Episodic adventure games like The Council tend to be very hit and miss for me. When coupled with a great narrative, games like The Wolf Among Us and Life is Strange can become super captivating and leave me on the edge of my seat waiting for the next episode. Unfortunately, if the writing isn’t as strong and the series runs into technical problems, these kinds of games can quickly become a slog to get through.
After playing through The Council – Episode 1: The Mad Ones, I have come away very intrigued by the game’s exciting premise and the innovation it brings to this format of adventure games. That being said, The Mad Ones is plagued by slow pacing and some issues on the technical side of things, so those not entirely convinced by The Council’s premise alone may want to wait and see how everything pans out once more episodes drop.
The Council – Episode 1: The Mad Ones begins in the thick of things, with protagonist Louis de Richet and his mother, Sarah de Richet escaping from the clutches of the evil Von Borchert. This encounter gives you a small taste of how your actions will have consequence, as Louis can receive a noticeable scar for the rest of the game here if they don’t make the right decision. Louis and his mother are part of a secret organization called The Golden Order, as do some of the individuals that players meet later on in the episode.
The game then skips a month, to January of 1793, where we learn that Sarah has gone missing on the island of Lord Mortimer, a mysterious aristocrat that has a habit of inviting several notable historical figures to his private island mansion. Prominent historical figures like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte are also on the island, many of whom also have an interest in Louis’ mother, though no one seems to know where exactly she is.
People very interested in history like myself will get a kick out of seeing noticeable historical figures interacting with each other, especially in a dinner scene towards the end of the episode when everyone is in the same room. While The Mad Ones‘ plot does get engaging towards the end of the episode, sporting a few radically different ending depending on one’s decisions, it is a bit of a slow burn to get there.
As it is the first episode of the series, a lot of time is spent setting up and introducing the game’s world to players. While The Council as a whole will likely benefit from this in future episodes, The Mad Ones suffers from leaning a bit too heavily on boring set up, instead of exploring the intriguing missing person mystery it initially sets up more. Fortunately, the end of this episode did leave me wanting to see where the story will go next, so this issue hopefully won’t plague future episodes.
When it comes to gameplay, Big Bad Wolf choose to remove quick-time events and incorporate several RPG elements into the system, adding a lot of replayability and player engagement to The Council. The first chief diversion from the standard conversation formula is the Class and Skill system, which is introduced in a conversation with the sultry Emily Hillsborrow, who is a Duchess from England.
You can choose from one of three different classes – Diplomat, Occultist, and Detective – each of these give players easier access to unique skills from the start. After completing each “quest” that make up The Mad Ones, can level up skills. Then, during conversation or when exploring the environment, opportunities to use these abilities during dialogue will pop up at the cost of Effort Points that can be restored by items found across mansion, which encourages exploration.
While this can seem a bit overwhelming at first, things quickly fall into place as you build your character. My Louis wound up being a jack-of-all-trades, as I leveled up several skills to keep my options open. Having multiple skills handy can also help in the various Confrontation events throughout the episode, which are The Council’s much more engaging replacement for action-heavy quick time event scenes common to other games of this style.
Each character in The Council has immunities and vulnerabilities to specific skills, which players will need to find out to get through these multiple-phased confrontations. In these, players have to choose the right dialogue option in order to make whoever Louis is talking to calm down or side with him, though the story will continue if he fails for the most part. This adds a never-before-seen level of tension to these confrontations, as players have a more active role in each situation’s outcome than in most other games with meaty dialogue systems.
While the story is intriguing and the gameplay is innovative, The Council doesn’t fare as well on the technical side of things. While many games of this style will hide technical hiccups with a more cartoonish art style, The Council opts for a realistic one. This causes some textures to look uncanny, especially on the faces of some older characters, and for there to be some noticeable pop-in. Some of the voice acting is also hit-and-miss, especially with Louis, which is a detriment in such as dialogue-focused title.
If you can get past the slow start and some of the glaring technical problems of The Mad Ones, then you will find the most innovative episodic adventure games to come from a studio other than Telltale. I can see The Council becoming a standout title within its genre when it’s finished, but as it stands The Mad Ones has enough problems to where everyone may not be on board just yet.