The Council is an episodic historical detective adventure in which I roam the corridors of a mansion, searching for clues. In the first episode (of five), I engage in dialogue challenges with suspects, the direction of which is partly driven by RPG-based ideas about skills and powers.
In 1793, I play the part of Louis de Richet, a youthful French aristocrat in search of his missing mother. He snags an invitation to dear mater’s last known location, the island fortress of a wealthy gentleman. This mysterious gent’s house is decorated with great works of art. His collections include the rarest artifacts.
Also in residence are leading lights from the world of politics. George Washington and a young Napoleon Bonaparte are here, as well as an Italian cardinal, an English gent, a French revolutionary thug, a glamorous high-society woman and the slightly unhinged daughter of John Adams.
I earn abilities through careful navigation of dialogue trees, or by puzzle-solving. These abilities are added to a surprisingly complex tableau of skills that dictate both the questions I can (and can’t) ask, as well as the replies I can give.
If I am not strong on subtle political intrigue, certain dialogue pathways are closed to me. But The Council plays in such a way that I progress with whatever abilities I have, picking up on certain clues, and missing others. In this way, different playthroughs will undoubtedly come to the same conclusions, but via alternate routes.
This makes for an intriguing narrative that plays on both the conventions of mystery novels, and on the opportunities delivered by merging Telltale-style dialogue trees with complex role-playing mechanics. It’s a bold approach, which just about holds itself together, despite a few problems.
The character of de Richet is subtle and attractive. He’s a political animal who knows his way around a salon. He’s also flirtatious, cozying up to the women in the story, and managing to create something akin to real sexual energy.
But despite the detail of their facial animations, the nonplayer characters veer too closely to parody. A beautiful woman presents an astounding bosom that fills the screen. A man of violence bounces around, scowling brutishly. The Englishman minces through one room after another, peering through grotesque facial makeup. It doesn’t help matters that the voice acting is loaded with ponderous weight, more befitting a Victorian stage play than a modern video game
These bizarre caricatures chew their way through scene after scene, but if I allow myself to ignore the flowery pomposity, I can just about enjoy their outlandishness. Whether my tolerance can take another four episodes is an open question.
The story also whirls into the realms of improbability. Conversations are presented as battles of wits, in which de Richet must pull his quarry into a state of submission. But I do not always find these exchanges to be believable. At one point, a man hands over a highly compromising list of rebels, based on little more than a wink and a nudge.
There are also problems with the dialogue itself. I hate to quibble about small things, but it sits uneasily with me when an 18th-century man speaks of social “networking,” let alone using the word “OK.” I understand that the fashion for historical dialogue is to translate it into modern lingo, but this is a step too far.
Also, a British knight is repeatedly referred to as Sir [Surname] and not as Sir [Forename], which is a no-no. At one point, “dinner” is served during the morning.
Still, these irritations don’t entirely diminish the charm and ambition of the entire endeavor. The Council inhabits a sumptuous world of color and mystery that demands to be explored. The garish guests are mysterious enough that I want to know more about their motivations, and so I’m inclined toward playing more, to improve my stats and render conversation challenges more fruitful.
The first episode of The Council — published by Focus Home Entertainment and developed by French outfit Big Bad Wolf — is out now on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.