The Council - Episode 1: The Mad Ones Review
The reviews for all other episodes can be found here:
A man with blood pouring from his nose is offered a handkerchief by a lady, but before he’s even dabbed at his face, she asks if he’s OK. Well, no. As incredible as it may seem, the tiny napkin hasn’t managed to staunch the rivulets gushing over his chin. While you can’t help but laugh, this is how many of the conversations take place in The Council: characters doing and saying things that not only sound preposterous, but look it too.
Thankfully, looks aren’t everything. The man in question is Louis de Richet, an aristocrat who has arrived on a mysterious island to attend a mysterious party hosted by a mysterious man known as Lord Mortimer. Louis is there in search of his missing mother Sarah, an aging artefact hunter and head of a secret society, who also dabbles in the occult. Louis himself has abilities beyond normal men, getting glimpses of the future which allow him to shape his approach to conversations with other people, while inflicting the aforementioned nosebleed in return. As detective stories go, it’s a little kooky. But if you can get past the stilted voice acting, you’ll be rewarded with a refreshing take on the episodic adventure genre.
The Council is at heart a point-and-click crossed with an RPG, where battles are called Confrontations, and words are your weapons of choice. After the introduction, you can decide which path to take Louis down: Occultist, Diplomat or Detective. Each has its own abilities which can be leveled up, unlocking different dialogue choices as you improve them. The skill tree is big enough on its own, but it ties into an even larger selection of Traits, which are essentially achievements for reaching certain milestones. If you level up specific skills, or perform in-game tasks correctly, you are rewarded with a Trait which adds further points to your skills. The result is an incremental levelling system which is used in a unique way in the genre, given that everything you unlock is focused on you becoming better at conversations.
And you won’t be short of conversations to have. 70% of the game is based around conversations, 20% is navigating your environment to reach those conversations, and the final 10% is interacting with objects which may or may not be linked to conversations further down the line. The Council both succeeds and fails on this central premise of dialogue. On the positive side, if you switch captions off and actually pay attention to your chats, you’ll be more invested in Louis’ detective protagonist, paying careful attention to what the guests say and mapping it to your responses when you eventually head into a Confrontation with them. Each guest has a Weakness and an Immunity, which your skills may be able to exploit. Psychology may work on one person but not another, and your knowledge of politics may serve you well if your verbal sparring partner is testing out your intelligence.
Each Confrontation is broken in to a number of steps which you must successfully pass with your silver tongue. If you fail, a character may shut down completely. You can use Effort points to draw upon your skills and make more specific choices. If you run out of Effort, you become exhausted and suffer negative effects — the RPG mechanics are almost D&D-like — but Effort can also be expended on actual detective work: examining objects further, quizzing people outside of Confrontations, using subterfuge to break into rooms, and so on. Effort is restored through consumables dotted around the extensive manor Louis finds himself in, which is where the gameplay suffers somewhat. The last step of any Confrontation is usually repeatable until you’ve either succeeded or run out of effort. Assuming you scour the manor and have picked up enough consumables, you’ll be able to fly through Confrontations without any issues at all. Maybe we were lucky, but given this is the core mechanic upon which The Council plays, it feels like you can literally game the system, detracting from an otherwise engaging proposition.
Outside of Confrontations, which are done well, the acting is hilariously, and surprisingly bad. As big fans of the Broken Sword series, Louis and his incessant internal monologuing and bland American accent not only sound like a cut price George Stobbart, but they also feel out of place in an 18th Century aristocratic estate populated by guests including Napoleon, George Washington, an English duchess and the daughter of John Adams. While this first episode is entitled The Mad Ones, we’re given very few clues as to why. Practically every conversation feels wooden, as if the characters are just reading words from a script rather than embodying the feelings inherent within — and this is compounded by the fact that you cannot skip any dialogue at all. It may be just early day jitters for the cast as they bed in their roles; Telltale’s Batman series suffered similarly early on, but showed major improvements in later episodes, so hopefully the following four episodes will follow suit. And while the conversations don’t sound great, the actual choices and their consequences make sense. Try to blag your way through a clash with a lady by claiming you know her family, and you’ll get called out. Options and reactions feel reasonable, and while you can attempt guesswork, you are at least forewarned that a successful outcome is unlikely.
Visually, The Council is a mixed bag. The manor is a sumptuous art heaven to navigate, replete with paintings from the Old Masters and the kind of ridiculously opulent sculptures that you could only dream existed in real life. The character models are the opposite, a selection of bobble-headed mannequins of often bizarre proportions and shapes. Louis is particularly disturbing, looking like Adrien Brody if someone chiselled half of his face off. Even less forgivable are sloppy errors where dialogue choices do not match the spoken narrative at all, and a particularly nasty Confrontation with Napoleon where the white text for two of the (time-sensitive) options were completely obscured by a white background. Conversely, items and interactive objects are subtly signposted, and there are not one but two “actual” puzzles in the game, which not only make sense (and utilise your detective skills to boot) but make this area 200% better than almost every Telltale adventure in the last three years.
Even with these faults, The Council should be applauded for doing something brave with a genre that isn’t reliant on quick time events, or just moving a person from place to place. For all of its problems, and even though the story takes a while to get going, the RPG elements and the actual honest-to-god conversational paths feel like you truly have a choice, and each of the four Acts conclude by telling you of the different choices you could have explored — which genuinely made us want to replay the episode. That alone should be enough for any point-and-click fan to pick up The Mad Ones and see if it tickles their French fancy.