Telltale Games’ episodic interactive drama The Walking Dead, set in the same universe as the comic of the same name, was a critical and commercial smash. And little wonder, as even within the first hour of gameplay in the five-part series the player is treated to mature and well-written dialogue more believable than that of the hit TV show, characters who you desperately want to keep alive, and the greatest threat at hand being not zombies but the traumatized, psychopathic tendencies of other human beings. The multiple-choice dialogue and branching event possibilities, done better than Mass Effect or Heavy Rain, nailed it as an instant classic. So when I heard that Telltale’s new title The Wolf Among Us would be a prologue to the brilliant long-running comic book series Fables, words can’t describe how excited I got.
Fables is a brilliant piece of magical realism, where refugee fairytale and folklore characters fled into our world hundreds of years ago after war broke out in their native fictional realms. The comic deals with a lot of issues of colonialism and national trauma, as well as spinning a fantastic what-if yarn surrounding the sometimes hilarious, sometimes dark pasts of the characters we see, as if they were real people with real psychologies. For example, Prince Charming is a serial womanizer, hated by Cinderella, Snow White, etc., and is currently in a rocky marriage with Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty.)
It’s a pretty ideal sort of universe for Telltale Games’ brand of realistic point-and-click, dialogue based stories. Players assume the role of Bigby (“Big Bad”) Wolf, who initially investigates a disturbance over by Mister Toad (of Wind in the Willows fame)’s apartment. Controlling Bigby is nice, and The Wolf Among Us proves to have an interface which is a sweet, smooth evolution of the system seen in The Walking Dead. QTE prompts look much sharper, and everything seems more responsive. The writing is very good, on par with The Walking Dead, and possibly better than Fables’ own often-contrived dialogue.
After talking to the Toad however, there’s an action sequence. And this is where The Wolf Among Us one and only big problem becomes apparent.
In The Walking Dead, you knew that if you messed up, characters could die. The series taught you this early on. And because it was in the context of a zombie apocalypse, with dangers potentially around every corner and behind every doorway, the sense of threat and knife-edge survival was always there.
In The Wolf Among Us, we know this is a prequel. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we know that Bigby and Snow White survive to- at least- the comic’s first issue. Which means, despite how well written and enjoyable The Wolf Among Us is, there’s no sense of risk or urgency. We know everything is gonna be alright, and that they’ll live to see the day of Fables’ first book. This feels more like a minor side story in the big plot of Fables, like an expansion. Because there are fewer risks, the rewards don’t feel as multiple. However, if you’re not a Fables reader, this obviously isn’t an issue. You don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters or where they’re going in the long term.
The actual story seems decent, though a little underwritten in places. In the comics, Snow White is a hard-skinned, stoic woman who doesn’t take any crap. Here, she feels a little softer, and she has more give. To put it bluntly, she isn’t as strong a character. Bigby is written fine, but while his voice acting is good, it doesn’t have the pure gruffness you’d expect from a man whose ultimate form is a wolf. I fully think he should have a Solid Snake-y voice instead.
But these issues of casting and writing don’t hinder the experience overall, and I totally dig the game’s noir vibe. The Wolf Among Us is a bonafide hard-boiled noir thriller. Swish menus and interfaces and a bold new lighting engine makes the whole thing wonderfully stylized in its purple, blue, and red colour scheme. The interface is definitely improved, even though Telltale has removed the ability to disable the little notifications that say things like “Brian noticed that,” or “Snow White is grateful you agree.” These notifications actually detract from the game for me, making it obvious when your decisions have an effect, rather than just letting you observe how things play out in a natural way. This is a feature I turned off immediately in The Walking Dead, and I do not regret it. It’s a pity that Telltale reduced the options at the player’s disposal here so greatly.
Yet, on the story side, everything’s good. It’s fully noir stuff, but instead of guns and gangsters, we have fairy tale characters beating the heck out of each other. A great part of the Fables canon: the more us “mundane” human beings believe in the people of folklore, the more powerful and resilient these magical beings become. So Bigby Wolf, a character who is in a ton of fairy tales and still thrives today, is an absolute badass. He basically can’t be killed.
While the sense of risk and urgency is gone, in some sense, we actually have a nice inversion of the player character adventure in The Walking Dead. While playing as Lee in The Walking Dead, you’re almost too vulnerable, whereas playing as Bigby in The Wolf Among Us makes you feel that you’re invulnerable. Perhaps this will make your choices more meaningful, as you will definitely see the ramifications? Who knows.
The yarn told in this first episode picks up as it goes along. Murder happens. There are suspects, the plot thickents nicely as you investigate crime scenes and delve into research of the Book of Fables, and it’s genuinely anybody’s guess by the end of the thing as to who has done it. They even use narrative techniques employed in the comic to keep the player guessing about plot details. For example the villain is obviously a well-known fairytale figure. The question is, which one?
The episode gets a little ropey towards the end, as another more contrived fight scene and an arbitrary point of ending leaves a slightly dusty taste on the tongue. We aren’t treated to a tight arc of character and world development like with The Walking Dead. The Wolf Among Us is definitely more of a 5-part whodunnit. You really need to see more of the story to get the full experience, whereas I was fine with waiting months for The Walking Dead’s up-and-coming episodes, because they justified themselves as standalone. As such, it’s hard to give The Wolf Among Us a great grade, as this is just a small, fairly substantial piece of exposition.
The Wolf Among Us, for its price, length, and download size, is absolutely worth a purchase. If it were any more expensive, it would have been scored lower. As we have it, in this package you get a really polished, nice piece of narrative-driven adventure. It might not be as clever or vital as The Walking Dead, but it’s still a good first part of a good whodunnit in a cool, clever universe. With the next four episodes at £9.99 altogether- the whole series is an absolute steal.