubtedly grown a bit stale over the last decade or so. That's not to say there haven't been some recent gems, of course, but overall the trend has been to fall back on a formulaic design approach with little in the way of gameplay innovation. The Council, a new episodic narrative thriller from developer Big Bad Wolf, aims to shake up the genre by concentrating its core gameplay on interactive standoffs between characters through tense conversational duels.
Episode One, The Mad Ones, opens on a menacing night in Paris in late 1792, where Louis de Richet and his mother Sarah find themselves bound, beaten, and in a pickle. As they attempt to talk their way out of trouble, their captor impresses upon them their predicament and demands they return an item they've allegedly stolen. After a bit of witty repartee, the duo put their thinly veiled breakout plan into action, free themselves from their bindings, and turn the table on their assailant. It's a fun little introduction to Louis and Sarah that's part buddy cop movie, part caper and does a great job of grabbing your attention immediately.
Shortly thereafter, players take control of Louis as he arrives on an island owned by the enigmatic Lord Mortimer. It's one month after the opening scene and Sarah, who leads an Illuminati-esque secret society known as the Golden Order, has vanished on the island while conducting one of her increasingly cryptic investigations. Louis' arrival on the island is also conspicuously timed with that of an eclectic group of guests attending one of Lord Mortimer's infamous private receptions, and it's a veritable who's who of significant historical figures of the time.
This is where The Council leans on the players' ability to invoke a healthy suspension of disbelief. Lord Mortimer's visitors and Louis' fellow guests include the likes of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Manuel Godoy hobnobbing and plotting ways to shape the world in their image. The narrative appeal of a conspiratorial secret society comprised of the world's elite is obvious, if a bit over the top. Still, the absurdity of it is effectively countered by the layers of intrigue the eccentric cast of characters adds to the already mysterious plot. While it's still early and motivations are mostly opaque at this point, Episode One does a great job of building a level of suspense akin to mystery and detective fiction.
The Council's core gameplay mechanic is the Social Influence system, which encompasses the choice-based interactions Louis has with fellow guests and the underlying RPG-like mechanics that dictate which dialogue options are available to him. Specifically, the skills that Louis has learned determine which of the available choices the player can select during conversations with other characters. While dialogue choices locked behind skills and traits is not a new gameplay mechanic by any means, The Council presents its own unique flavor of it.
Players choose one of three starting classes for Louis at the start of the game: detective, diplomat, or occultist. Class determines which set of skills he starts out with, like politics or manipulation, but he can learn skills from the other classes by increasing his level and gaining Skill Points. Virtually everything you do during each of the episode's four chapters earns experience points towards leveling up. Winning confrontations or exploring certain areas when the opportunity arises will earn you extra points, but it's possible to miss out on those opportunities if you're not careful. Having certain skills unlocked means that Louis can select their associated dialogue choices during confrontations, but "using" that skill requires Effort Points. The number of Effort Points required depends on the level of said skill, and Louis can run out of effort points quickly if you're not careful.
Further stifling Louis' effort to verbally slay his foes is The Council's vulnerability system. Each of the characters that Louis encounters is vulnerable or immune to one or more of the personality traits tied to his skills and, therefore, the dialogue options from which the player may choose. Using a skill that exploits a vulnerability will reward you with the upper hand (and an Effort Point), but attempt to leverage a trait to which they're immune and Louis can be completely thrown off and suffer negative status effects. Vulnerabilities and immunities can be discovered through interaction with the characters as well as discovering items like letters while exploring Lord Mortimer's manor. While exploration is a bit on the limited side with many rooms simply locked off, it pays dividends to poke around the environment as much as possible.
I found The Council's Social Influence mechanic, which at its core is a beefed-up choice-based system, thoroughly engaging. It's fascinating (and frustrating) to see where different choices take conversations and how utterly outmatched Louis can be if you don't have the right skills unlocked. Seemingly innocuous decisions can lead to unforeseen consequences, and the consequences are supposedly permanent for any given playthrough. There are also pivotal plot point decisions that Louis is presented with throughout the episode, notably revolving around where to go or which character to accompany. It remains to be seen what impact these decisions have on the ultimate outcome of story, but if The Mad Ones is any indicator they may transform the story fairly significantly.
Although The Mad One's environments are mostly relegated to the various rooms within Lord Mortimer's manor, they're intricately detailed and visually stunning. The furnishings and grandiose paintings adorning the walls, as well as the dim lighting, effectively transported me to an 18th century aristocrat's dwelling. Likewise, the character models look great despite some faces having a bit of a creepy factor to them. The atmosphere is further enhanced by a solid soundtrack with period pieces and curious flutes and horns sprinkled throughout, while the feeling of foreboding hangs like an incessant fog over every interaction.
The Council does have its issues, of course. The voice acting is uneven, and there are noticeable glitches related to sound in general. For example, there were several instances where I paused the game in the middle of a cutscene and the music and environmental sounds were missing when I resumed. The framerate was never really great for me, though it was only ever distracting a handful of times when things slowed down significantly. I'm willing to attribute much of this to my PC, however, since its specs fall somewhere in the middle of the minimum and recommended specifications.
The first episode runs roughly 2-3 hours depending on how much you explore, though I certainly wished there were fewer locked doors and I had freer reign to wander about the manor. The pacing is fairly quick, with significant reveals and action occurring in a somewhat rapid pace after the episode hits its stride. That's engrossing in a sense, but I wonder if the next four episodes can maintain that pace. I also wish there was an ability to skip dialogue, which seems like an odd oversight for a game that is designed for multiple playthroughs.
The Mad Ones is a promising start to The Council, and I'm very much looking forward to the series' continuation. While the cast is a fairly unbelievable mix of historical personalities, the mystery surrounding their motivations and relationships with their fellow guests are more than enough to silence your inner historian. It's much too early to make a complete judgment on the story, but the premise is captivating and the execution is engrossing. Multiple playthroughs with different skills and decisions led to drastically different endings to the first episode for me, so the early returns on impact of choice are also positive. There's plenty of time for everything to bleed back together in the end, as tends to happen with many choice-based games, but so far so good.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.