Big Bad Wolf’s ambitious 18th century adventure/role-playing game The Council certainly sounds good on paper: combine some of the best elements of traditional adventure games (dialogue and exploration) and RPGs (skill leveling and character progression), mix them up and toss them inside a sinister murder mystery filled with real-life individuals from history. While everything starts out on the right foot, however, the five-part series unfortunately can’t build on that early momentum. As interesting as it is to focus on your chosen abilities, sometimes it feels like none of it really matters, and though the story contains some compelling twists, in between it can start to drag through extended exposition that really stalls the pace. There are definitely some things that The Council gets right, particularly its world-building and intriguing dialogue mechanics, but the missteps are simply too numerous to ignore.
Set in 1793, players assume the role of Louis de Richet, a young Frenchman and secret society member who's searching for his missing mother. Sarah de Richet was last seen visiting Lord Mortimer at his foreboding island estate, but she's since vanished. Although the staff has searched the island from top to bottom (or so they claim), they can't find a trace of her anywhere, apart from a few things she left behind to suggest she’s in hiding. Determined to unravel the mystery behind his mother's sudden disappearance, Louis accepts an invitation to the next grand party being thrown by the English aristocrat, where he encounters several prestigious historical figures (including a duchess, a cardinal, and even George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte) at the sprawling manor. The more Louis explores the grounds and interacts with its inhabitants – each of whom seems to hide a secret – the deeper the rabbit hole goes.
A month before all this happens, The Council's prologue in Paris offers a hint of what's to come and how your decisions will have long-lasting effects on the protagonist and those around him. While tied up alongside his mother by a mutual adversary, Louis manages to break free. You then get presented with two choices: make a bold move against your foe or allow Sarah to handle the confrontation. One path leads to a clean getaway, while the other leaves Louis with a permanent memento of his violent encounter. This small scenario shows that your actions can and will have tangible consequences on the story. While some are only cosmetic, others push Louis down alternate narrative paths that present entirely different choices.
Once you arrive on the island, you have the opportunity to select between three different professions: diplomat, occultist, and detective. While the diplomat will have a much easier time navigating conversations than the occultist and, to a degree, the detective, he'll struggle when it comes to identifying other languages and unraveling scientific mysteries. The detective, meanwhile, will pick up on specific mannerisms and find ways to exploit the weaknesses of those around him. Depending on which skill set you select, you'll find yourself locked out of specific sections of the game, requiring a whole new playthrough if you're eager to thoroughly explore the story.
The next layer of role-playing involves the talents within each chosen profession that you can spend accrued points on, which focus your areas of expertise further. This expands the possibilities once again, and you may find it worth going back and replaying an episode (or the entire game) from one or more different angles, especially if you feel you've missed an important piece of the narrative puzzle during your first experience.
The Council truly shines when you find yourself embroiled in confrontations, which require you to chat up a particular character in order to move the story forward. In one instance, Louis needs to convince someone to hand over a letter addressed to his missing mother. You can choose from a number of different responses, including a few that require Louis to utilize his special skills. Sometimes you won't have access to a certain option, given your choice of profession and skill levels, so you'll have to read your "opponent" and select the right choice based on his or her personality. If you decide to get snarky about religion when talking to a man of the cloth, Louis might have a difficult time winning him over. These encounters aren't too difficult, and the game allows you to make a handful of wrong choices before the entire conversation restarts, so those worried about possible "game over" screens can breathe easy.
Although you'll spend most of the game engaged in discussion, there are times when you'll get to explore Lord Mortimer's sprawling estate, which you'll navigate using the WASD keys and mouse (or a gamepad if you prefer). Clicking on other characters and interactive objects (highlighted by vague white orbs that come into focus when you draw near) will usually bring up a list of options, some of which are also dependent on Louis's current abilities. For example, the detective won't have access to a locked section of the wharf unless he finds a key, but the occultist can pick the lock and venture forward.
Using skills to perform actions spends effort points (the higher the skill level, the lower the point cost), which you can replenish using vials of jelly – a strange substance that our hero somehow knows will help him – hidden around the manor. But be careful: consuming too much jelly or other collectible power-ups that make using skills easier will have consequences, requiring the use of something called a Golden Elixir to correct. Knowing when to save your skill points and when to spend them requires a bit of strategy, especially when you're out of jelly.
Confused? Don't be. While The Council presents a number of different rules and systems, the game does a wonderful job explaining what you need to know in detail. By the time the first episode wraps up, you should have a solid grasp of how everything works. And if you don't, you can always settle in for another go-around to explore other avenues and be sure you’re ready to proceed. Since you can’t solve certain puzzles without possessing the requisite skills – deciphering a foreign language or identifying an individual without having knowledge of politics, for instance – tackling the story from different perspectives is the only way to get the most out of what this game has to offer. The episodes typically take roughly 2-3 hours each to complete the first time through, so replaying won't devour a large portion of your time. You also have the option of reloading specific chapters within an episode if you want to revisit something in particular.Continued on the next page...