A young man, Louis de Richet, finds himself tied to a chair in Paris. The year is 1792 and his mother shares his predicament as they sit side by side. They manage to get themselves out of trouble as the villain who's got them trapped goes on about how he's going to poison them. This is how the first scene of a wonderfully imaginative historical murder-mystery set on the island owned by the mysterious Lord Mortimer begins. In a sense, it's your typical murder mystery mansion with secret rooms, grand halls, and plenty of splendour.
Mixing in historical characters like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, The Council has a neat blend of horror, the occult, and more practical detective work. A few months after his ordeal in Paris, Louis receives word from Lord Mortimer that his mother has gone missing on his island and he invites the young man to come and help look for her. As you'd expect things twist and turn, and you're going to have to get to know the other guests on the island to uncover the mystery of its owner, solve other problems that will appear, and eventually, hopefully, get reunited with your mother.
You can see The Council as one of two things. Either a narrative adventure with RPG elements that let you develop your character, using items to explore the narrative. Alternatively, you could see it as an RPG devoid of any combat with a complete focus on narrative. However you choose to see it, there's something very appealing about the premise and it comes across as both novel and innovative.
During the first episode you get your feet wet with the surprisingly deep skill tree that offers three branches: diplomat, occultist, and detective. They offer a total of 15 skills that can be levelled up. At the beginning, you pick a branch that will let you unlock skills faster, but you can mix and match skills as you wish. You'll soon notice dialogue options or missed opportunities as a result of skills you haven't unlocked. There is an economy to using your skills as well and you'll need to be smart about when to use them in dialogue, alternatively make sure you have enough consumables to replenish your action points. During the first episode, this system was quite generous, but we suspect there will be more opportunities to deplete your action points later on.
There's more to it as you'll unlock positive and negative traits as a result of your actions (or inaction, as the case may be). The traits add points to skills, whereas the negative traits burden you. You can purge negative traits with a fairly rare consumable. There are also manuscripts to collect and at the end of each section of the episode, you can select one that will then give you a boost in a specific skill. Overall, it's a pretty elaborate system.
Apart from normal dialogue, there is something called confrontations where you'll need to navigate the immunities and vulnerabilities of the character you're confronting. It's a bit like the talkback mechanic in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, but a lot more interestingly executed as you have every opportunity to fail a confrontation. Perhaps you've learned something along the way that can help you pick the right choices, or perhaps you've got the right skill to exploit someone's vulnerabilities.
It's a great way of making sure the player isn't just going through the motions of clicking dialogue options because you actually need to consider things a bit more. Do you use scripts to amplify your strengths or shore up your weak spots? At a dinner, our lack of the etiquette skill meant we missed opportunities to shine and possibly gain more insights. Later we met Napoleon and a bit of historical knowledge allowed us to gain his favour.
Everything isn't perfect here though, and we found a few issues. First of all, there are sections where the visuals could have done with more polish and the lack of proper lip sync can be distracting at first. What was a little more negative was how various outcomes of situations were handled. Towards the end one of the five parts of episode one we met one of the guests, a Cardinal, outside our room, he had asked us to intervene in a situation where another guest was beating on a mysterious female, covered with scars and tattoos. We chose the coward's way out and the Cardinal was very upset with us. But he also had something else to ask us too, and quickly his mood was back to neutral, as he wanted a letter back he'd given us to hand to our mother unopened (he needed to add something to it), unfortunately we had broken the seal (that we swore to God not to break) and the Cardinal was even more upset. The next day, he was confiding in us as if nothing had happened. These events will naturally play out differently depending on what you do, but it felt like there was little consequence here, at least in the short term.
Overall we're impressed by the first episode of The Council, and while it was mainly designed to build up to what's still to come, there was a lot more depth here than what you typically find in an episodic narrative adventure. We can't wait to continue our journey with Louis and the good news is that the plan is for all five episodes to arrive before the end of the year.