The Council: The Mad Ones is a magnificent train-wreck. It’s an inconsistent and compelling experience. Acting is among the worst we’ve seen this generation and it has some of the driest delivery this side of the Sahara Desert. The script is horrendous with robotic speech and transitions seem like a foreign concept to the studio. However, buried underneath the filth, you’ll find an interesting adventure RPG with heart. The first chapter in this episodic story sets the stage for a wild ride through hot garbage.
Where to Begin?
The Council opens with a whimper. Von Borchert holds Louis de Richet and his mother, Sarah, hostage. He seeks the location of some special book in hopes of selling it on the black market. Surprisingly, The Council shows all of its blemishes in the first sixty seconds. Writing, delivery, animation, and acting is sub-par. I found myself chuckling before finishing the opening prologue. After mother and son take care of Von Borchert, the narrative jumps to the proceeding month.
Lord Mortimer has invited Louis to his mansion on urgent notice. He learns that his mother has gone missing without a trace. Sarah arrived at the English Lord’s manor to follow up on her and Louis’ prior case. Von Borchert’s links to Lord Mortimer and the Golden Order, a secretive society to whom Louis and Sarah belong, compelled her to go straight for the beast. Sarah’s sudden disappearance becomes Louis’ main concern. Players will mingle with Lord Mortimer’s guests as they attempt to trace Sarah’s whereabouts.
Setting and Characters
Set in 18th century England, Big Bad Wolf shows a clear appreciation for the era’s art, culture, and politics. Characters like George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Manuel Godoy, and Elizabeth Adams make up the cast. The game doesn’t name-drop random historical figures and events for the sake of it, though. As players will notice, Lord Mortimer’s collection litters every room of the mansion. Examining paintings, books, and statues reveals an adoration for the time period.
Louis comments on nearly every painting he sees with information that goes beyond its artist and title. In some cases, he’ll mention the painting’s composition or context, foreshadowing future events. Conversely, characters routinely engage in educated discussions surrounding political, religious, and historic happenings. Additionally, every book Louis can read at the start of a quest for skill points is a recognized seminal work. Louis’ literary repertoire includes Sorel’s Laws of Gallantry, Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, and The Sorrows of Young Werther among others. It is clear that The Council is best experienced through a perceptive lens. Soaking in its atmospheric adornments leads to a greater appreciation for Big Bad Wolf’s passion. This game is a Late Medieval European history buff’s wet dream.
The Council is a role-playing game with no combat. It features three classes with experience points allocated at the end of each quest. Louis gains experience as he completes in-game objectives. Failing objectives robs you of potential narrative branches and relationships as well as experience points. The conversational/non-combat class system is the game’s most intriguing element. It truly is an RPG with key items, consumables, experience points, skills, class bonuses, traits, vulnerabilities, etc…
Louis starts the adventure as either a diplomat, occultist, or detective. You aren’t locked into any class. The leveling system is flexible enough to allow skill-point investment in any skill from any class, though you’ll automatically begin with your preferred class’ skills at level one. Different classes and skills open up varied dialogue responses and opportunities, which can be used to find out a character’s immunity or vulnerability. Because no human being is the same, different personality traits or lines of questioning will affect individuals differently. Exploiting weaknesses can get you exactly what you want whereas falling into an immunity may screw you out of forming a relationship or learning information needed for Louis’ investigation.
The associated class systems allow a more personally engaging interactive narrative to take place. Oftentimes, the journey is more important than the destination. This holds true for Episode 1 of The Council. Solutions to puzzles can be reached through different lines of deductive reasoning and questioning. These permutations on the core dialogue and puzzle solving fix the largest issue games like this tend to suffer from.
Because this is an RPG, dialogue branches and character traits are treated with the same level of respect as skills in typical role-playing games. What this means is that a person can play the way he/she wants while experiencing a more personal narrative. Role-playing elements are tied to the entire dialogue system and its branching paths. Completing in-game milestones or exploiting a vulnerability in a specific scene may grant Louis a +1 bonus to whatever skill. As The Mad Ones‘ narrative nears its conclusion, Louis’ actions lead to the acquisition of both positive and negative character traits that significantly impact his performance and character progression.
The game rewards successful confrontations and the acquisition of information while penalizing botched conversations and investigations. Because of this, character interactions require a higher level of player engagement than other games in the genre. Much like a good old-fashioned RPG, deliberating on skill point allocation is half the fun. Do I want to improve Louis’ psychology trait to exploit this character? Should I invest in occultism to read weird symbols that may help in puzzles? Do I invest in subterfuge so I can pick locks without needing the proper key? Do I invest in etiquette? The list goes on and on.
Unlike some lesser RPG’s that fall into a rut of balancing issues, The Council feels purposely built around the wide variety of skills. Such a large investment into a unique system of mechanics may explain why the writing is so poorly managed. It seems the developers spent more time accommodating this vast array of skills than editing the script.
The Council usually takes players’ actions into account when constructing conversations. Several scenes contain minor dialogue alterations depending on Louis’ actions, though sometimes it falls under the weight of its ambition. I played the episode twice, making different decisions at every turn. At one point, Elizabeth Adams stops Louis as he walks down a staircase. This altercation leads Louis to mention an episode she had earlier. Louis witnessed this episode on my first save file, but he still mentioned it as if he was there first-hand in both save files. Anomalies like this are few and far between. For the most part, The Council shows Telltale Games up at their own shtick. Actions do have consequences. The poorly written script overcomes its shortcomings by delivering player choice that Telltale only offers the illusion of.
Not a single voice actor delivers a noteworthy performance. Everyone sounds like an underpaid actor showing up to the recording studio for a quick paycheck. Emotionally charged scenes that should elicit raw responses stumble at every turn. The game can’t hope to make anyone feel empathy with such shocking delivery, inflection, and timing. This sub-par acting, when combined with the awful script, results in a disaster that is impossible to look away from. Due to this, The Council may just be the best awful game I have played since Deadly Premonition.
The Council’s incompetence doesn’t end with its writing and voice acting. The framerate is disgusting. It never impedes on game progress considering its non-combat nature, but that doesn’t excuse poor performance. The review was employed on an Xbox One X. The Council is filled with the following:
- Ugly character models
- Stilted, emotionless facial animations
- Low-quality shadows
- Awkward full body animations/environmental interactions
- PlayStation 2 era textures in select areas
- Low polygonal counts on miscellaneous items
How does the game run so poorly on an Xbox One X when it looks so bad? Sometimes running in tight corridors causes performance to slow down to Windows 95′ levels of choppiness. Only Warriors All-Stars and School Girl Zombie Hunter on PlayStation 4 can compete with The Council‘s performance. Unfortunately, even those games look and run better during the general run of play.
The Council is an indescribable mess of brilliant ideas and mechanics paired with shameful technical issues and narrative execution. If The Room ever had a video game equivalent, The Council is the industry’s closest approximation. It’s worth looking into for b-movie connoisseurs and fans of narrative adventure games. While it’s not the most refined experience, its heart is set in the right place.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by publisher