The Council Episode 5 - Checkmate

"The Council is [...] a mixed bag of great ideas, questionable execution, and unfulfilled promise."

Big Bad Wolf's attempt at reinvigorating the narrative adventure genre with The Council is, above all, a mixed bag of great ideas, questionable execution, and unfulfilled promise. Episodic adventure games have a tendency to set expectations high with solid premieres full of potential, but many devolve into a series of gradually declining entries that slowly erode the goodwill established at their outset. The Council's final episode, Checkmate, solidifies the series as one that starts off with a bang yet whimpers across the finish line to an ignominious close.

Checkmate is a remarkably representative microcosm of what goes wrong with The Council as the series stumbles towards its conclusion. The episode itself is an exercise in rushing a project to completion, and Checkmate suffers in multiple ways as a result. It's short, there's very little actual gameplay, the perfunctory attempts at "puzzles" are a series low, and the story concludes with multiple hanging threads and shoddy lore that really only leave you scratching your head. My opinion on the quality of each successive episode is made clear in their respective scores, and The Council's finale is the worst of the bunch.

The biggest culprit responsible for throwing The Council off the rails is without a doubt the spectacular collapse of its plot. What started out as an intriguing, if historically questionable, story of conspiratorial secret society politics devolves into a convoluted mess of half-baked occultism, nonsensical relationships, and character motivations at odds with their actions and personalities. The extreme shift from politics to the occult at the series' midpoint is where the narrative started losing me, despite my best efforts to remain open-minded, while the plethora of ridiculous relationship twists in the series' fourth episode pushed me towards the precipice. It was the the rushed series finale, with its hanging plot threads and deus ex machina-like resolutions, that pushed me over the edge. It's a shame that the story ended up in such a sad state because there are some very interesting concepts regarding mankind underpinning the narrative that are ultimately ignored.

That's not to say the series doesn't have some great ideas, and even the mixed quality of execution merits giving The Council a try. The series' best feature is by far the Social Influence system, and the impact the RPG-like skill mechanics have on it and the game's puzzles is genuinely a breath of fresh air for the genre. Character interactions, including tense confrontations where success depends on Louis' skills and the thoroughness of the player's information gathering, are what make The Council worth playing. It's a great system base that I hope gets carried forward in Big Bad Wolf's future titles.

Though I questioned the choice system throughout my playthrough, decisions truly do seem to impact how players ultimately experience the narrative. Major plot points still occur, of course, but the lenses through which players experience them are shaped by their choices. There are only a handful of overarching endings, but there are multiple variations of each of them based on previous decisions. Even the character epilogues change based on which ending the player receives, though they can be a bit odd considering many of them pertain to actual historical personalities.

Nothing about The Council's music really stands out, but it's solid, with fitting period pieces and goofy whodunit-style tunes that complement the mysterious 18th-century atmosphere. The voice acting is uneven, though some fairly poor performances pull down even the average ones. The awkward, stiff, and sometimes nightmarishly ugly character models populate some beautiful environments, most of which include the intricately detailed interior of Lord Mortimer's manor. It's a good-looking game marred slightly by persistent, odd audiovisual glitches (including game crashes) and a lack of environmental variety. It should be noted that, with the final episode, Big Bad Wolf has finally added the option to skip through dialogue. It's a very welcome, if incredibly late addition.

Its story shortcomings notwithstanding, The Council provides a novel and innovative spin on the aging narrative adventure genre that fans should consider giving a shot. With a more coherent story, some slight tweaks to the skill system, stronger puzzle design, and perhaps a bit more variety in gameplay, The Council would more or less resemble the revolution of the genre Big Bad Wolf was aiming for. As it stands, they've developed a great set of bones for an experience that could ultimately become that game changer. I look forward to seeing what the team has in store next.

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.

© 2019 Focus Home Interactive, Big Bad Wolf. All rights reserved.

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