The Council is an ambitious game that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional RPGs and story games like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. Developer Big Bad Wolf adds leveling, skill points, and experience to the traditional point and click puzzle solving and dialogue trees, in attempt to make The Council feel more like a game and less like a mildly interactive narrative adventure. It’s trying to advance the form, and for that, I applaud it. But it fumbles the dialogue writing, the voice acting, and the facial animations, making the game awkward and stilted where it should be emotional and compelling. 

You play as Louis De Richet, a Frenchman in 1793, investigating his mother’s disappearance on an isolated island owned by a the mysterious Lord Mortimer. Other guests on the island include historical figures like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, adding an air of geopolitics to the proceedings.

Gamplay centers around narrative confrontations, wherein Louis must spend effort points to use his various skills to impress, out-talk, and out-think his fellow guests. Every opponent has vulnerabilities and immunities to different skills. Servants are vulnerable to the Conviction skill, and thus using it on them costs no effort points.

However, another character may be immune to the Politics skill, and if you try to use it, it will cost you effort points and the attempt will automatically fail. Sometimes Louis can discern these vulnerabilities and immunities via observation and discussion, giving him a leg up in future conversations. If you are missing the relevant skill, then you cannot use certain dialogue options at all.

Amusingly, you can chug royal jelly to regain expended effort points at any time, even in the midst of a conversation. I get that this is meant to create a resource management system, but it’s also inadvertently amusing. “Hold, President Washington, while I chug this magical liquid. Now what were you saying about my mom?”

There are three skill trees, and you can choose to specialize in one at the beginning of the game. As you level up, read books, and succeed at challenges, you can earn skill points that you can spend to improve your skills. At the beginning of the game, you choose one skill tree to specialize in, and you receive a significant discount to those skills.

You can later spend skill points in other trees, but the cost is significantly increased. It never felt like I had enough skill points to unlock every dialogue choice, but I believe that this was intentional on the part of the game designers - seeing everything will necessitate multiple playthroughs, and the placement of every skill point matters.

This isn’t some open world RPG where I can go wandering around the woods, shooting radioactive bears until I level up. There’s no assurance that I’ll be able to max out every skill and pursue every path. In fact, given the rate at which I was awarded skill points and the cost of advancement, it seems like the opposite result is guaranteed.

Furthermore, there are achievements you can unlock that will provide more skill points. You can even fail confrontations intentionally to acquire the “Boorish” ability, which can give you advantages in certain situations.

Each episode is split into several chapters. At the end of each chapter, you get a rundown of everything you’ve done, things you’ve failed to accomplish, and most interestingly, paths you did not take. I appreciated this summary, as it lets you know exactly what you need to do in your next playthrough to see what you missed.

Does the game give you real choice or merely the illusion of choice? It’s hard to say in the first episode of a five episode series. What will the consequences of my choices be? Will my allies back me up or betray me? Will alternate paths lead to vastly different outcomes? Check in with me in a few months, when the entire game is out, and I’ll tell you.

Writing Issues

The dialogue writing fails at capturing the feel of the time period, and is loaded with modern day anachronisms. Louis, at one point, actually shouts “Oh man!” and “Oh shit, your arm!” A French occult investigator from the 18th century shouldn’t sound like he was born in the mid-80s. Furthermore, dialogue is mostly expository - it exists to move the plot, deliver information, and present choices, but not to help you build emotional connections to the characters. 

Louis also has migraines that provide him with visions, and occasionally allow him to see through the eyes of others while he’s dreaming. Where did he get these powers? Are these visions to be trusted? Does he have a history of these visions or does he only get them on this island? Louis doesn’t seem surprised by them, but the player is given no other information about them.

Furthermore, Louis isn’t given a dialogue choice to speak to anyone about them, even when he meets the people in these visions. To be clear, I’m not annoyed that I’m not presented with an answer to the mystery - I’m annoyed that it doesn’t seem to be presented as a mystery at all! It feels like another mechanic to move the plot along, but it isn’t integrated into the story, nor does Louis seem to have any feelings about this obvious supernatural power in an otherwise mundane setting.

I don’t even care much about Louis’ mother, whose disappearance is the central MacGuffin. Yeah, she’s Louis’ mom, but so what? What was their relationship like? Was she cold and distant or warm and nurturing? A few flashback scenes would’ve gone a long way. Telling us we should care is never as powerful as making us care. One character remarks that my mother may not have been who I believed her to be. But what do I believe about her?! It’s not a narrative bombshell to destroy my preconceived notions about a major character if I don’t have any.

Your choices rarely seem to be moral in nature. People are obstacles to be surpassed, not characters to be connected to or judged. The best story games concern themselves not with “Can I?” but “Should I?”

At one point, I’m in a conversation with Napoleon, and the game presents me with the challenge of impressing him. I need to tell him what he wants to hear, which is that France needs a dictator, but I refused, initially saying that the different factions in France needed to work together to build a Republic worthy of the bloodshed of the Revolution. Napoleon told me I was wrong (revealing that he was immune to my Politics skill in the process), and gave me another chance. I told him that the people need to decide what France needs, and failed the challenge.

Louis even chides himself in his internal monologue, calling the conversation a fiasco. This conversation would’ve been far more interesting as a moral quandary than a simple hill to climb over. Should you tell a would-be dictator what he wants to hear just to get ahead? Or is it better to stand on democratic principle? The only reason to add historical figures to the mix is to make you feel like you have the opportunity to alter the course of history. Give us the opportunity to do so.

