Focus Home Interactive’s impressively ambitious portfolio scoops another intriguing title with Big Bad Wolf’s political period drama The Council, an episodic adventure that fuses Telltale’s narrative-driven experiences with a more traditional role-playing release. But does debut episode The Mad Ones do enough to draw you into its alternate history lore – or does it come off the rails like its crackpot cast?
Set during the late 18th Century on an island off the coast of England, a secret society featuring famous faces like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte converges at the mansion of mysterious aristocrat Lord Mortimer.
You play as Louis de Richet, the son of Sarah de Richet, who's the leader of the Golden Order in the warring France. Upon arriving on the island, Ms de Richet has gone missing, and it’s your job to locate your mother – and figure out exactly what she’s got herself mixed up in. This is scheduled to be a five episode series, so rest assured there are no firm conclusions in this inaugural instalment.
The gameplay mostly adopts a branching story format similar to Life Is Strange or The Walking Dead, but the developer’s been bold enough to riff on the formula by adding RPG elements. You’ll pick a class at the start of the game which will reward you with a series of base skills, each altering the way that you approach each scenario in the story.
For example, if you opt for a learned past, you’ll earn the ability to translate conversations. This may open up opportunities later in the story when, for example, people speak in a foreign language – encounters that you’ll miss if you pick different perks. As you progress you’ll earn experience points which you’ll be able to invest into other attributes, customising your character as you see fit.
While there are usually “standard” conversation options, there are often alternatives that play into your archetype. You can choose to manipulate people if you play as a detective, for example, or you can lie through your teeth if you have the conviction to pull it off. All of this will expose you to different information depending upon the type of protagonist you play.
The game doesn’t do an amazing job of sewing together all the different branches, which leads to some awkward seguing between conversation scenes, but in two playthroughs we’ve learned completely different things about some of the title’s key characters. There are also occasions where you’ll need to select what you want to do, which results in alternative scenes.
While the general flow of the episode remains the same, there is considerable variety between the options. The key thing is that there are no fail states and wrong answers; the story plods along whichever you choose. And this does up the ante; conversation battles similar to those in Life Is Strange: Before the Storm can easily be failed, with key intel lost forever if you muck up.
The game doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Try to earn someone’s trust by stupidly telling them you’re the member of a secret society and there’s no recourse; you may have to do without that particular person’s information unless you can recover. It’s enough consequence to make you think about what you’re doing, even if everything moves on regardless.
There’s more, though: you’ll need Focus Points to pick some dialogue options, and these can only be recuperated using consumables (discovered in the world) or by identifying another character’s weaknesses. Some may struggle with logic, for example, and once you determine that you can exploit it in order to glean more information from them. It’s pretty cool.
The biggest issue thus far, then, is that the writing doesn’t measure up. The overarching plot and lore is very impressive, but the moment-to-moment conversations flow a little awkwardly and aren’t aided by some generally poor voice acting. Moreover, the dialogue doesn’t match the historical setting, with some phrases sticking out like a sore thumb.
It’s also quite overwhelming, because the first hour of the episode introduces a wealth of new systems and characters. This is one area where the episodic nature hurts it; a full campaign would have more time to set out its stall, but The Council thrusts you in at the deep end. Similarly, the set dressing is lovely, but there’s never really any opportunity to properly explore it.
Of course, we’ve no doubt that will come over the course of the series, but we’re not sure whether episodic is going to prove the correct delivery mechanism here. With such a complicated plot, the developer’s going to need to get the episodes out fast or create some really good recaps, because there’s a helluva lot going on here already.
The Council has impressive ambitions – even if its execution is not up to scratch. You’ll already know whether its alternate history backdrop appeals to you, but it’s the RPG elements that threaten to disrupt the narrative genre. We already like what this series is doing, but the writing and voice acting leaves a little to be desired. That said, this is a solid start, even if it is a bit too early to come to any conclusions about the overall story just yet.