I've loved the revitalization of the adventure genre by the Telltale Games and others that have followed in their footsteps. But, even though the narratives of games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange are still enthralling, the gameplay is starting to run stale. Although the stories are lovely, those titles are more "watch your own adventure" than "choose your own adventure." It's evident that if the genre is going to keep moving forward that someone is going to have to shift the paradigm forward into a more interactive and immersive form.
Oddly enough this shift seems not to be coming from Telltale Games or Dontnod, but from a studio called Big Bad Wolf. The Council is an adventure game that follows in the footsteps gameplay-wise of Telltale, but includes some much welcome decision making and a much more dynamic game engine.
While we've seen some improvements in interactivity in recent adventure games like Batman: The Telltale Game, Life is Strange, and its prequel Before the Storm, The Council surpasses these games (at least in mechanics) by adding a liberal dose of RPG elements and item management to the formula. The result is a title by which future adventure games may be measured with a hint of the quick decision-making and perilousness of classic point and click adventure titles.
The Council Review: Like Around the Same Time as Hamilton
The Council takes place near the turn of the 19th-century. The United States is a young country, France is in the throes of revolution, and the United Kingdom holds hegemony as the world's guiding light. You take on the role of Louis de Richet, a member of an enigmatic secret society called The Golden Order. You've been invited to the island of Lord William Alexander Mortimer, a very, very influential and mysterious man, for the reason that your mother, the leader of the Golden Order has gone missing while visiting.
Mortimer has a hand in some, if not all, of the significant political, happens of the era. Your mother was present to attend one of his regular meetings between major, and not so major personages of the era. It's among the background of such historical greats as George Washington, Napoleon (just a lowly Lieutenant at the time), and other members of nobility and influential statesmen that you must solve the mystery behind your mother's disappearance.
Unfortunately, The Council is episodic. I understand the episodic release format, but I just can't stand it. Especially, in a game like this which really pulled me in, I don't want to have to go through the disappointment of waiting for the next part four times before I reach the conclusion. Episode One, "The Mad Ones" was an absolutely great introduction to the game and established the setting and the players perfectly without giving too much of the core mystery of Louis's missing mother away.
The Council Review: Mad Skills
The twist to The Council comes with the way you interact with other characters and the environment. The game doesn't just unfurl in a linear way, with minor choices affecting minor outcomes as you progress towards the end. Instead, there is a stat and leveling system in which you have to hone Louis' abilities.
At the start of The Council, you chose one of three fields in which you want Louis to be an expert. If you pick Diplomat, Louis will specialize in etiquette, conviction, politics, diversion, and linguistics. An Occultist excels in science, subterfuge, erudition, occultism, and manipulation. If your Louis is a detective, he's best at vigilance, logic, psychology, questioning, and agility.
Adding up all the skills that you can level gives your 15 different approaches that may come into play during conversations or environmental interaction. However, not only do you have to level your skills, you have to have Effort Points to use them. This keeps you from just randomly choosing options and hoping you're right. When you're in a situation when you're able to use a skill check, it will cost a certain amount of Effort Points; the amount is dependant on how well trained you are in the skill and which of the three specializations you chose at the beginning. There are multiple ways to regenerate your skill points, but they're far from limitless.
The Council Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People
When having a conversation with a character, you'll notice two types of choices presented to you in response. Some conversation options cost no effort, and it's possible that by choosing the right ones you can get the desired results without any skill checks. However, using skill checks almost always results in more benefits than if you don't. Additionally, each character has immunities and vulnerability to different skills.
Learning what these are is an essential part of delving into some of the mysteries in the game. Knowing just where to hit someone means that you can manipulate them into giving you the info you need or doing what you want. However, you won't be able to train enough skills to hit everyone's vulnerabilities. It's very possible to encounter situations where the only choice you can make is a standard conversation topic because either you don't know the skill needed to choose anything else, or your only skill option is one they're immune to.
The Council's version of "boss battles" are Confrontations. These occur at pivotal moments in the story, typically when you're in a contentious situation with someone. They consist of three or more rounds in which you have to get each conversation choice correct. The exciting thing about The Council is that even if you lose these, the game will go on, but failing may result in a significant missed opportunity or a soured relationship with one of the characters.
The Council Review: What's Wrong with Your Face?
The graphics and animations in The Council are of much better quality than those I expect to see in an episodic adventure game. The developers did a great job representing the mixture of Baroque and Romantic architecture that make up Lord Mortimer's estate and a lot of the art featured hanging about is pulled from real paintings. Goya, in particular, is showcased in the entrance hall of the manor, and in Louis' guest room, a fact he finds quite disquieting.
There is one thing about the visuals in The Council that's a bit jarring, though. There's a bit of inconsistency when it comes to character design. Each character's body is features roughly true-to-life proportions (with maybe a tad of exaggeration in some cases), but some of their faces are grotesquely disproportionate to the real thing.
Louis, for example, has a narrow, triangular-shaped face that ends in a much too long chin. In contrast, Duchess Hillsborrow and Napoleon have entirely typical facial features. The paintings in the house also show completely normal human proportions in their subjects. Maybe there's a reason I haven't found for this. Perhaps it's intentionally supposed to be jarring, and if so it totally works.
The Council Review: A New Era in Adventure Games
Having just finished the first episode of The Council, "The Mad Ones", I'm super excited to continue the series. There's a lot of depth and intrigue in the story so far, and I really want to see where it goes. Furthermore, I'm excited to see where my version of Louis can go and what he can do with the skills I chose for him.
Adventure games these days rarely have a ton of replay value because of how little actual choice you get, but multiple playthroughs of The Council have enough variation if you choose different skills to make going through it again worthwhile. Someone who wasn't fond of you in one storyline might become a valuable ally your next way through, and that's the kind of freedom of choice all adventure games should have.
The Council does away with a lot of the superficial feeling that modern adventure games have, and with its skill system, invests you in the personal development of the main character. I was able to get into this game in a way I've been unable to with adventure games for the last few years. It was a treat to play, and I can't wait for the remaining four episodes.
Review code was provided by publisher.