Some characters’ historical significance is used as a stand-in for any further character development. The Council’s marketing makes a point of repeating, ad nauseum, that George Washington appears in this game. Given my country’s frequent invocation of its Founding Fathers in its political discourse, I can understand how a French game studio might think that this would be a good way to get American gamers interested. But if you’re going to use historical figures meeting in anachronistic ways (a la Picasso at the Lapin Agile), you shouldn’t merely present historical figures simply as we remember them.

What if Napoleon wasn’t just a megalomaniac, but rather wanted to end the bloodshed of the French Revolution out of a love for his countrymen? What if George Washington wished to become an American king and struggled with his ambitions versus his principles? Rather than taking up the challenge of making something new and compelling, Big Bad Wolf presents these historical figures exactly as we remember them.

Choice?

Choice is restricted in immersion-breaking ways. The game claims that you’re in an immense mansion, but then restricts your movement in annoying ways. Aside from the obligatory invisible walls, at one point, I’m not allowed to go down a staircase because a servant is sweeping it. Really? Why? The servants are obsequious to a fault, and with the right skills, you can bully them into giving you power up items. These aren’t Big Daddies we’re talking about. They’re glorified butlers in topcoats and frilly sleeves. Does Louis have a janitor phobia? Why can’t I walk past this goofball?

The game wants you to explore the floor and investigate people’s bedrooms, rather than make a beeline down the stairs for the main plot, so it makes you go the long way around that floor to the second staircase. At other times, the game seems fine with you missing encounters and dialogues, but then will lock you in a room until you figure out a particular puzzle. The game can’t seem to decide whether it wants to punish a lack of curiosity or demand that you hit key plot points. If I need to know something, just tell me.

That being said, it uses the skill system in an interesting way. If you’re having trouble with a puzzle, and you have the correct skill, you can expend effort points for a hint. This is a neat way of keeping the game moving, and preventing you from alt-tabbing out and looking for the walkthrough online. Unfortunately, it also seems to ram the skill system into some situations. At one point, you need the Agility skill to reach a high bookshelf in a room full of tables and chairs. I get that you need to reward people who chose the Agility skill in a game with few physical challenges, but Is Louis too stupid to stand on a table? Creating absurd situations to justify your advancement system is not good game design.

Unfortunately, it seems to be railroading you into a romance with one of the characters. At one point, most of your dialogue choices involve trying to impress her, to which she responds with snide put downs. By the end of it, I was hoping for an opportunity to tell her off, but the game never gives you the opportunity. Give me a choice or don’t, and if you aren’t, at least create some legitimate chemistry between the characters. An attractive character model only goes so far.

Performance Problems

Louis’ voice actor is painful to listen to. His performance is rarely believable and he almost never expresses an emotion beyond vague annoyance at himself or others. Some of the supporting actors do a better job, but you hear Louis’ voice 90 percent of the time. The importance of an excellent main voice actor cannot be overstated.

He also has an American accent for some reason. If every character was French, and every character had an English accent, I could accept this. It’s certainly been done before. I would simply imagine every character speaking French - I’m just hearing the translation. But The Council is populated by characters from around Europe who speak English with their native accents intact. The Vatican priest speaks with an Italian accent. The British dutchess speaks with a posh English accent. And Napoleon speaks with a French accent!

Louis even pronounces the occasional French word with a decent French accent. Why isn’t he always speaking with a French accent? Louis even speaks with Napoleon at one point - why isn’t this remarked upon? It feels like a result of a poorly cast voice actor and bad voice direction on the part of Big Bad Wolf.

Voice acting issues are also exacerbated by the weak facial animations. The characters are beautifully rendered, and look great until they start to talk. When they do, they rarely exhibit much emotion. It feels like they spent a great deal of time making this game beautiful and not nearly enough time making it good.

Let me repeat this for the devs in the back: photo realistic graphics are not necessary for a story game!! The most emotional experiences I’ve had with games had either highly stylized characters (The Walking Dead) or no characters at all outside of their vocal performances (Firewatch, Gone Home). Often, these kinds of graphics distract from your storytelling, as they have a tendency to go plummeting into the uncanny valley, making you notice all the ways in which this human facsimile is not human. If Big Bad Wolf spent less time on their graphics and more time on their writing and voice acting direction, they would’ve ended up with a much better game.

And yet...

I believe that The Council has the opportunity to revolutionize the genre, if only it got out of its own way. While it makes a terrible first impression with its weak writing and bad voice acting, its advancement system and setting were just enough to keep me engaged. Its mechanics encourages you to play to your strengths, replay to see more content, and expand your character in response to your discoveries. I thought Politics was going to be a terrific skill to level up, but once I realized that several characters were immune to it, I decided to halt my advancement in the skill. And when I found out that Emily Hillsborrow was vulnerable to Psychology, I started throwing points into it to gain a chance to influence her. As a player, I feel off-balance and ill at ease in the same way someone thrust into a highly political social situation would. So kudos for that achievement.

A game like this could greatly benefit from a New Game Plus option, wherein you could start the game with many skills already unlocked, and expend your skill points in previously neglected areas, allowing you to see more of the plot while not locking you out of any choices you wanted to make again.