Episode 1 of the Council AKA The Mad Ones sets out to subvert the status quo of narrative based adventures but stumbles on some of the basics. The Finger Guns Review;
Episodic narrative-centric adventures all seem to follow the same template that was created more than a decade ago. Play any of them and you’ll likely find multiple choice conversations, quick time events, branching story paths and sections of point-and-click based exploration. It’s a simple, tried and tested system of telling a tale which has worked for years but one that French developers Big Bad Wolf are looking to evolve and build upon. To do so, they’re added mechanics more akin to those used in RPG’s than those often found in episodic stories to great effect.
The Council is set in the 18th Century and you fill the shoes of Louis de Richet, a Parisian politician/occultist/detective (you can choose which) and member of a secret Illuminati-esque group, The Golden Order. Louis is summonsed to the private island of the enigmatic Lord Mortimer which also happens to be the last known location of Louis’ mother, Sarah de Richet, who was on the trail of a missing book at the time of her disappearance. Coincidence? You bet your ass it’s not. Upon arrival, Louise learns that Lord Mortimer throws regular parties, inviting only the most powerful people in the world, ‘the upper crust’ as it is described in the game, who work together to alter the course of the world. Other attendees to this particular party include the English Duchess Emily Hillsborrow, Founding Father of the United States George Washington, French Lieutenant Napoleon Bonaparte, British aristocrat Sir Gregory Holm, Cardinal Giuseppe Piaggi and several others.
Much like Assassin’s Creed did before it, The Council adds a fictional twist to historical characters. Here, George Washington is head of the American branch of the Golden Order, using his influence with the secret group to rise to the presidency. Through discussions, you learn that in this fictional world based on historical fact, Molly Pitcher, the fabled woman who carried water across the battlefield of Monmouth in the American Revolution was a fictional characters suggested by Louis’ mother Sarah de Richet to inspire women to fight in the war. The Mad One’s is filled with these little tidbits of historical rewriting that shows that developers Big Bad Wolf did their homework in both history and creative writing to give these characters some credence and oodles of surprising personality.
Much like any narrative based game, it’s difficult to describe the rest of the plot in a review without giving too much away. What I can tell you is that Louis gets tangled in a web of lies, deceit and the supernatural spun out by his mother, the events after her disappearance and her relationship with the other guests at Lord Mortimer’s party. As you go through the motions of the “party”, all the while trying to uncover clues to your mothers whereabouts, you meet and converse with various party guests who are all hiding secrets behind their world altering smiles. It’s an incredibly well written debut episode from a new studio, which is all the more impressive. There’s drama, humour, foreshadowing and mountains of intrigue here from the moment the game begins until the obligatory cliff-hanger ending with only a few minor brow furrows regarding out of place reactions from certain characters.
The most interesting aspect of The Council is the aforementioned RPG elements. Each and every choice you make has permanent and far reaching consequences, not just to the story but to the build of your character too. For example, towards the start of the game, you get to choose the back story to Louis de Richet and whether he is a politician, occultist or a detective. Each of these professions unlocks a slew of background abilities. Choose to be a detective and you’re imbued with observational skills, sound logic and physical prowess which allows you to spot details that an Occultist or politician might miss. Choose to be an Occultist and you’re given the ability to be sly and tricksy, manipulating characters to do your bidding or lock picking your way into areas you wouldn’t be able too otherwise. Choose a politician and you gain experience in social etiquette and strength of will, allowing you to turn conversations on their heads using the proper, socially acceptable manner. While you can unlock abilities not otherwise associated with your initial choice – for example, you can pay to gain the ability to lock pick even if you chose to be a politician – these skills are not initially available and they cost more to upgrade.
These background abilities effect how Louis de Richet can progress through the story because they effect what he can and can’t do and they shape his relationship with the other characters who also have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, trying to out-politic the consummate politician George Washington will drive you into a dead end conversation and a lost opportunity to gain more information. The choices you make also activate passive abilities too which add to the character development e.g. obey a characters wishes when given an important task and you’ll claim a ‘Trustworthy’ moniker which adds to your base stats while building the character around the way you play it. There’s an impressive lattice of underlying mechanics, stats and abilities which revolutionise the idea of a branching story and the way you play the game.
One of the big advantages of adding these RPG elements to a branching story is that there’s a wide scope for replayability. There are times when you’ll choose in which direction Louis de Richet heads next or which character he chooses to interact with and within each of those choices are opportunities that only one type of Louise can take advantage of. Get caught earwigging at a window and you’ll either have the agility enough to stay undetected and continue to listen in on an interesting conversation or be forced to flee and miss a tidbit of integral information. Know enough about wines and you can join conversations you would otherwise stumble out of foolishly. It’s an impossibility to experience everything that The Mad Ones has to offer in one, or even two, playthroughs, urging you to give each of the games base occupations a go.
Visually, The Council Episode 1 is quite a treat, While it’s not photorealistic, it’s certainly a looker with highly detailed character models that almost (but not quite) escape the uncanny valley. There’s a whimsical, almost neo-Gothic feel to the island and the mansion of Lord Mortimer that realistically blends the architecture of the time with grandiose eccentricity of its owner. It’s a well textured, surprise filled environment to explore – walking along a balcony to see a butterfly resting on a wall that you could easily walk without noticing by is just one stand out moment that adds to the world building.
It’s a shame then, given how many unique, interesting aspects this game contains, that it stumbles over some of the basics. The voice work itself is a little hammy at times, especially the lines delivered by Louis de Richet actor Nathan Rippy. Then there’s the audio mixing – 2 separate sentences from the same person with nothing but a breath between them can sound very different to one another. Sometimes there’s a little echo on the vocals one moment that goes missing in the next. This doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch of the imagination but it’s still jarring to hear in a game where vocal conversations are key.
Clocking in at 3 hours long, The Mad Ones is an very replayable and engrossing beginning to The Council. It’s an episode which lays the groundwork for what’s to come and spends most of the time getting you accustomed to the new tools you’ll be using to forge your own story through this Georgian murder mystery. Aside from some small audio issues, it’s a enticing debut for a new series from a new studio and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
The Council Episode One – The Mad Ones is available now on PS4 (review version), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Big Bad Wolf
Publishers: Cyanide Studios and Focus Home Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a review copy from the publishers. Please see out review policy for more information.