[LATE TO THE PARTY] ‘The Council’ is a Wonderfully Janky Gothic Adventure

Back when episodic adventure games were all the rage, mostly thanks to the success of Telltale’s offerings and darlings like Life is Strange, developer Big Bad Wolves released the choose-your-own-adventure gothic-as-hell detective game The Council. The first of five episodes released in March of 2018 and blew me away with its unique focus on RPG mechanics that I wouldn’t see again until Disco Elysium came along and set the bar higher than I ever thought possible. However, I never got around to finishing The Council until a few days ago.

I always hated buying season passes for these types of games and waiting months for the next episode. Maybe I’m just old, but I could never keep track of the stories when they were split up like that and eventually just held off entirely until the final episode released. For The Council, that day came and went.

But I finally did it! So let’s talk about The Council a bit and why its neat approach to adventure gaming means you should still check it out in 2021.

To get it out of the way early, this is *very much* a similar third-person narrative adventure where you’ll spend the bulk of your time talking to people and making difficult dialogue choices that have lasting consequences. If you’ve ever played a Telltale game then you’ll feel right at home here. But, and it’s a big ol’ but, The Council has a lot going on under the hood.

For starters, the game has an XP system that rewards you for exploring, finding collectables, and completing specific objectives. By leveling up you can then allocate skill points into three different specialties (being Diplomat, Occultist, and Detective) that unlock a plethora of additional dialogue options and ways to progress the game. Dipping into the Occultist, for example, you can pick up skills that help you identify occult objects, manipulate conversations, and pick locks for extra goodies. Detective skills center around logic and being more aware of your surroundings. Finally, the Diplomat, as expected, opens up political dialogue options, lets you dodge questions, and turn into a fairly good liar.

Using skills requires a certain number of ability points, indicated by diamond icons on the HUD, but you can reduce their costs by applying additional skill points into them after leveling up. They can be improved up to 3 ranks, with each rank requiring more skill points, but if you’re thorough in-game there’s always enough XP to gradually improve your preferred playstyle. You can even find books scattered about that provide permanent stat boosts by equipping them, which (yet again) rewards exploration.

You’re prompted to choose a starting class early on, but this is more in a Dark Souls sense. All it does is unlock the first rank of every skill in that specific tree, which normally costs three skill points per ability. So you can choose Diplomat like I did and still unlock the incredibly helpful Subterfuge ability under the Occultist tree by spending three skill points once you level up.

Conversations are really where the meat of the game is and having so many different ways to perform verbal gymnastics always kicked ass. By the end of the game I had invested in skills that let me silver tongue my way through just about everything and it was super rewarding. Of course, even with certain new dialogue options open, they’re not always going to be the right choice.

Reading letters, eavesdropping, and conversing with folks often alerts you to their specific weaknesses and immunities to certain skills. Choosing dialogue options for skills they’re vulnerable to always presents a favorable outcome and rewards you with a refill on your ability points. However, using one they’re immune to will “exhaust” you and prevent you from using skills entirely.

There are four consumable items you can use to get around these types of debuffs, and they’re mostly plentiful. One of them immediately removes negative status effects, like exhaustion, while another reduces the ability point cost of your next skill by 100%. I always kept these on hand to avoid paying high AP costs for a skill that I only had rank 1 unlocked for, which would otherwise use ALL of my points or force me into choosing a less favorable dialogue choice.

Screenshot from Dash Jump Roll

RPG mechanics aside, the story itself is also super interesting. You play as Luis de Richet, the son of a prestigious occultist who arrives at the island mansion of Lord Mortimer after being invited to one of his extravagant parties. Among the guests are historic political figures like George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Manuel Godoy, and Johann von Wollner, so I hope you dig historical fiction. Your choices here are obviously going to shape history in some capacity and you’ll be forming alliances before long. And I didn’t even mention that your famous occult mom is missing so you’ll be investigating that simultaneously!

This all sets the stage for some intriguing outcomes, but just when I thought I had everything figured out, The Council pulled the rug out from under me. Let’s just say the back half of the game “goes places” and there are a LOT of ways to screw up along the way. It’s very, very cool.

Adventure games are my jam and I really appreciated the way The Council’s RPG mechanics freshened up a genre that had been growing stale over the years. It’s honestly the perfect evolution of the formula.

It’s not all candy and nuts, though. Like I mentioned in the title, it’s a bit on the janky side. Movement is jerky as hell, clothing textures get lost in themselves, facial animations can become a tad erratic, and interacting with certain doors often teleports you to the opposite side without actually opening them.

Character models are uhhhh… not pleasant to look at? I guess that’s a nice way of putting it? I mean, look at your mom. She’s a monster.

The soundtrack is also thoughtlessly spread throughout scenes without a care in the world for emotional impact. Let me tell you, nothing in this game is more jarring than investing a brutal murder to the soothing sounds of Pink Panther tunes. It’s awful. Truly, truly awful.

Another major gripe is the quality of the voice acting. There are a few standouts, like Duchess Emily, that absolutely nail it, but Luis himself, French revolutionist Jacque Peru, and *especially* your mother give consistently tone-deaf deliveries with EVERY line. This game commits the cardinal sin of spoken dialogue not always matching the subtitles, and while that’s not usually a big deal (as it still gets the same points across) there are two specific instances where it led me astray. Both were during puzzles. At one point in the game I was told to collect six items for something but the subtitle said five (which was correct), and another instance showed the wrong code for a lock in the subtitles while the spoken dialogue was correct. I had to Google both cases to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong.

As frustrating as the presentation is as a whole, the story, mechanics, and setting are all awesome and The Council routinely goes on sale for like… $6? If the former isn’t very important to you and you’re looking for something narratively dense with some meat to chew on, maybe add this one to the ol’ wishlist. I’m glad I finally played through it.

2 thoughts on “[LATE TO THE PARTY] ‘The Council’ is a Wonderfully Janky Gothic Adventure

  1. The point tree reminds me of what I saw in Man of Medan and the other games in that series whose name is escaping me now. I think the last one was Little Hope, but your dialogue choices were open certain things up.

    I’ve never played a Telltale game. Maybe I should remedy that.

    Like

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