A mysterious island. A secret society. A gathering of powerful leaders from across the globe.A missing loved one. If any of those words have piqued your interest than you just may be interested in checking out The Council from Focus Home Interactive and developer Big Bad Wolf Studio. The episodic series combines the dialogue choices of a narrative adventure with the classes and skill tree of an RPG to create a compelling mystery that looks to add an interesting twist to a familiar formula.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
The Council takes place in 1793 and tells the story of Louis de Richet, a Parisian aristocrat who has been invited to a remote island off of the coast of England by the enigmatic Lord Mortimer, a wealthy and powerful Englishman who frequently holds social gatherings on his island and whose motivations are mysterious. Louis is there to search for his mother who has gone missing since visiting the island, Louis and his mother are both part of a mysterious organization known as The Golden Order and he believes that her disappearance is somehow linked to a mission she had undertaken on the island.
Upon his arrival, Louis enters the massive estate of Lord Mortimer and is introduced to an eclectic cast of characters who have all come to this island for their own mysterious reasons. There is Emily Hillsborrow, an English Duchess who seems to have plenty to hide and her own suspicious reasons for being there. There is also Guiseppe Piaggi, a Catholic Cardinal who claims to have information about the disappearance of Louis’ mother. They are only two of the interesting characters who find themselves of the guest list, which also includes President George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s a bizarre cast of characters to be certain, but they pull it off and it works in a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Clue kind of way.
When Worlds Collide
As the game begins you are given a choice between three character classes, all of which will grant you various advantages throughout the game. The Detective is particularly skilled at logic and questioning while the Occultist is adept at science and subterfuge, and finally the Diplomat is an expert in politics and etiquette. As you progress you’ll be able to level up and earn points which can be spent on a skill tree to unlock 15 different skills to aid you on your adventure. While a specific class may give advantages in certain skills, you do have the option to mix and match skills if you’re interested in becoming a Jack of all Trades.
The majority of the gameplay mechanics are divided up between two activities, conversation and exploration. While exploring the mansion, you search for both clues that might help you in your investigation into your mothers disappearance, and items which will aid you along the way (more on those soon). The conversation though are where most of the interesting design choices can be found. When conversing with another guest on the island you choose from a variety of dialog options to try and seek the truth, but you can also try and use your skills against them to uncover even more secrets.
During a conversation you have a limited number of Effort Points which you can spend to try and take advantage of a guests Vulnerabilities. If you’re successful you can gain back some of the spent points, but be careful, characters also have Immunities which if you run into can cost you points and send the conversation straight into a dead end. You can also find consumables throughout the environment that can aid you in these conversations, allowing you to replenish some of your Effort Points or point out the vulnerabilities of the person with whom you’re speaking to.
Finally there are Confrontations. These are the sort of “boss battles” type conversations in which you are given a number of interactions that you must “win”. If you are successful you may find out some valuable information about your mother, but lose and you might make a mistake that will create complications down the road. And if you mess up, there is no restarting the confrontation. You’ll have to move on and deal with the consequences of your mistakes, whatever they might be.
All in all I found the mechanics of the game to be entertaining and engaging. The conversations were fun and always felt like there was a sense of importance to each one. The one concern is that due to the episodic nature of the game, I didn’t really get a sense of how deeply you can customize your character by going down the various paths on the skill tree. I was only able to level up a few times before the episode was over. It’s something that may become more clear as future episodes are released, but for now it’s hard to say if it will all play out in a satisfactory way.
Tripping Over Your Words
A bigger concern that I have with the game has to do with the overall presentation. While I would say that on the whole it’s quite good, certain aspects of it need quite a bit of work, particularly the voice acting. In a game that focuses so heavily on conversations, it’s disappointing for the quality of voice work to swing so wildly between “good” and “cringe inducing”. It’s not always bad, but when it is, it really is. It’s also not helped by writing which can also be quite inconsistent. Also, I haven’t quite figured out why Louis (who is very much French) speaks with what sounds like a very American accent.
Visually the game is much more impressive. The Mortimer Estate is beautifully rendered and detailed. It was a joy to explore and take in all of the fine works of art that adorn the mansion. The character models are also well done and have a nice sense of style to them, reminding me somewhat of the characters in the Dishonored series, only with less exacturated features. The animation though is not quite up to snuff. Movement can seem rigid and robot like, and there was a particularly goofy episode in which two characters were walking down a hallway having a conversation and they had the exact same walking animation which was also time perfectly with one another. It created the bizarre appearance of a choreographed dance number. It’s a little thing, but a lot of little things can add up and attempt to pull you out of an otherwise immersive experience.
As the episode came to a close after a brief 2 hours or so, I was bothered by all of the little issues that had detracted from the experience. There truly is a lot to like in The Council it’s just a shame it didn’t all come together better. That being said, the story is very intriquing and the mechanics interesting enough that I’ll definitely be back for future episodes to see where the rest of the story goes. If you’re a fan of narrative focused games and enjoy a good mystery, I think it’s definitely worth giving The Council a look, and hopefully by Episode 2 they’ll have worked out some of the kinks so that the party doesn’t fizzle out before it’s done.
The Council is available March 13th for the Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. We played our review copy on the Xbox One X console