Looking to hopefully capture some of that same lightning in a bottle which developer Telltale Games scored with their Walking Dead adaptation, The Wolf Among Us swaps out the zombies and survival beats for an adult detective story where fairy-tale creatures struggle to conceal their identity from the humans around them.
An adaptation of the Fables comic book series, Telltale’s latest episodic jaunt is mechanically identical to the Walking Dead games but manages to distinguish itself with a refreshingly unique fiction for players to get involved with.
Taking place within the squalor of an inner New York city slum called ‘Fableland’, the fairy-tale creatures of lore known as Fables, have found themselves exiled into the world of man. Anonymity is a Fable’s strongest asset to ensure their survival and to this end they must be the recipient of a ‘glamour’ spell if they are to remain hidden from the eyes of the humans or ‘Mundies’, as they call them.
The catch twenty-two however is these spells are costly and not all Fables can afford them; driving the fairy-tale folk to be excluded from their brethren and reluctantly embrace the worst of human vices in order to make ends meet. Ironically devoid of any sort of happily ever after ending, The Wolf Among Us paints a grim and unromantic reality for these creatures whose stories have enraptured children for centuries; a life where struggle is perpetual and where death is brutally without whimsy; now they simply rot in the ground like everyone else.
Players are cast as Bigby Wolf; the Big Bad Wolf of legend thrust into the role of sheriff in the tumultuous Fableland in an attempt to keep the peace among his fellow Fables, all the while trying to contain his own feral nature in the process. Its a thankless role which is exacerbated by the fact that none of the Fables have forgotten the transgressions of Bigby Wolf of the past and as such, most of them constantly regard him with disdain and contempt.
Its this sort of sustained history which lends the narrative a real foundation and quite brilliantly, there are many references to the fairy-tale origins of these Fables, such as Colin the Pig (of the three pigs, naturally) continually guilt tripping Bigby for huffing, puffing and blowing his house down among many others.
In this inaugural episode, the main focus quickly settles on solving the mystery of a serial-killer who has been knocking off the Fables one by one. Adapting this narrative beat to the gameplay, The Wolf Among Us becomes an interactive detective story with the player examining the various scenes for clues, using objects and speaking to the denizens of Fableland in order to further the investigation.
As with The Walking Dead, the story and characters feel as well written and as fleshed out as anything that Lucasarts spat out in the 90’s, even if the level of challenge is nowhere near approximate. Certainly, it could be argued that the lack of difficulty is conducive to making the game accessible, and while this is true, players who are looking for a more staunch test for their grey matters will find little to engorge on here.
Predictably, where The Wolf Among Us holds its greatest allure though, is in the emergent choice based gameplay as pioneered by its Game of the Year merited predecessor. Players who have sunk any time into Telltale’s take on the Walking Dead fiction will be familiar with how the system of choice works, with choice ranging from dialog choices made to decisions made at key events which crop up throughout the narrative.
One such example of choice is opting to either help out the rebellious Fable, Toad out of a tight spot, or paying a visit to the prime suspect in a murder inquiry before he bleeds out. As before your choices are carried through the episode and beyond, creating a divergent path for the story to travel along. As before, the conclusion of each episode provides you with a percentage based breakdown of what other players did in relation to your own choices.
Also similarly to the Walking Dead games, the Quick Time Event sequences return and as you might expect from a game which deals with fairy-tale murder and violence, they exude the appropriate cinematic and visceral gusto. Annoyingly on the Xbox 360 version of the game, they find their execution hampered by streaming issues. Its easy to find yourself thrust into a QTE-powered brawl only to discover that the console hasn’t quite caught up with the streaming; the end result being that you’re left with a split-second to press the correct button at the right time and you’ll almost certainly fail the first time round.
Thankfully at the beginning of each sequence, failure doesn’t always necessitate starting the whole thing again but the notion of finding yourself potentially undone by a technical issue remains mildly frustrating to say the least.
These technical issues also rear their ugly head in other places too; the streaming issues often causing a jarring and somewhat jerky transition on the 360 build of the game between cut-scenes and gameplay. Console players of the Walking Dead will immediately recognise these technical maladies but they are arguably more prevalent here than in last years game.
Disappointing glitchiness aside, The Wolf Among Us nonetheless proves to be adept in other technical aspects. The cel-shaded style makes a return and ostensibly proves to be a perfect fit for the fiction at hand with Telltale’s artists given a much broader and fantastical canvas to work with than the oppressive urban dilapidated sprawl and repetitious decay of The Walking Dead previously allowed.
The voice acting is also pleasingly spot-on too; Bigby Wolf in particularly being lent the suitably gruff yet tempered inflections necessary to make him believable as a conflicted entity who is struggling to balance out his civilised and feral inclinations.
Ultimately like previous Telltale efforts then, The Wolf Among Us comes across more as an interactive visual novel than as a game in the traditional sense; the notion of challenge or difficultly all but abandoned in favour of accessibility. Its a trade-off that many who have played last year’s game will be familiar with and its likely to be one that many more will ignore; the mean and engaging plot that the The Wolf Among Us deftly weaves being as compelling as anything seen recently.
For the rest of you who remain anything less than wholly captivated by its crafty story and exotic ensemble of characters, it’ll become increasingly difficult to ignore the gulf which exists between the hand-holding gameplay and the exceptional guile of Telltale’s master storytellers.
A season pass is also available for the game which includes episodes 2-5 for the reduced price of $14.99.
A digital download of the game was supplied by Telltale Games for the purpose of this review.