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The Council

The Council - Hands-On

In Paris we sat down with The Council and joined its ranks.

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The Council finally revealed itself at Focus Interactive What's Next event, almost two months after its announcement. Developed by a small French team made up of developers who used to work at Cyanide, Ubisoft, and Blizzard, Big Bad Wolf - a studio based in Bordeaux - specialises in narrative games. To achieve their lofty ambitions the studio has opted to make an episodic adventure, and The Council is a choice-driven game mixed with RPG elements, served by a complex and neat narrative. This is the impression that dominates our thinking after the presentation by the developers and having tried the game's first chapter ahead of its coming launch.

When the developers introduced the game, their ambitions were clear; to show how each choice is important, irreversible, unique. Sure we've heard all of this before, but here there's no Game Over and no going back - you'll have to live with your choices. Such an ambitious and rich script needed strong, deep characters then, ones that evolve in the heart of a mysterious plot.

So you find yourself as Louis Richet, a rich young man, a mummy's boy, sent to a British island to join the Council of the Golden Order. The young hero's quest is to find his beloved mother, a member of the council herself, who has been missing for some time. This secret organisation, half masonic, half anti-occult force, brings together 12 colourful characters, each of which is an essential element in the story's unfolding, therefore needing a strong personality to be reflected in their design.

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To emphasise the importance of the cast of characters, the studio went with George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte as headliners, however, we were told that they would only play a small part in the whole scenario. From the pope's advisor to the femme fatale and the mysterious masked man, each member of the council is designed "to have his own emotions, his own character, his own moods, his own agenda."

The Council

Thus, to develop the story the dialogue between these characters is punctuated by choices of variable importance, although they're always decisive. To guide the player, the studio had the idea to introduce basic RPG-style mechanics, which we could see in action during our time with the game, controller in hand.

Right from the beginning of first chapter, with you barely setting foot on the docks, the beautiful Emilie begins talking to you. After a few lines of dialogue, she asks about your profession, at which point the game then gives you the choice between three trades: diplomat, occultist, or detective. These options act as the basis of the skill tree, meaning whatever you decide will have an impact on the hero's abilities.

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The detective, for example, will be more at ease with puzzles that ask for logic or vigilance, while the occultist will be more comfortable with situations that require scientific understanding, and and the diplomat will be good at creating diversions or convincing those he talks with. You don't have to split your skill points into a single branch of this tree, so it's not a question of locking the character to one path but rather giving the player the opportunity to be as free as possible in their choices. However, by mixing things up too much you risk missing a lot of things.

For our part, we chose the noble profession of detective. The "vigilance" skill allowed us to note that Emilie had diverted our attention to avoid answering our questions. A little later we were able to clear our mother's handbag under a pile of boards thanks to the agility ability. In short, your skills allow you to detect certain details or to respond to certain situations, and this is particularly useful for unearthing and exploiting the flaws NPCs reveal during interrogation.

To demonstrate the importance of skills in the choices, the developers presented a short video where the same scene was played twice. The hero was trying to save a woman (Emilie?) from a high-ranking henchman (although they told us that you can also be cowardly and run away and act as if you hadn't seen anything). The two men then begin their conversation until the skill "fight" is one of the options. In the first case, the hero being an accomplished diplomat, his fist went pathetically into the henchman's back and he didn't even flinch, which obviously ended badly for Louis. In the second case, the skill was more advanced and the young man managed to defeat his opponent. "Of these two possibilities will arise perfectly distinct scenarios," the developers told us.

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It turns out that the beginning of this first episode is teeming with cutscenes and interrogation phases. These are at the heart of a plot that screams "Agatha Christie", although we would have appreciated a little more freedom to move our character, whether to regain endurance or to better explore the sumptuous home where our hero now resides. That being said, we understand that the first episode is a prelude to the full adventure, so it's only natural that the devs should take some time to lay the foundations of this giant Cluedo.

Nevertheless, it's a lot to digest in a short period of time. The narration overwhelms us a little with information, lies, and doubts, and as if that wasn't enough, we also have flashbacks or visions that further enhance our uncertainty. In short, you could quickly get lost in the plot if you don't pay full attention to the conversations.

At the end of the episode, the game lists all of the decisions you could have seen. Then it gives you your aptitude points, which you can use to acquire new skills or reinforce existing ones. This is the only time this leveling can be done, to prevent players from adapting to situations based on their progress.

If their ambitious effort comes good, the replay value offered by the setup will be one of the game's biggest assets once all five episodes are out. Each episode should last between two and four hours, which will eventually add up to this being a sizeable adventure. Certainly, the game is sometimes let down by poor animations and unpolished visuals, but it also benefits from a strong identity thanks to atypical character building and environmental design that stands out and makes up for the sometimes underwhelming graphics. It's a not an AAA title after all, and the developers are honest about that.

That said, we weren't too enamored with the camera, as it's too close to the hero, which prevented us from fully taking in the stately atmosphere typical of 18th-century mansions. Instead of graphics, the studio has instead decided to focus on the script. The game is driven by the desire to prove that, via the medium of video games, you can push the limits of scriptwriting and create really different stories that are defined by your own decisions. We want to trust them because if their goal is reached, a unique experience could emerge.

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