As the cliché goes fairy tales are often a lot darker than contemporary retellings suggest. Staples such as body horror, sexual abuse and death are all to be found in ready supply.
The world of Fables: The Wolf Among Us is no exception.
Fables is the decade-spanning, award-winning comic series created and written by Bill Willingham and published by Vertigo. The basic premise is that all of the classic characters of myth, fairytale, and basically anyone who is public domain, are all real. Unfortunately after being expelled from their magical Homelands by the mysterious Adversary the majority of these characters (the titular Fables) are now living-hidden-in downtown New York. Their true identities kept secret from the everyday “Mundy” folk.
The Wolf Among Us is an episodic adventure game based on the series from Telltale Games, creators of the critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead (which shall hereby be referred to as The Greatest Use Of Licensed Material Known To Man Or Beast-TGUOLMKTMOB if you’re running to catch a train). In it you take on the role of rough and ready Sheriff of Fabletown Bigby Wolf (of Little Red Riding Hood fame, as well as any other famous yarn involving A Big Bad Wolf). However, unlike the tense tale of survival and human misery that is The Walking Dead (TGUOLMKTMOB) The Wolf Among Us is a Noir Murder-Mystery.
Faith (episode one) is concerned with the getting-to-know-yous. For most of its runtime we are introduced to the various critters, creatures and assorted players in Fabletown. As the genre dictates they are all presented as classic archetypes. Bigby is the gruff and troubled, smoking gumshoe; Ichabod Crane the officious mayor; wheeler-dealer Toad (of Toad Hall) and rounding out the core cast is Bigby’s sidekick and Deputy-Mayor, Snow White.
Here Snow acts in a similar capacity to Clementine of The Walking Dead (TGUOLMKTMOB). She is Bigby (and the player’s) emotional core, responding and reacting to the various decisions Bigby makes. However, unlike the father-daughter dynamic between Lee and Clementine, Snow and Bigby are more-or-less equals. They both bring their own ideas of justice and the importance of doing right by the law to the mix, offering plenty of potential for the two to clash depending on what choices the player makes. Snow is also used to make some rather pointed commentary about social inequality and the various double-standards that governments dabble in. It’s presented earnestly but manages to avoid the cloying soapbox territory that the subject could easily fall into.
Beyond story and setting, Faith gives us a great introduction to the types of gameplay featured. A brisk prologue that sees Bigby intervene in a domestic disturbance quickly and organically allows players to familiarise themselves with the three core tenants of the series-dialogue, investigation and fast-paced action sequences.
Overall Faith gives us a solid introduction to the series, serving up doses of intrigue, humour and character before ending on a terrific cliffhanger for both newcomers and fans of the comics alike.
Smoke and Mirrors (episode two) kicks off strong, throwing the player into the deep end. The cliffhanger is dealt with pre-titles but not before player’s wits are tested in a tense interrogation scene. From there the focus shifts to expanding and developing what came before. Characters introduced in the last episode are given some breathing room and the chance to flesh themselves out-particularly Bigby as we are taken deeper into his conflicted nature as a man of law with a darker side.
Smoke and Mirrors gives players ample opportunity to develop their Bigby in both directions, as a man of peace or an unstable figure willing to indulge in acts of extreme violence. It’s gripping stuff when done well and likewise the case is allowed to open up and gain a few extra twists and turns before ending on a solid cliffhanger.
Unfortunately, despite the time given to returning characters (and the resolving of a few red herrings from Faith) many of the lesser players are yet to feel as fleshed out or engaging. Furthermore, the ending-whilst a decent one-comes rather abruptly, to the point where once the cliffhanger reveal was made I wasn’t entirely sure if it was over or not. Also, the final hook is somewhat predictable compared the shock ending of Faith.
Scattered throughout are some clever nods to both the Fables universe and fairytales in general. Personal favourites include Bigby’s brand of cigarettes being “Huff and Puffs” and a British street-tough called “Georgie” who runs a strip-club called “The Pudding and Pie”. Such touches help to expand the world but also stand as testament to the care and craft that went into creating the series.
