Bigby! You old dog, you old wolf you. How've you been? I haven't seen you ages. What's this I hear? You've gone au digital now? Best buds with Telltale Games these days? Tell me more. I hope going transmedia hasn't dulled your claws.
Downloading Telltale Games' The Wolf Among Us: Faith, the first episode in this five-part adventure series, was like agreeing to coffee with a high school sweetheart. The years have passed. We've kept in contact but only barely. I still tell fond stories of our misadventures but we rarely if ever talk. One day, out of the blue, he calls. Says he wants to meet. Says he's on a killer diet, has a kick-ass job and is weighed down with great stories like I wouldn't believe. I acquiesce. There's excitement, curiosity and a hint of contemptuous skepticism: he can't possibly have aged as well as I have.
I boot up the game. And Bigby, a cigarette in hand, saunters in like Bogart's ghost and lupine demigod (which he kinda is) all rolled into one.
"Hi," I squeak. "You're looking well."
Tie-ins make me nervous but the first episode - Faith was a remarkably appropriate name for more than one reason, Telltale - of The Wolf Among Us begins on such a deliciously pitch-perfect note that it's hard to stay a cynic. A point of interest for non-devotees: Fables is more than Mother Goose meets Manhattan. Though not immediately evident given its fairy tale exterior, the franchise deals with some truly big issues. Creator and writer Bill Willingham famously described Fables as a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It builds from there.
Still, how all that correlates isn't something you need to worry about for now. The Wolf Among Us takes place twenty years before the events in the comics. Bigby, who is the hairy arm of the Law in Fabletown, has just been called in to handle a disturbance on Mr. Toad's property, a ramshackle apartment planted squarely in an anything-but-gentrified section of the Bronx. Almost immediately, it's evident that Willingham put his creation in good hands, a fact that probably surprised me more than it should have. With the Walking Dead, Telltale Games had license to do as they will. The main cast was uniquely Telltale Games, divorced from characters people had years to love. The Wolf Among Us, however, has a central figure from the series front-lining the action, a gamble if there ever was one. Telltale Games could have gotten it horribly, horribly wrong.
It's a genuine testament to the development team's skill that they've managed to keep Bigby Wolf so malleable yet so perfectly in line with Willingham's vision. Depending on how you play him, Bigby can be gruff or awkwardly kind, a barely contained monster or a man looking to make amends for an unfortunate past, a by-the-book detective or a Machiavellian lawman. Or all of that at the same time. Our hirsute hero is, like any real boy, multidimensional and adorably flawed. The same can definitely said about the rest of the cast. The supporting menagerie is tightly written, more firmly welded to the canon than Bigby. Colin, a foul-mouthed and indulgent member of the Three Little Pigs, is my favorite so far. His vitriolic 'best-buddies-with-a-bone-to-pick' exchange with Bigby is a riot. But that may quite possibly be because I chose to be a loveable jerk to him.
Compared to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us is definitely more action-based. Bigby is forever a hair's breadth away from mouthing off or punching something. (Seriously, at least one of the options at any given time time involves him being an asshole in some capacity.) Like its predecessors, The Wolf Among Us uses quick-time events to pull off its more aggressive scenes. Unfortunately, they remain the least appealing component of the experience. Prompts are big and obtrusive, the game lenient enough to account for all but the slowest reflexes. The most difficult challenge is the demand it occasionally places on your button-mashing abilities. Eh, I think, sums up this part. Just .. eh.
(Except for this one bit after a fight with a certain Anglo-Saxon monstrosity which was visceral and angry and utterly savage. I liked that bit.)
Everything else is standard procedure. You navigate with the WASD keys. To interact with an object, you click on the appropriate symbol in the wheel orbiting said item. Nothing fancy. The bulk of the gameplay in The Wolf Among Us involves making morally ambiguous dialogue choices. There's a pretense of an investigation somewhere - murder cases are totally your beat - but you don't actually do any real detective work. Unlike traditional adventure games, The Wolf Among Us won't let you spastically click on every available object. Every collectible is clearly delineated here. You walk around. You ask questions. You shake down suspects. But, it never really feels like a mystery. The one time you're put on the spot and asked to hazard a guess as to who the real suspect is, you can choose silence. Your conversational partner will merely take it at face value, leaving you with your dignity intact.
Lacking the urgency of a post-apocalyptic setting where every individual is both a possible asset and a health hazard, The Wolf Among Us can feel a little too straightforward. Simple. Which frustrates me because, as unrealistic as that desire might be, I kind of wish that the lens wasn't so attenuated, that The Wolf Among Us didn't just incorporate the detective noir undertones from the series. Like I've mentioned previously, Fables deals with some heavy shit but that doesn't quite show. At least, not in the first episode.
