I've found the games published by Focus Home Interactive to be pretty hit-and-miss over the years. Confrontation was too fiddly for their own good. Blood Bowl I could enjoy a little so long as I ignored the horrible AI, and the less said about Game of Thrones: Genesis the better.
That said, there were things about The Council that certainly caught my interest. Developed by newcomers Big Bad Wolf Studios, we're promised "a new take on narrative adventure", and that "the core of The Council's gameplay comes from manipulating and maneuvering through character encounters using the unique Social Influence system"...
...okay, enough of me trying to write a balanced review. I've just got to come out and tell you guys. This is an amazing game. Utterly wonderful. As Louis de Richet, French occult investigator and heir to the leadership of a mysterious secret order, you venture to the island mansion of Lord William Mortimer, who has some secret reason for assembling an array of the world's rich and powerful. Your primary goal is to discover the fate of your mother (the true leader of said secret society) who has gone missing on the island. And so begins a tale reminiscent of Agatha Christie and H.P. Lovecraft. Well, more Christie than Lovecraft, really, because certainly during the first two episodes you'll spend more time investigating the motives of cardinals and duchesses than you will fleeing in panic from squamous entities from beyond the cosmos.
It all works so, so well. There are a ton of upgradeable skills and a series of achievements which unlock one-time bonus skill points. But these skills aren't combat or stealth related. You'll be choosing between putting skill points into erudition, linguistics or logic, and you're as likely to use your athletics skill to reach a book from a high shelf as you will to punch a Frenchman in the face. Violence is at a premium, reserved for moments of grave importance to the story, and always with recurring consequences. Learning as much as you can about the other guests is critical to unraveling the plots and mysteries that entwine the mansion.
All of the characters in the game look strangely macabre. Sir Gregory Holm looks like he's covering the fact that he's a zombie with badly-applied stage makeup, another character has severe pinkeye, and there are bloody stumps, black eyes and creepy masks galore. Even George Washington looks slightly nightmarish. The ruthless ugliness with which everyone is painted makes the whole game feel wonderfully Gothic and dour.
Okay, so an important point - I love this game because I'm a bookish, nerdy know-it-all. I love the idea that staring at old paintings can help you solve a secret code. I love The Council because a light breakfast in the Red Salon is a major set piece with serious ramifications. I like the roguelike approach where there are no backsies, and if you say something at dinner that offends the host, you'll have to deal with it for the rest of the game.
In many ways, The Council plays like a traditional Telltale point 'n' clicky adventure thing. The introduction of a number of more traditionally RPG-ish elements is both a good and bad thing - the aforementioned skills are fun to use in order to uncover clues or get a handle on someone during conversations, and there are always many options. Perhaps you will try to talk your way around Sir Gregory using your knowledge of politics, or maybe you'll use logic to talk him into a corner. At certain points in the game, you'll unlock bonuses based on your decisions. These aren't exactly achievements, as you can't really fail to get something, but it will be different based on your decision. This way, the game helps to customise your character to suit the type of personality you're putting forward.
That said, there are certain things that you might find yourself playing toward. You can get another point of Effort if you use one of each type of consumable in a chapter. Therefore, you might use consumables in a gamey manner that breaks the suspension of disbelief a little. Effort is a resource that you spend in order to use skills, in a way that doesn't always make sense. You can easily wear yourself out completely debating history with Napoleon, or trying to remember Greek myths in a garden. Effort is there to stop you from overusing the skills (until you're really good at them, at which point they become free to use), but it rarely makes any real sense outside of as a game mechanic.
There are a few consumables that help you in your interactions, social or otherwise. For example, royal jelly might restore two points of effort, and Carmelite Water allows you to attempt the next use of a skill without spending any effort. But this can feel weird, too - before trying to talk down an angry revolutionary who has just pulled a flintlock on you, you hold him there for a moment while you chow down on some honey. These few concessions to gamey-ness are unfortunate as they remind you you're playing a game and not just an intrepid investigator in a mysterious mansion.
Oh, and the voice acting is a little wonky. People have strange accents and some of your character's asides feel like they've been badly translated into English. But honestly, this didn't upset me too much.
These are minor quibbles. As mentioned, you need to be a certain type of person to really enjoy The Council. If you crave action and intensity, you'll loathe this thing. But for me, it was just what I'd been waiting for. A game that doesn't spoon feed you but that never feels unfair. Where thoughtful consideration of the plot and characters is more important than quickness.
I lapped up all the skulking, whispering skullduggery and a few of the plot twists caught me by surprise. I can't wait for more.