Since the launch of the first season of The Walking Dead in 2012, Telltale Games has been the undisputed champion of the narrative adventure genre. The studio’s shining star has enabled it to license such highly valued properties as Borderlands, Batman, and Game of Thrones, and myriad other development teams have co-opted the episodic release model and narrative structure to varying degrees of success. With The Council, Big Bad Wolf Studio becomes the most recent team to try its hand at the format and, thanks to some smart additions, may outdo Telltale in its area of specialisation.
Backed by the experienced teams at Cyanide and Focus Home Interactive, Big Bad Wolf has embarked on a noble mission with The Council. Scheduled to be released as five episodes, the project drops the speculative-fiction setting and trappings of many other episodic titles in favour of a narrative firmly grounded within a historical fiction mystery. With such a premise, the game may come across as Telltale by way of Assassin’s Creed and Agatha Christie, but, while it certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the past, any such direct comparison will fall short. Instead, this new IP feels, at once, recognisable and strange, blending relatable concerns with antiquated ideas. Beyond the apparent literary and ludic inspirations, The Council draws heavily from real-world history, featuring a bundle of eminent personages, peppering the setting with famed artwork, and relying on Ancient Greek mythology for the sole puzzle in the first episode. The inclusion of these aspects establishes the game within cultures and time periods that will be familiar to many Westerners. As such, slipping into the shoes of French gentleman Louis de Richet feels comfortable, though the development team is uninterested in engendering that same sense of contentment throughout the remainder of the production.
The Council does not attempt to replicate past successes, but to build upon and revolutionise them. At the heart of this goal is the infusion of RPG mechanics into Telltale’s formula. Before beginning the adventure, players are required to choose one of three professions for Louis, each of which immediately unlocks a suite of five talents and makes them cheaper to upgrade. These skills range from physical traits, such as agility, to more abstract and intellectual pursuits including science and etiquette. While several of these talents can go without being exercised for quite some time, The Council is carefully balanced to ensure none are superfluous, though the value of certain skills sometimes lacks clarity. To prevent players from relying too heavily on these abilities, Big Bad Wolf has included an Effort bar that drains with each use, though this meter can be replenished and affected in other ways by a range of consumables. This collection of mechanics most commonly emerges within conversations, which also represent an innovative departure from the norm.
The dialogue wheel may be standard fare, but Confrontations give The Council a unique edge. Confrontations occur in moments of high tension, such as when Louis is trying to gain information from one of the NPCs or convince them of his trustworthiness, and more closely resemble L.A. Noire’s interrogation segments than traditional in-game discussions. Often taking the form of battles of wits, these gameplay segments demand emotional intelligence, logic, and memorisation of facts previously established within the narrative. With only one chance of success in each encounter, The Council feels realistic and engaging in a way that most RPGs and many narrative adventures are unwilling to attempt. However, this tendency to keep players on their toes comes with the concession that necessary knowledge is not always forthcoming. Even the most attentive user may overlook or fail to locate a piece of information that may be vital later. Such occasions can be frustrating, but hindsight allows the player to realise that the fault lies with their lack of observation and not a shortcoming within the game. The Confrontations system is brilliant, but its reliance on the user’s perceptiveness can be an issue that is endemic to the entire project.
Between observations, talents, traits, levelling, and Confrontations, The Council can, at times, seem overwhelming in its complexity. True RPGs such as Skyrim and Divinity can take the time to introduce their mechanics slowly, ensuring players have a firm grasp of each before moving on to the next. Although Big Bad Wolf tries to do the same, the demand of constant narrative progression means that the tutorials for certain features, including the Traits, do not seem quite comprehensive enough. Additionally, as Louis only levels up at the end of each chapter and the game offers little indication of what awaits in the next, the process of selecting which skills to improve must be based on a particular version of the character. ‘Role playing’ is thus foregrounded, but the player is left at a loss, sometimes unable to use talents that will lead to better chances of success. As such, the leveling systems seem a little obtuse, though, admittedly, alternative solutions would likely be less elegant and break up the core gameplay and narrative.
To disturb the story would be a cardinal error. As mentioned earlier, the tale told by The Council is a grounded narrative mystery with stakes that, in this first episode, at least, seem much lower than those present in The Walking Dead, Life is Strange, King’s Quest, or Guardians of the Galaxy. However, the novel setting and human concerns give the title a unique selling point. Furthermore, although Louis’s quest to locate his missing mother powers the adventure, much larger mysteries emerge as the game progresses. From George Washington’s and Napoleon Bonaparte’s secrets to the cone of silence that surrounds Lord Mortimer (the owner of the island manor that Louis and his mother are invited to), new questions constantly arise. The depth of this narrative is combined with a choice-and-consequence system that makes players keenly aware that they may be missing out on key pieces of information by selecting a path to follow. As such, the user feels like the architect of Louis’s relationships and destiny, which is a quality that few other games—episodic narratives or otherwise—can claim to achieve.
Choice is frequently touted as a central feature of Telltale-esque, new-age point-and-click adventures, but few manage to give immediate weight to the consequences. The Council is different. The options remain binary, but siding with one character or staying in a particular location rather than leaving feels as though it alters the dynamic and has long-term effects. In concert with this trait, the game introduces a host of RPG mechanics that, while sometimes lacking clarity, give it a clear identity disparate from the norm. As such, Big Bad Wolf’s debut project does not seem to be a competitor to Telltale and its contemporaries; it is a successor.