I've always been a sucker for a good mystery story, no matter what type of media it comes in. Trying to figure out the various players and "whodunit" ahead of time is a thrill, and I always enjoy seeing a good mystery come together. That's why I took an interest in The Council: Episode 1 - The Mad Ones, a new episodic story-based game from freshman developer Big Bad Wolf. So, my fellow detectives... let's investigate this new title and deduct whether it is worth our time!
The game begins with you and your mother shackled to a set of chairs, as your antagonist prepares a mixture to force you to reveal where the occult book you've stolen is, promising that in the end, you'll talk (and threatening to dispose of you in acid... lovely). You take on the role of Louis de Richet, and fortunately for you and your mother Sarah, being tied up and threatened by madmen is something of a family business. You both are members of the Golden Order, a French secret society, and thanks to his training, Louis will be able to pick the locks and free himself and his mother, while calling the madman over for a surprise attack. This leads to the first choice of the game; do you listen to your mother and let her handle the situation, or do you strike first yourself?
Like most adventure/story games, The Council is chock full of choices like this, but the way the beginning scene played out is what made me sit up and pay attention. If Louis lets his mother handle the situation, you'll gain the Trusting trait, giving you +1 in your Psychology skill. If you let Louis take on their captor himself, you'll gain the Scarred trait, giving you +1 to your Conviction skill. Psychology? Conviction? I knew right away that this isn't your average story-based game...
A few months pass after the encounter, and your mother Sarah (following up on a lead from the encounter with the occult book) has disappeared while visiting Lord Mortimer at his lavish island estate off of the coast of Britain. This prompts Lord Mortimer to invite you to the island to investigate the case. At the same time he invites key political and influential figures from various nations around the world for a council meeting to discuss the future. As you rub shoulders with the likes of George Washington and a young Napoleon (as well as various dukes, duchess and even an envoy from the papacy), you'll soon learn that everyone knows who Sarah de Richet is... But can you find out what happened to her while also navigating international plots and shady organizations?
When I heard you'd be interacting with historical figures like George Washington and Napoleon, I was immediately worried that the story would turn out to be campy. That's absolutely not the case. The writing is superb, balancing a good mix of intrigue, wit and at times humor to keep the mystery alive and kicking at all times. Louis even makes a remark that if he knew there would be so many important people here, he would have sprung for a better suit. The story kept me engaged from start to finish, as it gave everyone an interesting personality and, more importantly, kept a sense of intrigue and mystery throughout.
Remember those traits I mentioned above? They tie into the gameplay , and this really is what sets Council apart from other story-driven games. Early on, you'll have to choose the career Louis took: diplomat, occultist or detective (guess what most people will choose?). Each career branch has five different skills associated with it, giving the game 15 skills in total. Your career choice gives you the level 1 upgrade for those five skills, but you can level up any skill you wish - it will just cost more if it isn't under your career. As you play through the game, you will accumulate experience points that tally up after each chapter, giving you more skill points to spread around.
These skills are needed throughout Council. For example, Louis may encounter a locked box or door, and then subterfuge skill would come handy. Or perhaps two of the guests are talking with each other and your training in the occult may let you pick up on what they're talking about, letting you join the conversation and learn something. You will also get into confrontations with guests at times where your skill with certain subjects may very well lead to you obtaining information or items you wouldn't have otherwise.
The game ties these skills into the story brilliantly by adding in a weakness/immunity system. Each character is immune to certain skills. For example, you aren't going to win any arguments with Napoleon with your politics or conviction skills, but if you managed to sneak into his room earlier and read his personal letters, you may have already known that. Keeping track of each character and finding out what their immunities and weaknesses are is a big part of winning confrontations.
When you aren't talking with guests, you will likely be exploring the manor and the island, trying to find clues about your mother's disappearance. Various skills will help out with investigation as well, and may mean the difference between knowing what that Latin inscription says. While there are a lot of skills you can get in the game (on my second playthrough, I happened to obtain 13 out of 15 skills by the end of Episode I), you can't just use them whenever you want (it all would be a little TOO easy otherwise!). Instead, you have a limited amount of effort points you can use. There are also four unique items you can find (some help with confrontations and some even replenish your effort points), which gives the game a much-needed sense of balance and resource management.
The Council really doesn't have any contemporary gameplay, but the addition of usable skills and the ability to level up and choose your own skill set really do put you in the game's story that much more, giving you the sense of "forging your own story" more than any other story-driven game I've ever played. As mentioned earlier, I played through the game a second time, with a career change (diplomat vice detective) and making mostly opposite choices and my experience with the game and the story turned out vastly different!
One thing that you may notice right away is the character's faces, which look a bit... odd at the first glance. They remind me of the Dishonored series, with some exaggerated facial features here and there. It's not bad though, as it helps add personality. The character designs and animations are all quite good, but what I liked the most was the environments. Lord Mortimer is quite wealthy, and has his manor decked out with famous paintings and statues, most of which Louis can comment on (another nice touch - history majors and art aficionados are going to love these backgrounds). The mansion is huge, but many parts of it are inaccessible unless you choose certain options (which is a bit of a bummer, but definitely encourages multiple playthroughs).
The audio throughout the game was quite solid as well. I enjoyed the music which provided great atmosphere overall, and some good tunes to listen to every now and again while you explore (pretty catchy tunes that you may actually catch yourself humming later on...). I also enjoyed the voice acting, as the majority of the actors and actresses gave good performances, although at times their voice inflection seemed off every now and again. The care put into the script is apparent even here, as Louis can comment on a number of things throughout the game, which is always appreciated.
We've touched on the game's built-in replayability, but being Episode 1 also means that it's a tad too early to tell how far-reaching your choices in The Council will actually be. I can confirm that the ending to Episode 1 is indeed different based on the choices you make, and leveling up different skills definitely leads to different chances to use them. My second playthrough of Episode 1 was a night and day different than my first, and I'm really hoping Big Bad Wolf can keep this sort of diversity up through all five episodes.
All in all, I haven't had this much fun with a story-driven adventure game in quite awhile (since, oh... Sherlock Holmes: Crime and Punishments). The skill system, leveling up, confrontations and the immunity/weakness system are all fantastic game design choices that really get you invested in the game. Pair those with superb writing and a beautiful location to explore, and this is one fantastic start to this episodic series. If you're a mystery hound like me that can appreciate these twists to the genre, I think you'll agree that Episode 2 can't come fast enough...
It's good to meet you! I'm better known online as "Bkstunt_31" and have been writing Reviews and video game Strategy Guides/Walkthroughs for WAY too many years! Feel free to stop my my Facebook page and say hello! Have fun and keep playing!