The first game from the newly formed independent French studio, comprised of former Cyanide Studio and Ubisoft employees, promises character growth and long-lasting consequences. Although it may be too early to ascertain what those consequences will do considering only the first episode has been released, The Mad Ones shows grit. The game’s unique skills system almost has shaped the enthralling narrative to my choices. With a wildly outrageous cast of characters, The Council may surprise you with how well rounded the characters feel and their reactions to your dialogue choices and decisions you make.
Set in the year 1793, players are whisked away to a private island off the shores of England belonging to an influential and worthy English aristocrat Lord Mortimer. That may be an understatement, as his social gatherings are attended by some of the most prestigious figures in history, all of which owe their success to Lord Mortimer. As Louis de Richet, a member of a secret society, you feel out of place amongst the high profile cast of characters, but you received an invitation nonetheless. It doesn’t take long before the threads behind the curtain begin to unravel, as you surmise the hidden agendas for each of the characters attending, but at the same time, you are trying to find your mother. Sarah de Richet, a wealthy aristocrat, and leader of one of the most influential secret societies (The Golden Order) in the world has gone missing on the very same island you find yourself on.
The Council differentiates itself from other episodic story-driven titles on the market by implementing a robust RPG skill system. After the opening sequence sets the mood, you are given a choice to develop Louis de Richet's initial skill sets from three different class trees; Diplomat, Detective, and Occultist. Each tree is comprised of five different skills that you can dump points into in order to level them up and become more efficient in that particular field. In my first time through Episode 1: The Mad Ones, I went with the detective class to start, although you can easily expand your abilities to the other skill trees. It will be more costly to do so but may prove beneficial to develop a more rounded character. Your initial chosen class unlocks the included skills at level one. All three have their strengths and weaknesses, such as being able to locate more objects/items in the environment in the Detective tree. You’ll be able to unlock chests if you progress through the Occultist tree, but being a Diplomat gives you a talented tongue to convince others to your cause in any heated exchange. Another example early on, allowed me to use my added agility skill and vigilance to pry open wooden plank and reveal a hidden item that is now an integral piece of the narrative.
Outside of handling your interactions in the environment, skills play a pivotal role in leading conversations one way or another, but also are key to completing confrontations with the other guests. These social engagements include multiple steps where you need to be as persuasive as possible, and they significantly influence how the story plays out. Every situation is different, and not every skill is appropriate. Each of the high-profile guests, and even the servants have hidden sets of immunities and vulnerabilities tied to their unique personalities (another reason I decided to go the Detective route to get a better understanding of how to “read” characters). Immunities make some of your choices ineffective, such as trying to debate The newly elected President of the United States George Washington in politics. On the opposite side of the spectrum, exploiting vulnerabilities once discovered is crucial, giving you the upper hand.
Using any of your skills costs effort points, either during a conversation or when interacting with the environment, however, the higher your skill level, the lower the amount of effort points is consumed. Exploiting vulnerabilities negates the cost of using your skills, but you won’t always know someone’s vulnerabilities. It becomes imperative to make decisions based on what you think the best approach for the specific person you are trying to get information from will be, as well as managing the cost of using your limited effort points. There is an item that you can find scattered about the island and the mansion that can replenish your effort points but be warned, relying on too many items during a quest (each episode is broken up into multiple quests) causes a negative status effect on Louis. If you find yourself using skills against someone’s immunities, you become exhausted. The narrative will continue no matter the choices you make, or if you fail every confrontation in the game, however, all consequences are permanent and should substantially alter the outcome.
Opportunities may present themselves in between or even during conversations, which at first took me off guard as I wasn’t expecting these quick-time events. You are given a very short amount of time to move the cursor to highlight a point in the scene. These do not consume effort points, and open up unique dialogue options or actions that would be missed otherwise. Sometimes there are multiple points, especially if you are specializing as a detective and the decision is up to you on which one to pursue.
As the first episode of The Council, much of your time is spent learning about the colorful cast of characters, although it generally focused on only a few of them, briefly touching upon the rest that appears close to the end of the episode. During the early parts of the episode, you’ll be focused on exploring the beautifully crafted mansion and studying the highly detailed works of art hanging in every room. Consumables are littered throughout, giving you the edge during conversations by replenishing your effort points, letting you see both immunities and vulnerabilities, negating the effort point cost, or curing you of negative status alterations you have acquired, such as being intoxicated. Being drunk hides any dialogue timer elements during conversations.
The Council - Episode 1: The Mad Ones perfectly sets the tone for the remaining episodes, crafting an enthralling narrative with a colorful cast of characters. The inclusion of the RPG elements helps dynamically influence conversations and how you perceive other characters. Using your skills instead of focusing on win or lose quick time events is a nice change of pace for the genre. Finding manuscripts/books while you are exploring yield free skill points during each quest, rewarding players that thoroughly search the environments, not to mention pieces of amber that extends the number of available effort points. Although there were slight visual irregularities, and minor hiccups on panning camera shots, The Council performs rather well but doesn’t have added support for PlayStation 4 Pro or Xbox One X.Note: The Council - Episode 1: The Mad Ones was reviewed on Xbox One. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.