Gameplay-wise The Wolf Among Us is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve any experience with Telltales games. A dyed-in-the-wool point and click adventure game, it sees the player enter an area and have the option to interact with various objects or NPCs. Hover your cursor over an item/person and a list of possible interactions appears. These range from looking at something to picking it up or starting conversation. Interactions tend not to get much more complex than that and for most parts of the game you are given license to check everything multiple times (perfect for obsessive completionists like yours truly).
In lieu of traditional adventure game features such as hidden object/find the key puzzles the meat of gameplay is in dialogue-conversations begin and you are given differing amounts of time to select an appropriate response. Each line there is the chance to further the plot and often what you say is either remembered or noticed by other characters, impacting how events unfold. Now, some may balk at this-put off by the lack of combat or action outside of several scripted quick-time sequences. However as with all good adventure games The Wolf Among Us puts narrative first with a heavy emphasis on the story developing based on decisions that the player makes.
To my mind this serves The Wolf Among Us better than it did The Walking Dead (TGUOLMKTMOB). Whilst the latter would have you interacting with characters/environments until the plot progressed-often through an action sequence or two, Wolf’s noir narrative gives each scene a real sense of purpose. Bigby is on a case, so he arrives at a scene and examines the area for clues before interrogating witnesses. The player’s thoroughness allows for smoother interrogations-letting you catch out a character’s lie or glean additional information that will help you. It was a smart creative choice and one that manages to bring the gameplay and narrative elements together.
Sadly this also is where we find the series’ biggest black mark.
The game is riddled with stuttering and lag; particularly so during the “recap” sequences at the start of each chapter, although becoming very pronounced during some action sequences. Whilst never enough to actually break the game or make you fail a button prompt, it does kill pacing and tension dead. A bar-room fistfight will find the player often sighing with frustration as the screen freezes before lurching ahead several frames of animation. It’s a massive flaw found in all of Telltale’s games and its continued appearances cannot be ignored.
Visually…let’s not beat around the bush. This game is goddamn gorgeous. Seriously, play this thing on the biggest HD-est screen you can find. Areas are filled with vivid neons and bright, beautiful colours. Every scene is a masterpiece-from the busy urban streets alive with a riot of blacks, blues, yellows and reds to the smaller details-crummy tenement building apartments slowly rotting after years of misuse, to the gargantuan esoterica that fill the backgrounds in Fabletown’s Business Offices. This is a game that has perfected the art of bringing the comic book page to life.
This level of quality extends to the many and varied inhabitants of the world. After demonstrating their talent at reproducing a series’ art style with The Walking Dead (TGUOLMKTMOB), Telltale pulled up their skirt to really dazzle their audiences here. Each member of The Wolf Among Us‘ beautiful and bizarre cast is rendered with care and craft. Extremely praiseworthy are the improved facial animations of the central cast that manage to straddle the fine line of balancing the exaggerated aesthetic with more subtle emotion.
Unfortunately, the same care can not always be said to have been taken with character bodies. Often animation is stiff or jerky, with Bigby suffering from a tendency to glide about the place rather than walk the mean streets he lives to protect.
In terms of audio we are back on much firmer ground. From top to bottom both episodes of The Wolf Among Us feature some stellar sound design. Special mention has to go to composer Jared-Emerson Johnson who infuses the world with a heady mix of otherworldly mystique and gritty, pavement-pounding noir jazz. Likewise the cast gives brilliant performances from top to bottom. In fact Bigby’s Adam Harrington and Snow’s Erin Yvette have both entered that pantheon of performers including Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy who’s voices I consider definitive.
Summing up I really have to recommend The Wolf Among Us. Not only is it a treat for the eyes and the ears but it also makes for a gripping pulpy noir adventure and a fantastic introduction to the world of Fables. Whilst the more sedate nature of the gameplay might not be to everybody’s tastes and you will have to grit your teeth through some pretty hefty moments of lag, The Wolf Among Us ‘ positives far outweigh the negatives. In fact if I were the type, I’d say that Telltale’s latest offering will huff and puff and blow you away.