After a promising start, The Council slowly descends into the realm of the mediocre and the ridiculous, before fizzling out completely in the end.
I absolutely loved The Council – Episode One: The Mad Ones. It was a refreshing take on the narrative adventure genre that held so much promise. In my review, I even declared it to be a milestone in the genre
What’s Worse, Politicians or Demons?
The Council follows young Louis de Richet as he sets out to investigate the disappearance of his mother. He travels to where she was seen last – a mysterious island owned by the even more mysterious Lord Mortimer, where he meets some of history’s greatest leaders.
At first, the story seems to be about Louis’ investigation into his mother’s disappearance. You talk to people, investigate Lord Mortimer’s mansion and try and gather clues about what happened to your mother and how she disappeared. However, you soon find yourself embroiled with secret societies guiding humanity from the shadows. This is the best part of the game, as you need to decide who to trust and where your alliances lie.
Sadly, the plot takes a weird turn towards the end into the realm of the occult. To its credit, the game does hint that there’s something supernatural going on, but it’s always in the background and serves to enhance the tension and intrigue. Once it takes center stage, The Council shifts from a slow-burning political thriller to a schlockfest where you possess priests, hunt for holy relics and talk to spirits.
Spirits are not the only thing you’ll be talking to since conversations are a huge part of The Council. They are the primary way you can influence the story, and also where most of the game’s challenge comes from.
At first, every conversation you have is a battle of wits. Not only do you need to study your opponent and say what you think they want to hear, but you also have to know which of your skills to use and when. Characters are vulnerable or immune to specific tactics, and knowing which one to use can pretty guarantee you a “win.” Take advantage of a priest’s vulnerability to manipulation, and you might manage to trick him into revealing a crucial hint. On the other hand, try to use logic against him, and you’ll encounter an immunity, lose a precious opportunity and suffer a small debuff.
These conversations are the closest the games get any sort of action. They feel particularly tense, and messing up can have severe consequences on the rest of the game. It’s really too bad that as the game progresses, you have fewer and fewer of these fateful confrontations, though the ones you do face almost always feel meaningful.
They could have been even more impactful if the voice acting wasn’t trying so hard. Not every character is at fault, but the ones you hear most often, including Louis itself are among the worst culprits. Then again, it could also be the overly dramatic script that reads just a bit too much like a cheap soap opera, though I have to admit I do enjoy the cheesiness of it all.
RPG and Adventure Combined
The Council is a rare example of how to infuse a narrative adventure game with meaningful choices that affect it’s every aspect. With most narrative-driven games, your decisions affect how the story progresses and perhaps how other characters react to you. In The Council, your choices also determine what you can and cannot do.
It all starts with the class you pick. Yes, this is an adventure game with a class system. You can be either a Detective, Occultist or Diplomat, each with their own set of skills. As a detective, you can spot weird behavior or notice subtle clues; occultists know more about science and can recognize mysterious signs and rituals; Diplomats understand politics, read texts in different languages and adjust their behavior to suit the situation. Most of these skills are only really relevant during conversations, but some are pretty useful when investigating Lord Mortimer’s mansion or solving puzzles.
As you play and gain experience points, you can upgrade Louis’ skills any way you see fit. You can focus on mastering a narrow set of skills, or spread out and become a “jack of all trades.” I found that unlocking as many different skills as possible is the way to go – that way you always have the option the try every solution the game offers you. It might cost you a lot of Effort Points (the game’s equivalent of Action Points), but at least you can choose to try it.
If you make a point of exploring every nook and cranny in the manor, you’ll probably find plenty of items and boosters that can either increase the maximum number of Effort Points you have or permanently boost (or even unlock) specific skills. It’s not long before you become proficient in most skills, which leads us nicely to the game’s biggest problem.
Don’t Do Your Best
Basically, the better you do throughout the game, the easier and more boring it gets. The more you explore, the more helpful items you find, and “stronger” Louis becomes. At a certain point, you realize that the game can no longer challenge you.
But if you miss a clue here and there, make the wrong decision or trust the wrong person, suddenly things become more interesting. You might not get the best ending, but I can guarantee it will be at least exciting.
I did really well throughout my first playthrough of The Council. I aced every conversation, I found almost every item and succeed in gaining plenty of XP. By the end, I could pretty much use every skill to solve any problem, regardless of cost or even debuffs. I made the final two episodes really, really dull. There were just no stakes left. The ending I got was also very underwhelming and unsatisfying.
The Council doesn’t reward players that do their best – it punishes them by taking away everything that made it so promising to begin with. Not on purpose, but by failing to balance its two main components: RPG elements and narrative.
Many Paths Lead to Many Endings
One of the things the game does best is choices. It’s obvious that every decision you make, every challenge you succeed or fail at, steer you towards one definite ending. The Council has many different conclusions, with lots of small variations to them. So you do feel you get the ending you deserve – the ending your particular playthrough led to.
The Council is a prime example of how the narrative adventure genre can move forward from the standard set by the likes of Telltale Games. With more polish and a better balance, the entire season could have been as great as Episode One: The Mad Ones.
Sadly, what started as thrilling adventure RPG hybrid with dark political intrigue, turned out to be as shallow as a cheap supernatural dime novel. The story doesn’t evolve in an interesting way, the challenges become way too easy way too fast, and the game ultimately falls apart by the end.
I still recommend connoisseurs of narrative adventure games play The Council, or at least the first couple of episodes. There are a lot of good ideas other developers can take away and use to create a better game than this.