My review on The Council comes late because of the unexplained delay allowing those who have bought the episodes one at a time to buy Episode 5: Checkmate on the PlayStation Store. The normally responsive official Twitter account for the game was curiously unwilling to answer players who asked why it was happening when we should have gotten access two days after the season pass owners did.
I’ve been talking up The Council for a while now because I find it to be a very interesting direction in adventure gaming and maybe the best example of the genre ow that TellTale Games is gone. Between its tabletop RPG approach to play and compelling storyline it’s one of the most exciting things happening in narrative gaming.
The plot is simple. Lord Mortimer is a reclusive nobleman who hosts a yearly conference on his island estate with representatives of the world’s most powerful nations. When the game takes place that includes people like Napoleon and George Washington. Our hero is Louis de Richet, a member of a secret society called The Golden Order who attends trying to find out the fate of his missing mother. From there a web of religious intrigue and political maneuvering that tests the limits of video game storytelling in a good way.
What makes The Council stand out is how it delivers on the promise of meaningful decisions few games have ever been able to manage. I finished my first play through the other night and, well, I did not do well. My ending was the equivalent of falling into the lava in World 8-4 of the original Super Mario Bros. with no lives left.
Was it frustrating? Hell yes it was, but it was also intriguing. No game has made me want to immediately play it again like that except The Swapper. It truly was story and reading comprehension as play mechanic without any illusions of choice. The game is almost cruel in its willingness to condemn you for your actions and answers to questions. Whole segments of the game become unplayable because of a causally misspoken word, kind of like macro-politics. It lends a tremendous tension to the experience that makes dialogue trees feel like a death match in a first person shooter.
I’m going to warn you, the game is janky as hell. It’s glitch-ridden, the subtitles are often wrong and at one point I stumbled across the corpse of a major character with no explanation or way to interact with it. He later turned up alive, again without acknowledgment.
On top of that, the storyline is very convoluted. I lost a lot of the confrontations because I couldn’t remember things that I had said three episodes ago. It can make play quite challenging in a grating way, though it does serve the design very well. The computer remembers when you’re lying.
It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it is an experience you just don’t get in a lot of games. The evolution of your character through the skills system really does mimic a more traditional power-up system you’d see in more action-oriented titles. No game has ever come so close to replicating the human storytelling potential of tabletop gaming, and combined with a fantastic setting and cast of characters it raises the bar on what gaming can do.
I do wish that there was some action in it. The conversations can become tedious and a few quick time events would have broken up the monotony of the quite small estate that you must constantly re-explore. For all that The Council has perfected the dialogue tree as an instrument of play, that is the only thing the game does, limiting its scope. If there’s one thing Quantic Dreams, Supermassive and TellTale do better it’s balancing the narrative with action beats.
Don’t let that stop you from trying The Council, though. It’s a gripping, inventive game that does things other adventure games have only dreamed about. I couldn’t put it down, and I can’t wait to give it another go to see if I can learn from my previous mistakes. This is the future of adventure genre, and you don’t want to miss it.