Game Review: The Council Episode 1 - The Mad Ones.
By Elise Olson
As a reviewer, I’ll be honest about my biases; I am an art historian in training, I am a sucker for themes of the occult and secret societies, I am obsessed with murder mysteries, and I will pick a story-based game over an action-heavy game every time. That all being said, I will also shamelessly confess that I did not even finish watching the trailer for The Council before my mouse was on the “purchase” button.
Released March 13th, The Council is a new Narrative Adventure game developed by Big Bad Wolf and published by Focus Home Interactive. Set in 1793, you play as Louis de Richet, a young Frenchman searching for your missing mother, Sara, who happens to be an expert in matters of the occult and the leader of the French sect of the Golden Order (a prestigious and mysterious secret society.) She disappeared on the private island of the eccentric and evasive Lord Mortimer. He has invited you to his island to help search for your mother at the same time that he has invited members of the upper crust to meet and discuss their plans for the world. Among these guests are fictional as well as historical diplomats, (some suspension of disbelief is required, but that is part of what makes the game so fun) whom you can mingle and conspire with- but be warned; no one is to be trusted. Isolated on an island where the clues of your mother’s whereabouts become more and more bizarre, you find yourself surrounded by schemers, each with their own goals, and each with their own potential services in solving the mystery unfolding before you. The storyline is intriguing and complicated with twists and turns that leave you on edge. In addition to a rich storyline, the environments in this game are beautifully designed and every scene is a visual feast for the eyes. Seriously, this game is gorgeous.
Despite my giddiness to play this game as soon as I saw the trailer, I went in with a bit of skepticism. With the recent rise of narrative popularity, many video game companies are making claims of “re-playability” and “unique consequences” or “choices that matter” in their games’ storylines. But ask yourself; how many times has the phrase “*insert character name* will remember this” only to feel that the eventual outcome or “consequence” of your action was inevitable? Is a game truly re-playable if the dialogue only varies slightly and the outcome turns out to be the same? When Big Bad Wolf claimed that their game was different from other games due to their unique “Social Influence” system, I assumed that this would only be a slight difference in the decision systems most gamers have become accustomed to and let me tell you; I was wrong. With The Council, decisions truly matter both in-game choices and the choices you make as the player when deciding which skills to develop. Do you develop the ‘subterfuge’ talent and find out what is in the locked box of Napoléon Bonaparte’s room? Or do you develop your ‘politics’ skill and open up an illuminating dialogue with the cardinal visiting from Rome? This is just one example of how the fifteen abilities you can develop affect your story progression. These abilities are divided into three classes; diplomat, occultist, and detective. You pick a profession at the start of the game and all of the related abilities are opened to you for use and development while the other abilities must be unlocked using points at the start of each chapter. Like most RPGs, your abilities cost effort and you have to be careful how often you exert yourself, though there are remedies (like honey!) to restore or reduce the effort exerted on an action. Choosing your abilities are not the only difficult decisions in this though. It takes a good RPG to make you really question the morality and practicality of your decisions- and an even better one to make those decisions legitimately consequential. There were several times where the decisions that needed to be made genuinely left me at a crossroads. I won’t go into too much detail due to spoilers but let’s just say the most moral decision may not always be the most effective decision for solving the mysteries on this island. The hazy shade of grey that the player is forced to act in is part of what makes this game so intriguing- and repeatable if you are like me and just have to know what happens if you choose a different path. Fortunately, there are three playable save slots so you can play and compare multiple games at once. Speaking of save slots…
You cannot save the game. There is no “hmm… I think I could have done that better, let me open my last save and fix that.” Any mistake or choice you make in the game you must adapt to. This brilliant (albeit occasionally frustrating) mechanic raises the stakes and puts the pressure on the player to really make the “right” choices. Failure to do so will change the clues you are able to find and the resources you can access, meaning there are multiple endings per episode and multiple endings for the game as a whole.
I could go on and on about this game so before I sound like a paid company lackey, let’s talk about some of the drawbacks. First, this game is not for people who want fighting or “action” out of their games, though there are elements that require quick reflexes. You frequently get the chance to “observe” traits in other characters when the scene freezes and you quickly have to pick out an important detail. For me, this lack of fighting and button mashing is a major plus, but it certainly is not everyone’s cup of proverbial tea. While I am not bothered by the gameplay, the script and voice acting are sometimes distracting from the mood of the game. Modern phrases and casual slang are often disruptive of the grim and historical setting. This is, of course, me being a nit-picky history buff, but it has given me pause every time George Washington says something like “seriously though…” The voice acting behind Louis is occasionally strange; as if someone has gotten the words and pronunciation correct but not always the tone. He simply falls flat at times and at other times seems too unphased by the seriousness of a situation. It also bugs me that despite the frequent references to him being French, he does not have the slightest hint of a French accent yet Napoléon and the servants do have French accents. The rest of cast, however, have dynamic voices and appropriate accents.
My final complaint which isn’t really a complaint and more of a whine is that the game is episodic. This would not be a problem if the game had not just been released. I’ve had the game for less than 48 hours and I’ve already played about 10 hours and completed my first run through of the game. I. Want. More. The first episode ends on a cliffhanger and waiting for the release of the next four episodes will be torturous. The release of these episodes are spread across 2018 and I await them all with, to quote the fictionalized-Washington “sweet anticipation.”
(All photos found in this article are attributed to creative commons.)