I’m a recent convert to the episodic narrative adventure game. While I always enjoyed the old point and click adventures from Maniac Mansion to the Monkey Island games, the lack of control was always a sticking point to me. Clicking an action and sitting back to watch it unfold just felt too disconnected when compared with the platformers and RPG’s I filled most of my gaming days with.
When Telltale released The Walking Dead – with its multiple choice narrative paths, quicktime actions, and a focus on exploration – the genre suddenly clicked with me, and I’ve been devouring most of their output, and loving the slow drip of episodes to keep me invested in revisiting a game again and again.
With today’s release of The Council – an excellent game from Big Bad Wolf Studio and Focus Home Interactive, I think we’re seeing an incredibly layered and crazily addictive new entry into the genre, one that I can’t stop playing, thinking about, or agonizing over my choices.
Here’s the synopsis from the press release:
Episode 1: the Mad Ones, you begin your journey with Louis de Richet on Lord Mortimer’s private island as you attempt to discover the fate of your secret-keeping mother – before it’s too late. Joining you are a number of high-profile guests, including Napoleon Bonaparte and President of the newly formed United States of America, George Washington. The strange nature of this private reception goes beyond just the prestigious guests -Richet’s own mother has recently gone missing on the island, while each and every one of the colorful cast seems to have their own hidden agendas.
You’re an occultist, and member of a secret society, and your mother has gone missing. You’ve received an invitation from a Lord Mortimer – a reclusive and incredibly powerful Englishman, who invites the most powerful people from around the globe to his private island. You’ll have to use all of your deductive skills, and your knowledge of the occult to find your mother, and to see what other secrets are hidden away in Lord Mortimer’s mansion.
With a backstory like that, I could just read this game and be satisfied, but luckily it has some unique twists on the standard narrative adventure that really push the genre forward.
The unique aspects that makes this feel more impactful are the confrontations and skills. The game touts a “Social Influence” system that informs your character as he asks questions and confronts the various other guests on the island. As you play you uncover weaknesses and immunities of each guest, and these are key to your dialog choices. For example, trying to uncover the economical arrangement that Napoleon has with Lord Mortimer means you’ll have to know that Napoleon is easily manipulated via psychology, and you can then use that knowledge, and your own skills to ensure that a conversation goes your way.
Additionally, the skill tree and levels that Louis can obtain are an excellent addition to the genre – allowing you to focus your own education on certain paths, and open additional dialog options as you level up and gain more knowledge. In my example above with Napoleon, if you have the Politics skill set, an entire dialog about the current revolution in France, and how it benefits America and scares England becomes new information to gather, and more ammo to uncover additional tidbits with all other characters. Since you’re choosing these skills, and spending points on them as you level up, there are some aspects you won’t have access to, making every decision and potential failure a balancing act that must make the replayability of the game massive.
These two aspects together lead you to confrontations – key discussions with the guests that you can win or fail at, depending on how convincing you are. In my first one, I had to convince a high-ranking member of the Church to leave a letter in my care. As an expert in the occult, and seemingly one who does not believe in God, I chose to manipulate this man of the cloth – and swore an oath before god, that I would not read his letter, successfully ending the confrontation. The second he was out of my sight, I then used my skills to open the letter without breaking the seal – a choice I made wisely as the next time I saw him, he asked to see his letter, seal still intact.
Adding these pieces up, this is truly a game of dialog, turn of phrase, and choice. Similar to most of the genre – most of these choices come up once, are timed, and quite a few have a moral quandary associated. Will you let a thug hit and bully a woman to allow someone to investigate her room for clues? Will you pass up the chance for a potential romantic interlude to calm someone down? Every choice has bite, and almost immediate impact, and makes Telltale’s multiple choices that lead down the same path with slightly different survivors all the more threadbare in comparison.
The game isn’t all roses though. Your character Louis, while the most impressive overall visually, is the weakest link, voice actor wise. This is a French occult detective, who sounds like a nondescript bored American millennial. I wish I could change him into a highly accented French speaker, since the people he’s interacting with all speak in heavily accented English as well.
He’s also a little bit of an empty suit, but that’s almost ideal – as he is the player character. This is a minor quibble overall – as he’s most jarring in the first hour or so, and then as I started to get swept up in the narrative, I no longer cared. He’s a means to an end of uncovering this mystery, and I just have to know more.
When I first booted up my review copy, I wasn’t sure what to make of The Council. Some of the character designs were grotesque, the graphics seemed..off, my character sounded like Justin Bieber, and the gameplay seemed to be just another entry in this genre.
Last night, as I continued to scour the mansion for clues, amber, and vials of drugged liquid to give me an edge when I confronted the supposedly dead daughter of the American Vice President, I realized I don’t want this wild ride to end. This is only episode one, of a planned five, and while I’m already looking forward to the next entry, I’ll probably be playing through this one a few more times, to try out the paths unseen, and to ask the questions I didn’t have unlocked.
This is an addictive game. Grab it now.