The Council Episode One: The Mad Ones PC Review
The Council‘s debut episode, ominously titled The Mad Ones, is a strange offbeat introduction to Bordeaux based developer Big Bad Wolf’s take on the narrative adventure genre. The Mad Ones gives me hope for the future of The Council but it is clear the developer has yet to find it’s adventuring stride. For everything the game seems to get right; running in parallel is a collection of missteps that tarnish the sheen on what could be an excellent addition to the genre.
It may be a strange stament to make, but The Council does not shy away from being a game. Whilst its peers look to take players on a cinematic journey The Council refuses to pare back its “gamey” elements. Instead it proudly showcases them at almost every turn. Systems layered atop of systems is the game’s big hook. It quickly sets itself apart from those that came before by bolting a full-fledged RPG mechanic atop of it’s narrative adventure. Moreso, it forces players into making meaningful decisions within the ruleset. The first choice sets the stage – letting you pick a class, but soon you’ll be earning XP to level up, and pondering what path you take on a skill tree; becoming a fully fledged diplomat, occultist, or detective; or perhaps a well rounded jack of all trades.
The game quickly puts these skills to use. Early in the episode you get access to a letter with a wax seal on it. A bit later on you can choose to read the letter, thus breaking the seal, or leave it closed. However, depending on chosen skills there can be a third option. If you have enough points in subterfuge you can open the letter without breaking the seal and not suffer the consequences of snooping. Similar skill based choices occur regularly throughout the episode.
Although the skill tree is not huge initial skill choices are somewhat overwhelming. As I played the game for the first time I was unsure what I should invest in. and early on I was locked out of many options as a result. As I grew to understand the flow of the game, and invested more points, by the halfway point of the episode I had grew my character to be much better equipped. In later chapters of the episode I felt well rounded, and capable to handle many situations, and as result I was invested in the direction I was taking my character. The Council‘s new ideas were working as intended!
The downside of all these systems is that, at least for this episode, character development has seemingly taken a backseat. The systems at play often seem more important than the story told – so much so that I still have not mentioned the main protagonist’s name. You play as Louis De Richet, who was invited to an island mansion where his mother has gone missing. An added wrinkle is that Louis and his mother are both part of a secret society known as The Golden Order – and many on the island are too. The other guests include Napoleon Bonaparte, President George Washington, and other important historical names from the late 18th century. It should be an exciting lineup but in reality it never is. While some of the cast already seem well rounded, with a certain Duchess and Cardinal being the game’s high point, The Mad Ones showcases issues typical of an early entry in a multi-part series. Most, if not all, of the characters feel a bit caricaturistic and underdeveloped – including Louis himself. Many of the game’s peers had similar issues too, but went on to remedy them in subsequent episodes. I hope The Council also manages this feat as the series continues.
Another problem is scripting always seems forced. Weird emotional swings occur regularly. The bounds from relaxed discourse to shouting matches are never justified. Some scenes exist solely to get a piece of information out into the open, and the information is rarely disclosed naturally. This sense of fakeness is evident in other parts of the game too. If we compare The Council‘s island and mansion setting to Arcadia Bay in Life is Strange it really feels like something is missing. Arcadia Bay was a character in its own right. A lot about The Council is lifeless in comparison. The mansion itself does not feel real. The layout of the rooms and hallways is consistently disjointed. Rooms are overfurnished to the extreme. Everywhere you look there is a chair or sofa, and seating options outweigh the guests by about 1000 to 1. Later in the game you stumble into a huge library, which is certainly a spectacle, but far too large to seem realistic. The room is multiple times larger than the exterior of the mansion. Maybe this is all intentional, as the game makes references to the occult, but I doubt it… unless the occult has become fascinated by chairs.
Furthermore, for a game set in the late 18th Century, some glaring flaws are staring you right in the face. One of the characters wears a backless dress, and even if stylish it is inappropriate to the setting. At the very least I would expect one of the brutish men to make an off-hand comment about it. Language used does not always fit either. Louis exclaims “Holy Shit” and “For Pete’s sake” more than once, and I believe neither entered the lexicon until the mid 1900s. For a period drama attention to detail is often more unintentionally hysterical than accurately historical.
If there is one single aspect I adore about The Council its that it’s not afraid to let players make mistakes. For most games in this genre you are given two choices that are more-or-less ‘right,’ but in The Council I was presented with a well crafted sequence with actual pitfalls. Mid way through the episode I was asked to uncover a hidden message. Upon finding the message there are three other objects in the room that I could use to interact with it but only one would help me. The others would in fact ruin the message; making a sequence later in the game harder. For this sequence The Council was happy to let me fail – and I like that. Far too many games these days are afraid to give players any negative stimulus. The Council not only lets you fail, but makes you feel bad about it, and you must continue the story from that point. I loved that the game had confidence to do so and hope to see more of it in future episodes.
Even though I enjoyed most of the decision making process one aspect seemed weird to me. As I completed each chapter within the episode I was given a rundown of what I accomplished, failed, and completely missed out on. I initially appreciated this additional information but it quickly began to feel like a cruel episode of Bullseye with Jim Bowen there to condescendingly tell me “…look at what you could’ve won!”. Maybe my mindset is wrong, but having constant knowledge of what could have been made my once rock-solid decisions less valid. More so, having access to all that information in no way helped my current playthrough, and it likely would only aid those opting for a second attempt at the game. Sure, informing the player is in no way ruinous to anyone’s enjoyment but been so upfront about it was a notable blemish for me.
In many ways The Council is a brave step forward for narrative adventures; offering a multitude of ways to mold your character; more so than any effort in the genre before it. And yes, The Mad Ones is, at times, a compelling first step on this journey. However, whilst the episode excels in offering customization it is also quite regressive. Any attempt at a compelling narrative was lost under the weight of the other systems at play. I do hope this balance is righted in future episodes. If so a special game may evolve from this rocky starting point.