Tamsen Reed here with a review/narrative design analysis.
“It’s a really good game if you can ignore the visuals. And the voice acting. Plus, the dialogue is bad, too.”
My complex love affair with narrative role-playing game The Council has become something of a joke among my peers and friends. I’ll admit that my protestations may sound somewhat ridiculous.
Maybe it’s not a strong endorsement for The Council, an episodic RPG from Bordeaux-based Big Bad Wolf Studio. I don’t believe in misleading people. There’s a LOT you have to ignore in order to enjoy it. This game evokes so many mixed emotions that I can’t truly be sure if I hate it or if I love it.
Yet, The Council succeeds because of its innovative use of RPG elements in a narrative-focused game. It makes for arguably a more interesting experience than is offered by most point-and-click adventures or Telltale Games. You play as Louis de Richet, a multitalented secret society member. As Louis, you navigate a 3D environment to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious island in the midst of a political meeting to find your missing mother.
Louis de Richet has a great many possible skills and talents, which are separated into three skill trees. Near the beginning of the game, you select one of the skill trees as your class: Diplomat, Occultist, or Detective. This gives you a baseline set of skills to start out with. As you complete chapters, the game alerts you to your successes, your failures, and ultimate paths you could’ve chosen. Each chapter earns you experience points that allow you to level up skills.
These skills prove quite useful in the main gameplay, where you manipulate political figures and investigate your surroundings in order to locate your missing mother. Each NPC has immunities and vulnerabilities to different skills. For example, in conversations with Napoleon Bonaparte, he may be immune to the Conviction and Politics skills, while he might be exploited by using Etiquette. The skills you select affect which dialogue options are available to you.
Frequently, a character might approach you in a Confrontation—a high-stakes battle of wits where you have a limited number of mistakes you can make. In these player-vs.-NPC encounters, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents is vital. If you choose incorrectly and fail the confrontation, the consequences are tangible and, sometimes, quite harsh.
Your skills also may assist you in uncovering clues and solving puzzles around the island. If you get stuck and need a hint, you can spend some of your limited effort points (which replenish at the end of each chapter) in order to use de Richet’s experience to give you, the player, some helpful information.
It is a game with high expectations when it comes to the player's intellectual capabilities. The only way to succeed is to thoroughly explore your environments and to think critically about the clues you uncover—though, for a game with such difficult puzzles, sometimes understanding its dialogue poses even more of a challenge.
I imagine that, in its native French language, the dialogue reads wonderfully. In the English version, there’s a laundry list of issues, the biggest of which is just awkward and clunky text that is frequently phrased in a stilted manner. A lot of the biggest offenders of this type seem to figure in Louis’s internal monologue, where he has such thoughts as:
“I absolutely need to find you, Mother”
“And if I can believe my vision, you don’t have much of a place in her heart”
“For crying out loud, why did you hide supplies in the middle of nowhere, Mother?”
Another issue is text that did not seem to be localized in any way, shape, or form. Localization, for anyone who may not know, is the process of editing text to make it more natural and logical for native speakers. It’s frequently text that’s been translated into English from other languages; however, localization may also occur if you have text native to the UK that you’d like to present to U.S. players. It’s an important process, seeing as unfamiliar and confusing slang may be immersion-breaking.
Another issue in The Council is the anachronistic language. It’s scattered throughout the game and tends to undermine the historical feel. Now, writing period pieces can be extremely difficult, and there is definitely room for some light anachronism, in my opinion. It disrupts the player’s immersion when, in a story that takes place in the 18th century, the main character says, “Pull yourself together, man.” Unfortunately, the quality of the voice acting sometimes draws even more attention to awkward phrasing and anachronisms.
The tragic part is that most of the side characters are voiced reasonably well. The accents are fine, the dialogue seems believable, and the voice actors themselves seem to have changed the text in order to speak more naturally (which is evident in mismatches between the subtitles and the voice acting).
The main character is not handled quite as skillfully. For some reason, the choice was made to use an American actor who does not put on any sort of accent for his character (a Frenchman, born in Paris). It’s not just that they cast someone with an American accent… They cast a man who speaks in a whiney, Californian form of iambic pentameter. It’s what I’d imagine a production of Hamlet to be like if a casting director ever made the grave mistake of putting Hayden Christensen in the title role.
In my gaming experience, I’ve found that convincing acting can make up for mediocre dialogue. Wonderful writing can distract from a so-so performance. But to have awkward writing paired with unconvincing acting? Ouch.
It’s an absolute tragedy that a game with such an intriguing story and incredibly innovative mechanics is so unappealing to two of the senses. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this game to anyone with a vested interest in how narrative games are evolving and what they’ll look like in the future. Playing it has been a valuable experience, and, despite its writing flaws, the game has a logical flow and tells a very compelling, original story.
In short, the animation style may be uncomfortable, the dialogue could use additional localization to sound more passable to native speakers, and the voice acting sometimes makes me want to use steel wool as earplugs…
… but it’s also incredibly well-designed from a gameplay standpoint. With puzzles that truly challenge the player, sleek UI and menus, and a leveling system that affects how your player tackles verbal confrontations, this game is simply one that should not be ignored.