Though episodic narrative adventures have had a good few years, there's an argument to be made regarding the genre stagnating with formulaic approaches, especially from its most high-profile producer. Fortunately, there are still plenty of interesting takes on the formula, and French studio Big Bad Wolf has come in with one in The Council. Its first episode released earlier this month for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with four more on their way later this year. Providing a tale of conspiracy and intrigue in the late 18th century and gameplay that combines plenty of choice with a highly effective RPG-style character and skill system, The Council provides a refreshing take with plenty of story hooks to keep players looking forward to learning what may happen next.
Players are put in the role of Louis de Richet, a Parisian aristocrat who is invited to the private island of Lord Mortimer. Louis is the son of Sarah de Richet, a woman who has made herself a key player in the world thanks to her role in the Golden Order, a secret conspiratorial society that includes key world leaders such as George Washington. Sarah was previously invited to the island but has gone missing, so Louis sets out to find her. On his visit he meets Lord Mortimer's other guests of renown, including the aforementioned sitting President of the United States and a young lieutenant in the French Revolutionary Army named Napoleon Bonaparte, invited to discuss important matters with Lord Mortimer as the future of the world is shaped in secrecy.
Choice is a key part of the game, but made much more interesting thanks to its RPG-style character and skill systems. Some responses will be locked behind certain skills, making Louis' character build a key part of how he might need to approach certain situations. Certain skills are more effective on characters than others, with Louis able to learn characters' weaknesses and immunities during his investigations and conversations. The impact of choice on the story and Louis himself is made apparent from the beginning; the very first decision in the prologue can lead to him receiving an impressive scar on his face that remains for the entire game. The Council's first episode does a good job conveying how choices will almost always have some impact — both in terms of what Louis finds out and whether other characters will trust him — within the narrative, though it's made all the more obvious in an after-action report at the end of each sub-chapter. The first episode can end in wildly different ways, including the possibility of a character being murdered, so it will be interesting to see how much things can diverge towards the end of the series and how well the narrative branches fit back together.
Though its first episode doesn't provide any big answers, it certainly ramps up the intrigue as the curious circumstances behind Sarah's disappearance peek through, while the other characters reveal some of their own secrets, concerns, and agendas. Key conversations, labelled as confrontations, crop up at various times throughout the first episode, which Louis needs to navigate successfully, or else suffer negative repercussions that may not make themselves apparent until later in the game. Confrontations usually involve Louis in a battle of wit against another and are made up of a number of steps, with each step having possibilities that can work in Louis favor or against him. There are only a certain number of times Louis can pick an ill-judged option before he fails the confrontation. Failing a confrontation does not mean game over, but it will put him at a disadvantage going forward.
The Council attempts a fairly realistic graphic style but doesn't aim for photo-realism and the character models exaggerate the more pronounced features, thus effectively avoiding stepping into the uncanny valley. The UI is decent at highlighting things that can be investigated and features mostly effective subtitles, though there was one point where the lightning and camera placement prevented me from being able to read one of the response options. The successfulness of the voice actors in conveying the desired accents is rather variable, but on the whole the audio experience is strong, with some effective use of music to ramp up the sense of intrigue.
Each episode is divided into sections called quests, and after each quest Louis is rewarded with experience based on his actions. This in turn leads to him leveling up and receiving a number of points that can be spent on skills. These skills are split into three groups, each with five skills for a total of fifteen. One of these groups is selected by players as Louis' speciality at the start, giving him a level in all of the relevant skills to start off with and encouraging players to pick the options more suited to the character archetype. Choices and items found while investigating will also convey more skill points and bonuses, letting players feel like they are shaping Louis as the game goes on.
To use his skills, Louis has a pool of what amount to stamina points. Using a skill uses up some of these stamina points, and may not be possible if there aren't enough of them ready, but they can be replenished by using a consumable at any time, even during confrontations. There are four consumables, one to replenish points, one to highlight skills that are weaknesses or invulnerabilities, one to make the next skill use free of charge, and finally one to remove harmful status effects that may have been inflicted by other characters or Louis' decisions. It may take players a little while to get used the intended balance of using consumables to replenish skill resources; the stamina pool can be used up very quickly so players won't want to sit on their consumables too much. Outside of conversations there are sections where Louis can search the mansion's rooms for information or pieces of evidence — as well as replenishing vital consumables — that can provide important new options in later conversations so players will want to spend that time hunting down whatever clues they can find.
The Council's first episode does a good job in its three or so hours of introducing the various gameplay aspects, as well as providing plenty of intrigue that will encourage players to find out what happens next and what else they could've learned by going down a different route. The character building and choice systems work nicely together, both encouraging players to stick to the strengths, but also to try out new playthroughs with different builds and choices. It's understandable that many will want to wait for the full series before diving in (though the first episode is available to buy on its own), but The Council is definitely worth keeping an eye on.