Review: The Council – Episode One: The Mad Ones (2018)

Will The Council, with its focus on social influence and RPG mechanics, be an innovative addition to the well-trodden Telltale Games adventure formula?

Modern adventure games are focused around your actions as a player and the consequences that follow. It’s become common to see messages like: “Your actions will determine the outcome of this story,” or something to that effect in games such as Life is Strange (2015) and any Telltale title you can name. What was once so novel, that your decisions could actually alter the ending of a game, instead of journeying down a pre-defined path (or at least the illusion of doing so) has now been taken for granted. It’s a trope that has extended into genres outside of modernised point-and-click adventures; namely, role-playing games.

It only makes sense that, in return, some mechanics are borrowed from the RPG genre. This is perhaps where The Council does things differently. Set in 18th century England, you play as Louis de Richet, an American sounding French man and member of a secret society who finds himself guest at the island manor of the enigmatic Lord Mortimor. Accompanying this premise is the disappearance of Louis’ mother, Sarah, who had recently gone missing at the same island.

With the story of The Council being the marque attraction, I won’t talk about it any further. I will say, however, that it has an intriguing set-up but one that takes some time to get going. Being the first of five episodes, The Council takes its time explaining its key systems and mechanics. During these brief tutorials, you quickly learn that The Council is all about understanding and reading people. What you say, how you say it and what you notice about the people around you are the most important factors of this game. From the start, you are given three character classes to chose from: Diplomat, Occultist and Detective, each with their own unique skill-set and correlating skill-tree to upgrade Louis. As to be expected, the class you choose will unveil different pathways to completing objectives and is a good incentive for a second or third play through. I choose the Detective class, which opened up skills like questioning, logic, vigilance, psychology and agility.

These skills come in handy when talking to the guests on the island – some of whom are historically significant figures like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte – and can assist you to exploit them. For instance, you may encounter a character who is vulnerable to psychological questioning and you can use effort-points – a consumable form of energy – to ask a question related to that skill to break their silence and obtain information they would not otherwise share. Uncovering their vulnerabilities or immunities to your skill-set is done through observations. During observations, time slows down and you are given a short amount of time to uncover what makes them tick. For instance, noticing a grimace or frown after hearing something that made them uncomfortable. You can also enter into battle-of-wits style exchanges with certain characters to discover key points of information, in a mini-game similar to the ‘backtalk’ dialogue mode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. It feels like investigation work similar to that of the Sherlock Holmes games and it gives each character – most of which are already pretty distinguishable – their own unique flair.

As intriguing as The Council is, with its RPG style levelling up system where XP is awarded based on your performance, it had a rocky start on the technical front. There are a few textures which appear low-res and some of the character models look dated, with glassy eyes and plastic hair. I also noticed some sound-mixing issues where noise that was happening far in the background of a scene was louder than the conversation happening right in front of me, although this was not consistent throughout the experience. Frame rates also bounced all over the place. My PC far exceeds the minimum required settings on Steam and I ran this game on low-settings to get it anywhere near stable. Despite the negative first impression, I was quickly won over when entering The Council’s central setting: The mansion.

As a location, Lord Mortimor’s mansion is impeccably designed with marble staircases, grand salons and exquisitely furnished rooms. You dine on balconies overlooking far-reaching views and portrait galleries with paintings so rich in detail, you can almost see the paint pealing off the canvases. It is shame that, due to the linearity of the experience, that you are unable to explore the mansion all at once. Instead, you are restricted to certain areas at a time. Too much of the story is told through cut-scenes rather than interacting with objects and talking to characters, which further hinders exploration. Obviously, in terms of pacing and delivery of the narrative, this is in place for a reason, but to experience a place so lavish and ornate in such small portions was disappointing.

Playing as Louis was also a pleasant experience. He grates initially, though, being full of naff jokes and clichéd phrases. After the second or third act he began to warm on me, being a man of boyish and playful charm, but also of striking intelligence and attention to detail. He is also a focused character and one whose mission is simple, yet the implied difficult relationship with his mother – “we work together” – is one that is emotive and relatable.

When I talk about clichéd phrases, Louis is not only guilty of this – it extends to the whole cast – with sayings and words I am certain were not within aristocratic circles of 1793, such as “puking,” and “in your dreams.” That said, The Council is not a game marketed for its historical accuracy and is clearly taking liberties with the personalities and motives of some of the most documented figures in history, so this isn’t too much of a problem. This wasn’t helped with the voice acting feeling stifled in places, lacking the emotion or believability to make the dialogue pop.

With its RPG-like systems and detailed approach to dialogue, The Council can feel a bit overwhelming but when you’ve learnt and understood it all, there is something that clicks into place. When it does, The Council  is a thoroughly enjoyable game. It is yet to be seen if it will take on the same success as a Walking Dead (2012) or Life is Strange, but the potential is there to be something completely different to the adventure game scene.

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