Telltale Games has been steadily building a strong reputation as developers of story-driven adventure games. They seem to have really hit their stride in recent years by making licensed games based on Back to the Future and The Walking Dead, which was overall IDTV’s favorite game of 2012. Their latest offering in this line is based on the DC Vertigo comic Fables, by Bill Willingham. Just like their previous offerings, The Wolf Among Us is being released as a “season,” starting with this first episode, “Faith.”
I’ve only read a little bit of the Fables comic, but I’m familiar with the concept. All of the great storybook characters have been chased from their lands by a threat known only as The Adversary. Those that were able to escape have taken up refuge in modern-day New York City, in an area they refer to as Fabletown. This is a fresh start; old grievances are set aside and many famous characters are presented in a completely new light. Snow White divorced Prince Charming when she discovered he’s little more than a con man, working his way from one princess to the next. Beauty and the Beast struggle to keep their marriage together after a thousand years. However, no character has changed quite as much as Bigby Wolf. Once the most feared villain in the homeland, the former Big Bad has become Sheriff of Fabletown, charged with protecting its citizens.
While all that backstory is nice, it’s also largely unnecessary to the game experience. Telltale lays out the basics, then just lets the story and characters take it from there. The game is in continuity with the comics, but it serves as a prequel, taking place in the 1980s.
The Wolf Among Us follows Bigby Wolf as he and Snow White investigate the murder of one of their own, a rare occurrence in Fabletown. The investigation leads them through an interesting cast of characters, both well-known and obscure. While the cast and investigation are clearly the focus of the game (as well as representing a number of difficult-to-discuss spoilers), the thing that really drew me in was the subplot. Something is rotten in Fabletown. Old King Cole is nowhere to be found, leaving his Deputy Mayor, Ichabod Crane in charge. The system is corrupt, those who need help the most aren’t getting it and Snow White is caught in the middle as Crane’s assistant.
Why is Beauty sneaking out at night? Why is nobody investigating the missing Fables, even if they’re the on the fringes of society? What would make a former princess turn to a life of prostitution just to get by? The murder investigation may drive the story forward, but it’s these smaller, more interesting mysteries that hold the narrative together.
Point-and-click adventure games are still Telltale’s bread and butter, and The Wolf Among Us is no exception. Where it differs, however, is in the execution of its puzzles. As a player, you’re not tasked with finding the one item that will allow you to progress. The Wolf Among Us is very much a detective story and you’re instead presented with a situation and a number of potential clues. At this point, it’s very much a mental exercise; the game leaves it up to the player to piece events together. With this change, dialog becomes even more important, as questioning suspects and witnesses plays a vital role in this process.
One sequence near the middle of the game was particularly impressive. Bigby and Snow White pay a visit to Mr. Toad to find his apartment in shambles and his son visibly upset. Clearly, something happened, but Toad isn’t talking. To prevent things from escalating further, Snow White takes the kid aside and tells Bigby to keep his temper under control, not an easy task. After my initial investigation, I questioned Toad, but was largely stonewalled. My only remaining option was to get angry. Instead, I went back to investigate further. The Wolf Among Us isn’t really a “find the pixel” game, but you have to at least be looking in the right area for points of interest to be highlighted, and I was not thorough enough on my first pass. Once I found more clues, I presented my arguments to Toad again and was able to piece together events properly the second time around, earning a confession.
Would things have been different if I hadn’t continued investigating? I don’t know, but the game sure does a great job making you feel like your choices matter. Sure, the broad strokes of the story aren’t going to change, but the smaller choices you make throughout, either in dialog or deciding what order to proceed with your investigation, at least make your decisions feel more important than in previous Telltale games.
The game also features quite a bit more QTE gameplay than previous offerings. The segments are short with a great sense of urgency, but some players will still be put off by them. Personally, I don’t mind adding more interactivity to a game that’s already light on gameplay and heavy on cutscenes.
Telltale’s did a great job making The Walking Dead look like the comic come to life, which was particularly impressive given the huge style change transitioning from black-and-white to full color. Conversely, The Wolf Among Us has a wildly different art style from the comic, but is no worse for it. The characters will still be very recognizable to fans, but the overall presentation is much more crisp and clean. The environments are wonderfully detailed, with plenty to see and build the overall background of the Fables world. The locations lifted directly from the comic are rendered perfectly and fans will feel right at home.
As a comic “expert,” I’ve come to appreciate just how much coloring can make or break a story, and this is where The Wolf Among Us really shines, even exceeding the source material. Like any good detective story, dark shadows give the game its old-school noir feel, but there isn’t much grays or shading. Shadows are just plain black, actually using inverted colors to outline the objects within. It’s a very cool effect and the contrast really makes the images pop off the screen. Adding to the effect, the game is set in the 80s, bringing all the wonderful neon colors and highlights prevalent in the era. The colors are incredibly vibrant and the whole game just looks fantastic.
There had to be a certain challenge to voice acting in this game. Many of the characters have only existed in written stories, with no real source material to draw from, or in old Disney-style interpretations that simply wouldn’t work in this setting. Yet, every character sounds exactly as I expected them to. Sure, many of these characters represent archetypes now found throughout popular culture, yet none of the voices are exactly like the characters they inspired. Bigby is surly and belligerent, but he’s not Wolverine. When you think about it, voicing this game is a tight line to walk, and the cast pulls it off.
The music is a little harder to pin down. It’s very subdued, fully ingrained in each scene, but doesn’t stand out. It’s by no means bad, it just doesn’t grab your attention. If anything, that’s actually a positive because it sets the mood so well. The moments with no music at all are starkly lacking, in contrast.
Episode 1 lasted about two hours. While short, it’s well worth the $5 and a far better value than your typical $3-4 comic book. Once all five episodes are available, you’re looking at $25 for about ten hours of entertainment. That’s great value considering most major games are twice the price and often don’t deliver that amount of content. Beyond that, I truly want to play through this episode again to see how much of the story changes based on my choices. I know the main plot won’t deviate, but the end-of-game stats indicate some significant points can be altered, even if they won’t have much of a true effect on the overall story.
I should point out that The Wolf Among Us is definitely a mature game. Harsh language is used throughout and the preview for Episode 2 clearly shows topless women, likely either strippers or prostitutes, given the setting. That’s not a knock against the game; it merely illustrates the point that just because the game is based on a comic book, not all comics are suitable for all audiences. Beyond that, The Wolf Among Us is a game I would absolutely recommend to anyone, provided they like their games heavy on story and character, but don’t mind the lack of traditional gameplay.