The Council Episode 1: The Mad Ones Review

The episodic, choice driven narrative style game has dramatically risen in popularity in the last few years.  Telltale Games hit on a winning formula, first with the Walking Dead, but in more recent times, Batman and The Wolf Among Us.  There have been multiple attempts to duplicate this success with other tales, but, to my mind, none have been quite as successful as Big Bad Wolf have been in putting together Episode 1 of The Council.  With four more episodes left to be released throughout 2018, it’s too early to say whether the momentum from Episode 1 is carried on, but this is a very good start.

Your story begins with a mysterious invitation to an island off the British coast.  Your protagonist and playable character is Louis de Richet.  Your Mother has gone missing on the island and you are there to try and find her.  The tone of the invitation is friendly with the shrouded, secretive owner of the island welcoming you to help him track her down.  Upon your arrival however, things are more than a little off and early investigations reveal that your Mother had fears for her own safety before she disappeared.

The premise isn’t a particularly new one as mysteries go, but extra intrigue is added when you begin to meet the cast of the story.  Famous historical characters appear seemingly every 5 minutes.  Having read very little about The Council before playing, I was stunned to run into George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte (to name just two) roaming the halls of the huge mansion we all found ourselves occupying.

All the characters are voiced with appropriate accents and speech is generally of a very high standard.  Even the servants were well done and no-one sounded like they were phoning their lines in.

Big Bad Wolf have done an incredible job of creating an atmosphere.  The choice of camera angles and approaches call to mind to a veteran film director in their pomp.  Sweeping vistas are the order of the day as you approach the island and the sense of scale is fantastic.  Some rooms are closed off to the player as you wander round but you never lose the feeling that you are in a huge environment.

I won’t go too much more into the details of the story for fear of spoiling it, but don’t expect the huge bombast and exposition of a Call of Duty title.  The Council is a much subtler affair.  Every scene quietly adds more urgency and slowly, slowly ratchets up the tension.  Later scenes start to delve into the occult and an examination of how mental illness is dealt with in this period of history.  It’s utterly compelling stuff.

Aside from having an intriguing story, The Council doesn’t simply plagiarise the format popularised by Telltale.  Significant additions are made to the game play in the form of some RPG like elements.  Very early on you are asked to pick between a choice of three classes, each of which has it’s own tree of skills relating to that class.  Say that you worked as a Detective for example, and you get the option to become a specialist in subject areas such as logic and questioning.  Smartly, the other skills trees are not completely locked off, they just take slightly longer to get to.

The skills you select feed into conversational and environmental options.  Select an aptitude for languages and you’ll find that you’ll find that the Latin scribbles on that stone pathway become eminently readable.  It’s really satisfying to unlock a skill when you complete a chapter and see a tangible benefit from doing so in the next scene.  Using these skills all feeds into the levelling up system.  Complete scenes successfully (or otherwise) and you gain XP which pushes you towards the next level and the next set of points to upgrade your character’s skills.

All of this is explained via an end of chapter summary.  My first thought was that this a step too far towards gaming in an otherwise immaculately balanced narrative.  But, actually, as I progressed through the chapters, I got a thrill out of knowing which narrative pathways I had missed; a small inkling as to the impact my choices, successes and failures were having on the story.

Big Bad Wolf’s other big innovation is their Confrontation system.  Story progression often requires you to convince a main character to do something (or not to do something) or give you a key piece of information.  Well, a character with the charisma and steel of Napoleon isn’t just going to crumble to your will.  And so begins a confrontation.  This is a tense, multi-part conversation which involves you bending said character to your way of thinking (or not as the case may be!)  Often, your skills help you in this regard.  Each character, as in life, has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.  Some will allow you to distract them in conversation to keep them away from what you are really trying to achieve, while others will immediately pick up on such a simple trick.  Discovering each characters achilles heel is a mini game in itself.

Even more impressive: these personality traits perfectly fit perfectly with the characters as you get to know more about them.  Artistic license has of course been taken in how each character fits into the story – what is George Washington doing on an island off the coast of England? – but consistency in the story and characters as it’s being told here is immaculately observed – so far.

If I had to pick a fault, confrontations give you a little bit too much leeway for failure.  Often a character is looking for confirmation that you think the same way as they do, or will keep a secret.  In a four part confrontation you get four chances at making a mistake in some cases.  We already know that the story allows you to fail and that the story carries on regardless, so why not give players a real chance at failing?

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