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Review: The Council
Although the gameplay and story of The Council seem dreamy, the visuals are more of a nightmare says Gaming's Zak Hughes
It's been a few years now since the explosion in popularity of choice-driven story games, spearheaded primarily by titles developed by Telltale Games. Overall, I'm personally not a massive fan of theirs since frequently the supposedly important choices in a fair few of their releases, seem to promise more in the way of consequence than they deliver. Graphically, the games are also poor, with the cartoon-like style barely masking an ageing engine (albeit one that will be reportedly receiving a long-overdue update in future titles), and far too often will the games rely heavily on their official licenses and famous names. This often plays out to their detriment, as the star-studded cast of Game of Thrones delivered a lacklustre and relatively linear experience in the Telltale release. "Daenerys will remember that". No she won't.
One of the better recent examples in the episodic point-and-click genre for the modern age has been PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, which delivered impressive graphics coupled with meaningful choices and a nice - if a little trope-heavy - story. Every decision you made felt like it could backfire - and it often did - and every panicked mess-up was punishing enough to keep you sweating.
This brings me to The Council, which promises to ‘rethink narrative adventure’ - delivering the truly branching narrative of Until Dawn, without the jumpscares. The Council is a new release from French studio Big Bad Wolf, with two episodes currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. The first of these episodes - aptly named The Mad Ones - released in March, with episode 2 following in May and the third 'coming soon'. Episode 1 is set in 1793 and centres around Louis de Richet, Frenchman and rookie member of The Golden Order - a society that contains famous historical figures such as George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte - though the opening screen maintains that the game is 'probably' a work of fiction.
After a brief opener, Louis finds himself inside a looming castle set on a private island in the English Channel, on the invite of the elusive and seemingly powerful Lord Mortimer. Upon arrival, Louis discovers that his mother - a dominant figure in the Golden Order - has gone missing whilst visiting the island, so he tasks himself with finding her. After a brief introduction to the dialogue system via a meeting with one of his fellow guests, the player is given the choice to pick Louis' background and skill specialties. This introduces the RPG element of the game, as three background options for Louis are laid forth: Diplomat - which gives a boost to Louis' knowledge of politics, social etiquette, his linguistics skill, his conviction in his speaking, and his ability to divert a conversation onto a new path; Occultist, which increases his knowledge of the sciences and occultism, his ability to manipulate others or show erudition in a subject, as well as boost his subterfuge stat; or Detective, which allows him a greater understanding of psychology and the ability to ask piercing questions, his overall logic and vigilance to potential clues, as well as a nice agility boost when some deftness is required. The individual skills are put to use often in order to pry more information out of a character or defuse a tense situation or even to help you solve one of the game's puzzles, and can be improved upon by investing skill points at the end of each ‘chapter’.
Success is not always as simple as passing a speech check, however, as each of the game's cast has their own conversational strengths to avoid and weaknesses to exploit: for example, Napoleon Bonaparte is an adept in his knowledge of politics, but may be caught out on his social etiquette; whereas a servant may be persuaded if enough conviction and authority is shown towards them. This is a lovely system that forces you to remember prior conversations between characters and properly consider future remarks, rather than rely on the standard 'high stat speech check'. The characters themselves are well-written enough that figuring out their strengths and weaknesses without the help of an on-screen prompt after the fact is manageable, and it's greatly satisfying when a conversation goes your way. The dialogue itself is generally good, though can be somewhat contrived at times when the game tries to catch you out for making a bad choice, and the voice acting is decent overall.
The game falters just a little in the graphics department, as while the environments are very nicely detailed and well designed, the faces of the characters themselves tend towards slightly-creepy uncanny valley territory - which, given how much of the game you'll be staring at them, will probably cause you nightmares. Another point that could be construed as a minor problem is that, much like almost every other game of this type, you're often made to feel like you've made the wrong choice: there'll be quite a number of avenues left unexplored because you can't pick a lock or press a certain subject, and whilst this aids the game's replayability, it might cause some frustration - but for me the satisfaction of using my etiquette skill to perfection in order to silence Napoleon makes it all worthwhile.
The Council seems to combine the RPG and modern point-and-click genres extremely well, and makes you feel the best kind of smug when you've picked the perfect chain of responses in conversation. The immediate consequences of your actions are satisfying and obvious, and I hope the next episodes will deliver meaningful ramifications to your varied actions, rather than the empty choices of some Telltale games - but the signs are good for The Council, as for now it's a good example of an how an episodic adventure should be done and is more than worthy of your attention.