Review: The Wolf Among Us Season 1

MILD SPOILERS FOR ALL EPISODES FOLLOW – Set as a prequel to Bill Willingham’s comic series ‘Fables’, The Wolf Among Us is a fantastic neo-noire fantasy crime thriller drenched in blood and neon, billed as a mature version of classic fairytales. Focused on Sherrif Bigby (otherwise known as the Big Bad Wolf) trying to maintain order throughout Fabletown, the name given to basically a settlement based in 1986 Manhatten. The game draws upon the classic children’s fables, with characters such as Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Mr Toad, Bloody Mary and Ichabod Crane. All familiar names and characters, yet you’ve never seen iterations of these characters before. Snow White is tasked with running the failing Fabletown, Ichabod Crane is a greedy pervert, Beauty and the Beast are facing marital and financial troubles and Bigby himself is plagued by violent memories and behaviours characteristic to his old persona. It’s the Brothers Grimm mixed with David Fincher’s trademark whodunnit filmmaking and with a bit of Hitchcock thrown in as well. Let’s not forget Chinatown.

After meeting with a young prostitute named Faith, Bigby and Fabletown is thrown into turmoil when her head literally arrives on his doorstep, and as more prostitutes start to die, Bigby discovers a conspiracy that throws the entire Town into peril over the course of five episodes, that occurs over a 9 month period as Telltale once again delves into the episodic format, to varying degrees of success. As I had waited for the entire season to come out before playing it together (something I also do with TV shows), I didn’t feel the excitement OR the frustration that came with a trademark end of episode cliffhanger. I didn’t really need the recap and preview for each episode either, as I played most episodes in one sitting. This wasn’t a big issue, but it would have been nice to skip it. Again, this is only because Telltale does the episodic format so it doesn’t count as a negative.

To really tell more about the story would be spoiling what is mostly a fantastic murder-fantasy-mystery, as the plot throws twist after twist that soon become quick to lose track of. The first episode is clearly the best one of the bunch, with a focused premise, amazing character development and really throws the player into Fabletown. Most of all, I was surprised to see how much I connected with Bigby and the residents of Fabletown. As the crux of the investigation, it was essential for people to connect with Faith, even if she only appears for half an hour, and I was damned surprised just how much I liked her, which made my emotional investment into the game so much more satisfying.

Unfortunately the game loses track fairly soon, and by episode 4 plot threads start to feel muddled and the ending just doesn’t feel that satisfying. Plot threads are left open for no doubt a season 2, but the main storyline is resolved well enough that I just didn’t feel like I wanted another season, just answers to open threads. And while Snow White and Bigby’s interaction served as my favourite part of the game, it led to a complete lack of pay off by the end. Unlike the Walking Dead’s pure focus on Lee and Clementine, The Wolf Among Us plays with a more ensemble cast, no doubt due to the sheer number of iconic characters they’re given, but while it was fun to see random fairytale characters cameo, it led to a distinct lack of character growth or development. On the plus side, there are many memorable characters; from the efficient yet likeable Snow White to the sheer terrifying homicidal Bloody Mary, characters really leave an impression. Bigby is wonderful as the protagonist, and he is given sufficient room to let the player choose who to be: good guy or bad. While it may sound simple in practice, Telltale once again nails the morality of your actions by making everything not as simple as they set out to be. Good or bad isn’t black and white, it’s shades of grey (splashed with some neon-fantastic purple), doing good is a lot harder than one would think, and doing the bad thing is sometimes necessary. It’s everything Bioware wishes they could write; and most importantly, choices matter. For the most part choices play a big role and while it suffers from the Walking Dead symptom of needing to come to a boiling point for every player The Wolf Among Us remedies it by letting the choices play out better. Actions mean something, people actually remember something bad or good you did and it’s just satisfying to see a plot thread from episode 2 surface in episode 4.

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All in all, much like The Walking Dead’s first season, it boils down to how much you are willing to invest into the story. If you find yourself attached to characters and invested in the mystery, it’ll pay off in spades. If not, it won’t be enjoyable. This is a game that is 80% dialogue and conversation choices, 10% QTE action and 10% mindless walking around.

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Using the signature Telltale Tool engine used in most (all?) of Telltale’s games, It’s surprising how much better The Wolf Among Us looks in comparison to The Walking Dead Season 1 and 2. Fabletown is a neon soaked setting that drips of atmosphere. Purple is the most prominent colour here, and during night time scenes the game really looks downright amazing, with some very good camerawork and lighting. I was hitting F12 (screenshot) non-stop during my playthrough.

The Wolf Among Us nails the aesthetic of a 1980’s corrupted town with joy, as the shadows or the flicker of Bigby’s lighter to a cigarette providing a singular light source makes The Wolf Among Us look more than remarkable. It’s easily one of the most beautiful games I’ve played this year.

Character’s also look great. The usage of Glamours (potions to disguise the Fables true form) led to some remarkable transformations when Fables chose to reveal themselves, and the appearances of characters who couldn’t afford Glamours and spent the game walking around in their true form was almost jarring compared to the crime and poverty ridden Fabletown, but somehow it worked. Seeing a chain smoking little Pig banter with Bigby was something quite unique to see.

Unfortunately, the same old Telltale Engine bugs pop up here. Terrible lip sync, strange character animation glitches and most infuriatingly, towards the end I encountered a terrible bug that led to a blank screen with ‘This choice is blank’ dialogue boxes, and open clicking a box would launch me back to the very start of the episode. This was all solved with a restart, but it’s still a bit messy nonetheless.

As per norm of Telltale’s recent successes, The Wolf Among Us eschews any reasonable form of gameplay with story driven narrative. If you’ve played any old school point and click adventure game, than The Wolf Among Us will be a breeze to play. Telltale once again chooses to ditch puzzles (complicated ones anyway) in favour of dialogue and plot, which mostly works, though this time to less satisfaction. Because The Wolf Among Us is primarily a murder mystery, an emphasis on suspect chasing and evidence solving would have gone hand in hand with the dialogue and choices, yet there never really is anything overly engaging for the brain. I found myself frustrated when I linked evidence together on my own, yet had to wait for the plot to hit the pivotal moment before Bigby himself could link it to progress the story. While The Walking Dead can be forgiven for focusing on a narrative driven dramatic piece, The Wolf Among Us suffers more, mainly due to the potential of real puzzles and Telltale once again putting 100% of effort into dialogue.

But where puzzles fail, the dialogue and conversation choices are so crisp and open ended that they form a puzzle themselves; having to study characters and choosing which way to go was always refreshing and satisfactory. Deciding whether to take a tough route or a sympathetic one was a lot harder than I expected, and I genuinely felt bad for characters I rough-housed or bullied and got angry at people I let go. The Wolf Among Us nails the dialogue, nails the morality choices and proves why Telltale are the masters of storytelling.

QTE’s make up the rest of the fast paced action, and they’re serviceable, if nothing spectacular. I managed to beat all QTE’s without failing one, but this was probably a good thing since QTE’s aren’t really engaging to begin with. The gameplay is once again merely serviceable, but one doesn’t expect gameplay revolution from a Telltale game.