Never miss a good chance to shut up: A critical review of “The Council” (2018)

Anyone who knows this blog probably won’t be surprised to learn I bought “The Council” because it was on sale and about 30 seconds of research spat the name “Al Azif” at me. I certainly didn’t buy it for the name, which is about as creative and descriptive as a discarded pizza box. The back cover promised “a new era in adventure games.” I don’t know about all that, but I do know, for the price I paid, I got a bargain on a classical education.

“The Council” doles out the story of Louis de Richet, a young Frenchman invited to the island of mysterious kingmaker Lord Mortimer at the close of the 18th century. Louis is looking for his missing mother, the head of an international secret society. To find her, he’ll have to unravel the island’s occult history while crossing paths with the other guests, including aging U. S. President George Washington, rising French military man Napoleon Bonaparte and Emily Hillsborrow, an English duchess with a hidden past and a corset that just won’t quit.

The gameplay of “The Council” is fairly familiar. You guide Louis around the island and stuff everything you find into your bloated pockets, gaining experience and building up various skills like psychology, occultism and etiquette in an RPG-kinda fashion. You’ll use those skills to interview other characters, picking dialogue options to get them to trust you or reveal information. Doing so successfully allows you to advance the plot. Failing to do so lets you crash and burn like that one clueless drunk guy at a party attempting to make conversation.

Those interviews are surprisingly flexible and effective. Dialogue trees in RPG-kinda games often feel like an excuse to pump out exposition or a way to force the plot into a particular direction. In “The Council,” the dialogue genuinely feels like combat. The most thrilling parts of the game occur in the middle of conversational confrontations, when you are given the opportunity to out-think your rhetorical opponent. You’ll feel your mistakes throughout the conversation, as well as further into the game, and consequently you’ll savor every victory.

The puzzles are a different story. Most of them are straightforward in an adventure game way, which means they range from “I guess that makes sense” to “wait, what?” I am willing to take some of the blame though. Puzzles I figured out in the abstract I still sometimes got wrong in the execution because I mixed up my phases of the moon or forgot which year of the Third Crusade we were talking about. On the other hand, I felt pretty clever when I remembered that lime juice acts like an acid without relying on the game’s hint system.

Yeah, I wasn’t kidding about that classical education. Louis is up to date on everything an educated Frenchman should know in 1793, which includes art history, esoteric religion, chemistry, European literature, logic and argumentation, and all of it comes into play during exploration, conversation and puzzle solving. In fact, this is an appropriate game to discuss on Easter as it dips into the legends and relics surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus (I knew my knowledge of Roman-era Christianity would come in handy, although I didn’t expect it to come in handy quite this way).

Despite his education, Louis can be pretty dense. I remember yelling at Louis that he should just find a rope or a belt and not stick his hand in there, or that he could use any light source to decode a secret message, not just a particular one that met his fancy. But Louis wouldn’t listen, first because he’s a prima donna, and second because he’s a character in an adventure game, not a man of flesh and blood, and my yells have no impact on him.

In fact, let’s talk about the characters for a moment. They’re weird, and not necessarily in a good way. Many of them sound less like 18th century intellectuals and more like contemporary voice actors. Their dialogue, which is occasionally anachronistic, doesn’t help. The character design is also off. I’ve seen it described as both highly detailed and cartoonishly exaggerated at the same time. Add that to the game’s tendency stop animating mouth or body movements mid-sentence, and you definitely feel the lack of polish, particularly as the game wears on.

There are lapses in the plot as well, perhaps because of the myriad dialogue outcomes. Once I located a particular artifact, and then Louis thought he was hearing about it for the first time when another character brought it up. Another time I missed an opportunity to learn about a specific relationship, but the characters all acted as if I knew all about it, and it was only through later dialogue that I figured it out retroactively. And don’t get me started on the time everyone blew off an entire murder. It didn’t impact character consistency too much, although Washington once changed rather dramatically from a prudent statesman to a Nigel Bruce-esque Dr. Watson type, searchin’ for clues.

Despite all that, my biggest complaint is the atmosphere. There isn’t really one. The music is appropriate, but it’s not exceptional. The background design is solid, but it lacks depth. The mansion is baroque, but it never feels big. It’s all kind of meh when it could have been something interesting or edgy. We’re talking about history-spanning conspiracies with hints of demonology. I’m not saying it had to be oppressively scary. It could have been Gothic, brooding, darkly comic or just Halloween spooky. It does get slightly surreal at the end, but it’s too little too late. Oh well.

The game is five “episodes” long, and although there are different pathways, if you stick to one it should only take you a few hours to finish. The good stuff–the intriguing plot, the novel setting, the combative dialogue–is mostly in the macro. The bad stuff–the inconsistency and weird character designs–is mostly in the micro. No doubt you’ve made your decision on whether or not you want to play it. If a test of a game’s quality is would one play again, then I’d give “The Council” a resounding: “Yeah. Probably.”

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