Although the opening installment, “The Mad Ones,” does a fine job of introducing you to the various elements, unfortunately you’ll soon discover that a lot of these systems don’t seem to matter in the long run. The second episode in particular, “Hide and Seek,” plays out more like a traditional adventure game that doesn’t require the skills you’ve spent a fair amount of time fussing over. One puzzle forces Louis to decipher a date in order to access a secret room. Although using your skills can prompt Louis to provide a few hints, you’ll need to use your own smarts to actually overcome the obstacle. While I had absolutely no issue being required to solve this and other hit-and-miss puzzles on occasion, it felt entirely counterintuitive. If you’ve made the most logical choices in your area of expertise, why not allow Louis to crack the code using the skills he’s learned and enhanced? It seems pointless to build up relevant skills when you’ll need to solve things the same way regardless of your approach. It's as though the whole episode’s puzzles were designed without taking the RPG aspect into consideration. They seem to exist outside the core mechanics previously established, making the gameplay feel disconnected from everything that had come before. It's a pretty big misstep.
Perhaps the developers realized they’d veered too far off course, as things improve in Episode 3 (“Ripples”) and Episode 4 (“Burning Bridges”), both of which allow you to put Louis's skills to good use. However, while “Ripples” pushes the story in some interesting directions, including some compelling confrontations, genuinely entertaining puzzles, and amusing interactions with the game's cast of quirky characters, “Burning Bridges” kind of derails the energy generated by its predecessor. The penultimate chapter isn’t particularly bad, just a little boring as it plods along without any real enthusiasm for the suspenseful tale it's trying to create. Sure, the cliffhanger sets up a rousing final act, but it's tacked onto the end of a very lackluster few hours, which makes it difficult to really care about what's about to go down just when it should matter most.
And that’s a problem you’ll encounter throughout The Council: sometimes the game doesn’t have a whole lot to say despite the mountains of dialogue the characters tend to spew. The murder mystery and secret society storylines definitely have potential, but they're wrapped up in a lot of unnecessary plot points that often feel extraneous. By the time you reach the final episode, you’ll wish that the writers had trimmed the proverbial fat and made their adventure a leaner, well-paced eight-hour game as opposed to an extended episodic affair. As it stands, the overall narrative feels like an extended cut of a movie that could have benefited from some much-needed time in the editing room.
Even with the game’s unevenness to that point, I’d hoped that The Council could at least stick the landing. Despite tempering my expectations, however, “Checkmate” arrived with a resounding thud. Sure, the conclusion tosses around some mildly intriguing twists, but not only are you funneled toward a predetermined conclusion regardless of the choices you’ve made, the story ends up thrusting poor Louis into a series of choices that seem out of character. It’s difficult to describe without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that when one of the characters transforms into a villain without much warning, Louis really has no choice but to change his plans. If you’ve taken the time to play Louis as a proper character, as opposed to simply an avatar in a game, this will force you down one particular path that can completely transform his carefully cultivated personality with a few questionable decisions. This definitely wasn’t the ending I’d hoped the series would deliver.
Graphically the game is a bit of a mixed bag as well. Although the creepy island manor contains tons of iconic artwork from a number of famous painters, as well as exquisite furniture and lush decorations appropriate to the era, some of characters themselves are a little odd. While Louis looks fantastic, his poor mother looks like a hellish mix of Angela Lansbury and some sort of mythical bird-woman with terrible skin. George Washington also suffers, though poor Sarah de Richet easily provides the most unintentional scares. The textures throughout hit a lot of high notes – the gallery is truly a sight to behold and the manor’s halls are adorned with intricately crafted rugs and glistening marble tile – so it's a shame that some character models are so noticeably less appealing than others. They're not horrible, mind you, but the oddballs definitely seem a little jarring when standing next to their sharper counterparts. The animation serves its purpose but it too has a few moments of unexpected wonkiness when characters move like waxwork statutes brought to life. At times I found myself paying more attention to their repulsiveness than the dialogue.
To make matters worse, the voice acting frequently sounds stilted and a little goofy, and at times the actors seem miscast. Louis certainly doesn't sound French, and his reaction to a number of situations provides a few misplaced laughs. Unfortunately, you'll have to listen to him prattle on about anything and everything, making his voice work more than a little irritating as the game wears on. Since Big Bad Wolf built The Council around intense conversations, casting an actor who could handle the more dramatic moments would have strengthened the overall experience considerably. Again, the performance doesn't scrape the bottom of the proverbial barrel, but it weakens many of the exciting scenes somewhat. For all his efforts to prove otherwise, I just don't buy Louis as a tough guy. And then there are the technical audio issues, including poor lip syncing and moments of dead audio before a character speaks.
The Council makes a great first impression, setting the stage for a thrilling narrative role-playing experience in the early going by introducing the systems, characters, and depth you hope will develop with each passing episode. From the investigation of Sarah de Richet’s disappearance to the promise of shady dealings of a secret organization known as the Golden Order, there are some appealing ideas here for long-time adventurers who want something different from the genre. Sadly, despite some interesting twists in the story, this five-part series simply sports way too many blemishes and missed opportunities as it goes along to really pull off such an ambitious endeavor. Big Bad Wolf has the right idea, but the role-playing elements often feel like a gimmick shoehorned into a mystery that might have been stronger without them. I’d love to play a game that can seamlessly blend traditional adventuring with some well-developed RPG systems, but the longer I played, the more I realized that The Council just couldn’t bring these two worlds together to fulfill its early promise.