The episodic adventure genre has seen an uptick in popularity within the last few years, due almost entirely to the success of Telltale’s series of licensed games. And yet, for as much financial and critical success as those titles have had, they’ve quickly started to become stale. The formula of dialogue selection and quick time events begins to wear thin after a few hours, no matter how much you love Lee from The Walking Dead. And who doesn’t love Lee?
Here to attempt an upheaval to the status quo is The Council, an episodic adventure that promises the obligatory plot-altering choices with the addition of an RPG progression system. Based on the one episode currently available, it seems that the experiment has paid off in spades; tying conversation options to an extensive skill tree yields riveting and surprisingly tactical gameplay. This seems to have come at the expense of the writing though, as the story has yet to evolve into anything on the level of an average Telltale game, and the script is often unintentionally hysterical.
The narrative follows Louis de Richet, who has been invited to the remote island mansion of a man named Mortimer after the disappearance of his mother. Both she and Louis are members of a super secret, poorly explained, and generically named organization known as the Golden Order, and while on business with this Mortimer, she seems to have gone missing.
Players are quickly introduced to a colorful cast of characters, including the tattooed daughter of John Adams, a gossipmonger George Washington, a rapidly balding Napoleon Bonaparte, and the pope. If that sounds like a bizarre aberration of history, then you’re close to grasping the odd surrealism at play in The Council. It seems to have little regard for logic or reality, and while this is frequently charming, it can also be disorienting to inhabit a world with no apparent rules.
Each character has their own distinct personality and motives, and this plays beautifully into The Council’s layered discussion system. At the onset of the game, you choose a class that will determine what skills you have an aptitude for. These abilities include things like knowledge of politics, the ability to translate a variety of foreign languages, or a knack for manipulation and diversion. Possessing any of these skills allows you to employ them in conversations, and NPCs have unique resistances and vulnerabilities to each, meaning that you have to carefully read their disposition in order to make the right decision.
This results in exchanges that feel like thoroughly engaging puzzles rather than just ways to move the story forward. On this level, The Council is a blinding success and makes Telltale’s approach feel antiquated. Furthermore, the UI/UX is a triumph, with delightfully responsive menus and dialogue selection controls. There’s a unique joy to be found in well-implemented audio and haptic feedback, and Big Bad Wolf studios seems to understand that as well. It’s difficult to explain just how enraptured I am with the way this game feels after the laggy nightmare that was Kingdom Come.
Unfortunately, outside of the slick interface and thrilling twist on adventure mechanics, the experience is a lot less polished. Voice acting ranges from outstanding to horrendous and reaches a nadir at the protagonist: a lifelong Frenchman who speaks with a middle American accent so bland it makes Altair from the original Assassin’s Creed sound impossibly ethnic.
One of the biggest issues is that dialogue itself is almost always stilted and awkward, and frequently borders on unprecedented levels of cringe. For instance, when questioned about his mother by President George Washington, Louis replies, “You know what they say, you can pick your nose, but not your family!” To George Washington. The President. Another line reads, without even a shred of irony: “He’s poorly, and the French revolution gives him such terrible headaches.”
The Council stumbles visually, too. Most environments are impressively well modeled and textured, but the character models are a strange combination of the art styles from Dishonored and Bioshock, but the sense of soft realism differs dramatically from character to character. George Washington’s model looks like an attempt at direct recreation, where Louis looks like Corvo Attano, and Gregory Holm looks uncomfortably like Sander Cohen. There’s also something very much off about all of the mouths and facial animations that makes watching three hours of talking far less pleasant.
Another issue is The Council’s inconsistent approach to themes of feminism. On a number of occasions, Louis will offer up something blunt like “the role women played in the war was a great step forward,” which, though true, would never have actually been said in 1792. Of course, I also doubt that Elizabeth Adams was a paranoid schizophrenic with cult tattoos and an undershave, so maybe I’m being too harsh.
The point being that the game seems to have something to say about female empowerment, but the delivery lacks any craft or subtlety. Additionally, one of only two female characters is perpetually wearing a dress so low-cut that it probably qualifies as partial nudity. It feels like the developers had good intentions but went about bringing them to fruition in the most ham-fisted way possible, and also discovered the effectiveness of the “boobs in the thumbnail trick.”
The best I can say for the story at this point is that it has potential. Given that I’ve only played one episode of a planned five, there is certainly time for things to improve, but as of now I’m not particularly invested. Even though the mechanics driving the conversations keep me consistently engaged, I rarely have personal stakes in the topics about which I’m conversing. Episode One did leave off on a dramatic cliffhanger, though, so at least I’m intrigued to see where things go in Episode Two. There have also been a heap of choices to make up to this point, which speaks both to the promise of extensive replay value and to the potential for increased spectacle the further I progress into the narrative.
As of Episode One, I’m not entirely sure about The Council. As an experiment in modifying the typical recipe for adventure game success, it hits the nail on the head and leaves the rest of the genre in the dust. As a functional story with dialogue that could conceivably be spoken by actual humans, it’s far less impressive. Hopefully, as the story progresses the developers will iron out the kinks and allow their phenomenal design to be in service of a game that deserves it.