The Council Episode One Review

By Mark Delaney, 9 months ago
A trend was born six years ago when Telltale's The Walking Dead launched to great acclaim, even garnering several Game of the Year awards. Episodic gaming was back. Pointing and clicking was cool again. Since that time, Telltale has gone on to work with a number of high profile properties, and other studios have tried their hand at the format, too. The focus on story has usually meant little in the way of gameplay, and for those that disregard such genre games for that reason, Big Bad Wolf Studio's The Council may be the game for which you've been waiting. Thanks to interesting RPG elements and a chess-like approach to every conversation, this talking simulator delivers a worthwhile evolution to the narrative adventure formula.

The Council

The Council opens in 1793 as players assume the role of Louis de Richet, one member of a secret society so shrouded in mystery he hardly knows many fellow members himself. One key member, however, is his mother, who goes missing in the opening moments while following a lead for a case players don't learn much about in the course of this first of five episodes. As a guest, Louis arrives at a massive mansion on an island belonging to the prestigious Lord Mortimer. He's among a sea of familiar faces no less, and Assassin's Creed fans may appreciate the star-studded cast of political players also present on the island. It's also the last place his mother was seen. Naturally, his investigation begins there.

As Louis, players have a lot of agency in shaping the story and the character. Unlike other genre titles where a lot of your actions play out in the background, mentioning only vaguely how characters "will remember that," in The Council, the role-playing is put front and center. A skill tree is built out of three main branches, one of which you must assign as your primary branch. You'll access skills in that branch for costs lower than the other two. Right away it's a difficult choice to make. Every skill in every branch sounds like it could be immensely helpful down the line of the story. As it turns out, you can hardly go wrong, although you may often regret where you've put your skills anyway. In every conversation, players will have to choose how to reply and often utilize their abilities to gain the upper hand. Determining other characters' vulnerabilities and immunities can help you determine how you can manipulate them.

Very often, dialogue trees will be blocked because you haven't unlocked certain skills. This might sound frustrating, but it comes as a result of how you define your own version of Louis and there are always several ways to approach any situation. If you don't know much about politics, you may not be able to interject at a particular moment, but later when the conversation shifts to talks of the occult, or logic, or a clue you spotted earlier because you're incredibly perceptive to that type of thing, you'll have the verbal ammunition you need. In these ways, the entire game plays out like a chess tournament as you move from opponent to opponent.

Every encounter can go a number of ways and get you a lot of different information in any route.Every encounter can go a number of ways and get you a lot of different information in any route.

Also in play are different items that can boost your performance in conversation or counter negative effects. As skill use is limited based on how much power you have remaining, as depicted in the game's UI, items that add power or make your next move free add layers to an already impressively layered experience for this type of game. No longer are things just about feeling like you're passively building your version of a protagonist. In The Council, it's all much more active and game-like. You'd be hard-pressed to call this game a movie like so many do with similar titles. It's a game of deceit, secrets, and manipulation, which is all quite fitting given the subject matter.

There are other bits involved too, like QTEs that demand you quickly select the relevant information on the screen to unlock new dialogue choices, and you always have to watch out for books that can be read between chapters to boost specific skills even more than your XP will allow. You'll also make binary decisions throughout the game that promise to more greatly alter the experience going forward with the season. Little things carry over too, of course, so every conversation feels incredibly weighted. It's impressive how The Council's debut really doesn't put you in situations other than talking much of the time, yet it’s still quite riveting. It may not sound interesting, but thanks to all these new systems at play, the chess match works.

For all its merits as a game that moves its genre forward, it does also come with two notable problems. For one, the voice acting is inconsistent at best. Delivery of lines can regularly feel like you're in the recording booth with the actors. The sense that they're reading lines off a script can be felt some of the time, although not always. This hurts the immersion a bit in a game that so greatly depends on dialogue.

You'll have plenty of moments to walk around and explore the grounds, but it's often best to not leave an area until you're sure you're done with it.You'll have plenty of moments to walk around and explore the grounds, but it's often best to not leave an area until you're sure you're done with it.

Secondly, despite introducing so many interesting new systems, the game hurries you through understanding them. There are brief tutorials that pause the game and tell you what you're about to do, but because the game is built on maneuvering a tree with many branches, it feels like you can be shoved down certain paths before you know what you are doing. The systems are great, and by the end you should be more at ease with them, but for a while you may feel like your agency in the story is stunted while you work out the many unique contributing factors. Tough decisions should come as a result of the story, not because you’re lost.

Other than those things, the rest is a lot of fun. The time period is well represented in the home of the uber-wealthy Lord Mortimer, who owns dozens of pieces of real artwork that all seem to be hinting at a reveal later in the story. Over time, as with any episodic game, we'll get a better feel for just how well The Council's plot unravels, but this is a strong and often beautiful debut episode with great lighting and character design that blends realism with caricature. It's neither the comic book look of Telltale's stuff nor the blurry watercolors of Life is Strange. The Council forges its own path and it's a lovely one.

It's evident the achievement list is not as simple as those in similar games. Every time you make a major choice or "defeat" another character in conversation to acquire vital information, you'll unlock achievements, which means opposite choices offer achievements too and you can fail those talks and miss out, both of which will require multiple playthroughs, though there is a chapter select option too. The first episode also offers 640 Gamerscore, which is unlike other episodic games of this nature. However, it appears a completion of just the premiere is not possible as the game asks you to get to level 15. In my playthrough I only got to level five while doing everything the game offers. The rest of the list seems attached to just this debut episode, so you could feasibly get all but that last achievement to unlock across two playthroughs if you make all the opposite choices on your second time around.

It's also worth mentioning that the currently unreleased remainder of the season each offers achievements just for chapter and episode completions, so those do look more like the lists players are used to. Also of note is that each of those episodes seems to have just two "quests" (chapters) whereas this premiere had four, so they may be shorter or perhaps just have longer quests. Time will tell.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Adventure Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

The Council is what many genre fans have been wanting. It builds on the choose-your-own-adventure style with smart new RPG mechanics, adding depth to every encounter unseen in other games like this, and makes the entire experience feel like a chess tournament where anyone and everyone is your opponent. The voice acting can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, but it's usually not distractingly bad. Everything from setting to story to characters all coalesces into what would probably be a great title on its own if you happen to like these sorts of games. Big Bad Wolf Studio went above and beyond, however, and created an intriguing and arguably overdue evolution of the genre. If they can deliver a worthwhile story over the remaining four episodes, The Council may go down as the new benchmark for narrative adventure games.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Fascinating RPG elements build on the "Telltale formula"
  • Beautiful setting with interesting character design
  • Mysteries abound
  • Every conversation feels like a chess match
Negatives
  • Inconsistent voice acting hinders the game which is so reliant on dialogue
  • Feels like a baptism by fire when trying to understand its many systems
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent roughly two hours on Lord Mortimer's prestigious private island, unlocking an indeterminate number of achievements as the list was not visible while reviewing. An Xbox One digital copy was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.