But that's just me being fussy. The writing is phenomenal, the voice acting spectacular, the pacing on par with the best Hollywood films. It's absolutely stunning too and actually deserving of that old trope: 'like a comic book come to life'. The Wolf Among Us's crowning achievement, perhaps, is how it so elegantly marries the interests of both the novice and the long-term fan. You can come into the game blind and still fall in love with Fabletown. You can be a devout reader of the series and still come out largely satisfied with what Telltale has done with the material. Case in point: the ending. Without giving too much away, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us ends on a 'shocking' cliffhanger. I use apostrophes because anyone who has read the comics will know that what is being intimated is impossible. And while that detracts from the impact of that finishing epiphany, I'm left intrigued. Instead of going, 'WHO?!', I'm now going 'Why?' and that, I think, is just as good.
The years have been excellent to Fables. Few intellectual properties survive the transition to a new media so beautifully. I came in expecting to thumb my nose at what Telltale Games has done but I'm giddily in love with Fables all over again. The Wolf Among Us is no The Walking Dead but it is pretty much everything a Fables fan could hope a video game tie-in could be.
Last week, I reviewed Beyond: Two Souls, which aimed to boldly push forward the interactive storytelling, but missed the mark. Over the weekend, I took a crack at Telltale's The Wolf Among Us, which promised much less, but delivered more.
The story and the characters are the most important part in titles like this, and Wolf Among Us' story is straightforward noir with a fairy-tale twist. I don't have much history with the comic Fables, having only read a few issues, but Telltale's writing team is quick and efficient. You'll be able to understand the overall situation within ten minutes and the relevant details get filled in shortly thereafter. The Wolf Among Us is just a good story well told. It gets in, lays down the ground rules and stakes, and gets out; I probably finished the first episode in around two hours. I appreciate that. Time is a scarce commodity for me and at no point did I feel The Wolf Among Us was wasting it.
The characters are all direct in their portrayals: Bigby was a bad guy who's now stuck in a heroic role, Mr. Toad is a down-on-his-luck landlord looking to get by, Snow is is a good person trapped under bureaucracy. The entire cast is likable or unlikable when they're supposed to be. Bigby isn't as sticky as The Walking Dead's Lee was for me, but that's because Bigby's situation feels farther from something I'd actually ever experience, not because of the writing itself.
The Wolf Among Us stays away from some of the issues I had with Beyond. It has fail states, which I found to be a big part of keeping me interested in the 'game' part of the experience. I went back after finishing The Wolf Among Us off - Telltale has a wonderful rewind system that lets you try another path from a certain point with a new saved game - and tried just letting the game's more dynamic scenes play themselves. Not every action matters, but there are definite points where Bigby's quest just ends in failure and you have to return to a checkpoint to continue. It makes my actions seem like they matter.
This carries forward into the illusion of choice. Beyond felt like a story I was being told most of the time, outside of the occasional major choice you're given. Wolf Among Us still has those major choices, but it is also constantly having you make dialog choices. These choices tap into different facets of Bigby's character and allow players to pull the character and his world in different directions. I'm still being told a story, but Telltale is at least paying lip service to the idea that I have something to do with the outcome from minute-to-minute. The episode summary, showing the choices other players made returns from The Walking Dead and has the odd psychological effect of making it feel like you just experienced 'your' story.
Assuming that all five episodes take around two hours to finish, that puts the Wolf Among Us' total running time at around the same ten hours as Beyond. If it keeps up with its current pace and quality, I envision myself having a much more satisfying experience with Telltale's title, at a fraction of the price. The only problem is having to wait until the release of Chapter 2, Smoke and Mirrors.
- Visuals:The Wolf Among Us: Faith looks exactly the way you'd think Telltale Games' envisioning of the series would: magnificent. But it's not just the character models or the startling accurate environments, it's also in the little nuances. When Bigby walks away from the Magic Mirror, you'll see his reflection move. When Bigby and Snow are standing in front of a television set, you'll see the play of light across their skin.
- Music:The soundtrack here is more of an accompaniment than a salient feature: quiet, jazzy and entirely appropriate to every situation.
- Interface:Standard controls, for the most part. The interface feels a little more cleaner to what was found in the Walking Dead. It's not difficult to navigate through the game but there will be moments of occasional finickiness.
- Lasting Appeal:Depending on if you decide to play through the chapter a few times, The Wolf Among Us: Faith will probably take you anywhere between two to four hours to complete.
The Wolf Among Us is a worthy follow-up to the legacy began by the Fables comic book series. It's a sharply written, sharply dressed blend of urban fantasy and detective noir, the kind that Disney would have been appalled to see but the Brothers Grimm would have shot thumbs up at. If you've never read the comic books, that's okay. You won't be alienated; this universe will still delight. If you're a fan, be advised that may be a few cursory plot holes but, by and large, much of what you loved is intact and made better through the glory of animation.