Review: The Council
This game was selected as one of our July 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.
A really good adventure game is a singular pleasure, an experience that can touch you emotionally and intellectually like none other. The emphasis on narrative and dialogue can give it such power, but only if done well. The Council is a very interesting approach to the genre, focusing heavily on branching paths and character development, without really compromising on the story. The story it tells is a wild ride on its own, though, and the flaws left by its budget and indie stature definitely color the experience in ways that compromise do. But it still manages that singular pleasure with how earnestly it approaches its subject, and with how much fiddling you can do with the mechanics as you progress.
Louis de Richet is a French gentleman and a member of the Golden Order, a secret, globe-spanning organization dabbling in both politics and the occult. In 1793, Louis’ mother and head of the Order goes missing on the private island of Lord William Mortimer, a reclusive but powerful aristocrat. Louis finds himself invited to a gathering at Mortimer’s estate, not only to find his mother but to participate in a conference between world leaders. His path takes him into the orbits of soldiers, dukes, duchesses, and even the newly-elected President of the United States, as the fate of the world plays out in this opulent manor. Only by navigating the halls of power will Louis find the answers he seeks, along with many more he never expected to uncover.
Originally an episodic release, The Council is split into five episodes of something like 17 chapters all told. During each chapter you’ll be following Louis’ part in the story as he hob-nobs with George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and many other powerful figures. The course of the story is pretty well set for most of the game, which gives it the impression of a third-person RPG at times, but there are several significant decisions you can make at crucial junctures. Most of your control, though, is given within dialogues with the other characters, where you can use your skills to access special dialogue options, interrupt people, notice peculiarities, and bypass parts of puzzles. The stat system that governs these options is another RPG element, allowing you to level up 15 different skills like Conviction and Manipulation and Questioning for use in dialogues.
Using most of your options requires effort points, which are mainly restored via consumables found around the manor. There are several kinds of potions and tinctures, some of which provide free actions or reveal what skill options characters are vulnerable or immune to. Those are particularly useful during confrontations, where you have a limited number of chances to navigate tricky situations and which can have lasting effects on the story. You’ll have to do a bit of searching and skill use just to find items, as well as books you can read between chapters for additional skill points. There’s also a wealth of clues and items that can help you out in the story by granting you new dialogues or simplifying puzzles, so it’s very much worth searching areas thoroughly.
You’re also likely to stumble across additional stories while searching. At the end of each chapter, the game helpfully tells you what tasks you accomplished, which ones you failed, and what your other options were, and you may be surprised at what you can get done in each 45-minute section of gameplay. Talking to characters is the real meat of the gameplay, and each is a fully-realized and interesting individual to deal with. They have their own aims and secrets which you’ll be drawn into, and you’ll have to use everything you know about them to turn them to your causes. The dialogue is mostly sharp and engaging but there’s some definite weirdness in tone and delivery sometimes, hinting back to the studio’s indie European roots. I noticed the female members of the cast in particular have some disappointing arcs to their characters, even if they are central to the plot.
Honestly the plot is probably the main draw of The Council, because it starts out with some tasty intrigue and then just goes absolutely hog wild. For the first two episodes, you’ll be glad-handling with cardinals and royalty, squeezing what information you can from them while trying not to get caught up in their webs. There’s some genuinely good politicking and philosophizing throughout, but there is a turn towards those occult roots in the third episode that heralds the madness that takes place in the last two. For me it only made the game more engrossing, as I had to see just how much crazier things got by the conclusion. Some folks might not enjoy the twists it takes quite as much if the politics and history are the real draws, and I’ll admit to not loving the ending despite loving everything leading up to it. I should also mention there’s a decent bit of puzzling across the game, usually more than manageable but there are two big ones that are remarkably tricky and also rather high-stakes.
The graphics are sure to be a big draw on their own, given the remarkable detail afforded the characters and their environments. Each person is incredibly distinct and detailed down to the last wrinkle, and the estate is peppered with the opulent accouterments of 18th century luxury. That being said, the animations are a bit lacking and the lighting is not as impressive as the screenshots suggest, which lead to some otherwise amazing scenes looking rather stiff. Still, I don’t want to pick on The Council too much because it’s accomplished so much with its scope and budget. Not many adventures can keep me gripped for over a dozen hours, and the many twists and challenges to negotiate meant there was always more to look forward to. Between the wild story, interesting characters, and engrossing character progression, there’s plenty to keep you deep in the ancient intrigues here.