Review: The Council Episode 5: Checkmate

The Council’s final episode is aptly named. Even before Louis de Richet arrived on Lord William Mortimer’s island in Episode 1: The Mad Ones, the chessboard was already set up and Big Bad Wolf waited for players to make the next move. Whether it was a careful, calculated move with a pawn or an all-out offensive approach with a knight, players would quickly learn that every choice came with some form of consequence. It was never a simple enough task to navigate the chessboard, with another curveball waiting to be thrown into a player’s path. Fast-forward through the next three episodes — Episode 2: Hide and Seek, Episode 3: Ripples and Episode 4: Burning Bridges — and everybody’s chessboard will look different in the finale. There is no illusion of choice as often seen in a Telltale Games title. In fact, it has made the French developer’s episodic title a unique experience. There is a real reason to feel invested with the decisions made, embracing the outcome and continuing to forge a certain path for the narrative to unfold. Win or lose, this chess match has many moves left to make in Episode 5: Checkmate and it culminates in a polarizing experience by the end of it.

The battle line between Sir Gregory Holm and Mortimer had been established at the end of Burning Bridges. After a front-row seat to the Illuminati-style council session, it became clear why different political figures and diplomats had come to the island and one of the overarching storylines of The Council was flowing in full effect. While characters have aligned themselves with either Holm or Mortimer to better suit their interests on the world stage, Checkmate wastes little time to pick up straight after the events of the fourth episode. Depending on a player’s final choice in Burning Bridges, they will be working with either Holm or Mortimer. If Louis partners with his father, for example, he will be sent out on a mission to persuade four characters — Giuseppe Piaggi, Johann Christoph von Wöllner, Manuel Godoy and Emily (or Emma) Hillsborrow — to vote in favor of Mortimer’s plans. The storytelling remains excellent at this point and the stakes feel high, especially as players travel around the manor to sway each character’s current stance and have little room for error. The opening segment keeps the daemon element of the story at arm’s length, which is arguably one of the redeeming factors from the episode.

Unfortunately for Big Bad, the father-son dynamic between Louis and William fails to manifest in an engaging manner. Sure, it was an interesting twist when it was introduced in Burning Bridges, but the relationship between Louis and Sarah Faustine de Richet had more substance to it after being a central theme in four episodes. With such a massive swing in story direction, Louis now comes across as a one-dimensional character. For example, he has no standout moments in the story where he ponders on his life with Sarah or a bonding moment with Mortimer that feels authentic for players to believe. Truthfully, it feels like a strange experience to watch it unfold. But that might be down to how wooden each character looks — and feels — during different exchanges. On more than one occasion, characters will look like they’re staring into space while the actors read their lines. By the time the council is called into session and the vote is put forward at the end of the first act, the relationship between father and son is colorless and leaves much to be desired. In fact, it’s where the story nosedives into a direction where most players had feared the most.

The Council Episode 5: Checkmate
From the second act up to the third, Checkmate shifts its complete focus on the daemon theme. Okay, there are some brilliant moments that include Louis being transported to another realm (dubbed the ‘Ether’), but that is where all of the positives stop in terms of story direction. Players are able to connect with characters they might have lost in the Ether, but Big Bad entangles the story so much with the daemon premise to the point where all interest is lost. The developer, however, does an excellent bit of foreshadowing for what Mortimer’s whole scheme involved, mainly through the paintings that are featured in his manor. Unlike other episodic titles, though, The Council delivers with the whole variety of endings that can be unlocked. It’s the perfect example of offering replay value to players, especially to discover all of the different ways that the final showdown can be played out. In Checkmate’s final moments, it’s anticlimactic for it to end with a profile on each character’s future. After spending so much time with iconic historical figures and original characters, it feels disappointing to see Louis not have a personal interaction with at least one of them before they leave the island.

Despite Checkmate’s story not holding up to the same strengths as its predecessors, the gameplay experience still feels refreshing in the finale. Confrontations can still offer some tense situations, especially when one wrong answer will lead to instant failure. Once again, there are no expenses spared with creating engaging puzzles to solve. Players will also be placed in a tricky situation depending on their resource-management skills, mainly for when it comes to how many effort points it will cost them to use certain abilities. If anything, Checkmate offers the perfect opportunity for players to understand how far they have progressed and look back at how they missed the opportunity to pick up certain manuscripts or additional experience to level up. That’s not to mention how much they have developed all three of Louis’ classes — Diplomat, Occultist and Detective — and how their skill tree has helped (or hindered) their progress in the adventure. After all, it’s a testament to how effective the RPG mechanics have been and how The Council feels different to any other episodic title on the market.

The Council Episode 5: Checkmate
After picking up Louis’ Thoughts Readings ability in Burning Bridges, it has been carefully balanced and used in the same way as the other RPG mechanics in Checkmate. Despite the daemonic theme becoming an overbearing burden on the story, it doesn’t have the same impact on possessing other characters or reading their minds. Big Bad, however, doesn’t allow players to indulge in the character’s daemonic powers too much. Yes, it has a role to play in certain parts of the story, but players have to remain careful of other daemons they might encounter and how they are not affected by it. The initial use of Louis’ newfound powers did not dominate every action made in Burning Bridges, with Big Bad keeping that core idea at the center of Checkmate. Players will warmly welcome the opportunity they have to use it, as well as reap the benefits of correctly using it during a Confrontation. From start to finish, Thoughts Readings is a nice feature to utilize in the finale.

Just like the first four episodes, Checkmate struggles to deal with the same technical issues. It’s disappointing to reach the finale and realize how much it has impacted the overall experience. Players will continue to see the frame rate drop as Louis is running throughout the manor. In fact, it can be that frustrating at times that it will force players to walk rather than run. Furthermore, it can slow down the episode’s momentum, especially when players want to move around the manor at a faster pace to complete a quest or backtrack to collect an item for their inventory. Glitches and bugs remain an ever-present issue in Checkmate, as characters can sometimes end up in strange positions when the camera angle changes. Unlike titles such as Life Is Strange, The Walking Dead or Tales from the Borderlands, the facial animations have hit a low point in Checkmate. Remember that point about characters staring into space? Well, that’s how it feels on most occasions, leaving little room for players to feel immersed in character interactions. While the writing is subpar and doesn’t have the most incredible set of dialogue, the lack of facial animations make any lines from the actors sound the same.

The Council
Closing Comments:

When The Council debuted with The Mad Ones in March 2018, there was limitless potential behind the episodic title. The concept was fantastic, the story was set up to be a mystery thrilled rollercoaster experience and there was a real reason to find out more about why all the different characters had come to the island. Checkmate is a disappointing finale for what could have been one of the best episodic titles of 2018. The daemonic theme took over far too much of the story’s focus. When coupled with technical issues, it has reinforced that The Council has lost potential written all over it. Despite the many negatives, there are positives to take away from the experience. Gameplay is engaging from start to finish, with its RPG mechanics reinventing an episodic experience. Big Bad’s multiple endings offer plenty of reason to revisit not only Checkmate, but also the first four episodes and see the different outcome from making a major choice. Once the finale is all done and dusted, either the player or Big Bad will utter one simple word depending on the final outcome of the story. That word is none other than checkmate.