Have you ever dreamed of sitting around a dinner table and gabbing with George Washington? How about Napoleon? What about stepping back into the 18th century or being part of a shadowy yet all powerful secret organization? Do you like narrative games in which emphasis is on strategic conversations and careful attention to detail, and where each choice has weight and consequence? If so, it’s probably time you considered joining The Council, which just so happens to be – despite a few notable flaws (discussed below) – my favourite thing I’ve played so far this year. Then again, I might be somewhat biased as I love history and occult weirdness and perpetually worship at the altar of story.
The episodic, narrative-driven title from Big Bad Wolf and Focus Home Interactive – of which the first roughly two-hour installment was released on March 13 for PC (on Steam), PS4 and Xbox One – casts you into the shoes of Louis de Richet, a member of the secretive Golden Order. After a short opening prologue that sees you and your mom terrorized by a man in search of a mysterious book, you find yourself en route to Lord Mortimer’s private island. On top of its craggy outcroppings sits a sprawling mansion, where your mother was last seen two weeks ago. It’s the year 1793.
As the game begins and you select your professional background – politician, occultist, or detective – that’s roughly all you know. Discovering the rest and how it all fits together is up to you. Your selected profession will give you the first of your special skills – and skills and traits are all important here. They are what allow you to open up more dialogue options, better manipulate conversations, succeed at confrontations, and take advantage of special opportunities. Skills and traits are discovered and evolved in three different ways: via actions in scenes and conversations, by levelling up your character, and by studying books.
Playing the Game
Scattered about Lord Mortimer’s mansion – along with the ridiculous number of famous and ostentatious guests – are several helpful potions, including ones that add Energy Points (used to take advantage of your special skills in conversation), clear negative effects, and provide hints as to which dialogue choices may be most effective on a particular target. As you talk to more non-player characters, you’ll learn their vulnerabilities and immunities, and it becomes important to remember these in order to be truly effective in subsequent conversations – or, if not remember them, at least remember to quickly pause the game, which can be done at anytime, and look them up.
You’ll barely have stepped into the Lord Mortimer’s vast art-filled lobby, when it becomes clear that your mother’s disappearance is far from the only mysterious thing happening around your host’s island. For one, he’s got Vice President John Adams’ once thought stillborn daughter – now practically an adult herself – sequestered in a room upstairs, where she seems to be struggling with some form of severe mental illness. And speaking of your host, he hasn’t yet made an appearance to greet his very influential guests either, and then of course there’s the (extremely common video game) issue of your painful and seemingly prophetic visions. Is the duchess you shared a boat ride to the island with really going to watch as your mother shoots herself in the head? What does it all mean?
The first installment of The Council gently eases you into the game’s mechanics, while also setting up each of these questions and many more. The Council‘s locales, in particular the fine art reproductions that blanket the walls of Lord Mortimer’s mansion, are stunning and immersive; a few of the characters’ facial renderings fare slightly less well, occasionally coming off as a bit doughy in appearance, especially against the superb backdrops. There’s a similar unevenness in the voice acting, with the cast largely seeming period appropriate apart from the player character, Louis, who constantly sounds so modern in his delivery that it’s quite jarring.
The Council‘s biggest and most unforgivable oversight, however, becomes obvious as one reads along with the subtitles at the bottom of the screen – I haven’t seen this many typos (mostly spelling errors any halfway competent proofreader can and should have caught) in a well-budgeted game in, well, ever. There are two massive ones in the first five minutes alone, and that’s kind of depressing because The Council is such a genuinely cool title that it deserves better than that.
None of these things are deal-breakers and The Council is still highly recommended, but there’s no denying that I miss the days when games rolled onto store shelves with a certain level of polish. Perhaps it can be viewed as ironic that a game that demands so much attention to detail from its players is itself lacking in that very department.
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