Review: The Wolf Among Us

By Owen Faraday 06 Dec 2013 0
You can tell its the 80s because there's still payphones everywhere. You can tell it's the 80s because there's still payphones everywhere.

Adventure games were dead as disco as recently as last year, a genre that for a decade had been left to niche players like Wadjet Eye.

Released with little hype last year, Telltale's The Walking Dead did for adventure games what Daft Punk have done for Georgio Moroder. Using a popular franchise as a springboard, Walking Dead told a mature -- often harrowing -- story, a direction that alienates a good portion of the gaming audience and that a weaker-kneed publisher might have avoided. That moxie paid off: in 2012, Walking Dead was crowned with game of the year laurels over much more expensive and conventional productions like Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3.

The Wolf Among Us is a game from a studio finding its groove. As a tale about fantasy characters trying to survive incognito in the real world, it isn't as immediately accessible as The Walking Dead, which benefits from pop culture's decade-long fixation with zombies. But if Wolf Among Us is a tough story to tell well, then it's in good hands, because Telltale has told it very indeed.

There a lot going on in every shot. There a lot going on in every shot.

The Wolf Among Us begins with you alone, in the back of a New York City cab. You're Bigby Wolf, a hirsute chain-smoking fellow with a slight slouch and no great urgency about tucking in his shirt. In your first encounter with another character, you learn that you are in fact, The Big Bad Wolf -- the story that people tell their children to frighten them into behaving.

As the Wolf, you are the head of security for Fabletown, a community of exiled fairy tale characters attempting to live amongst the humans of 1980s New York. These aren't pastel-coloured Disneyfied fairy tale creatures from your childhood, but darker visions that are closer to the original Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm stories. The game is based on Fables, a DC comics series created by Bill Willingham in the early 2000s.

Fairy tales are mementos of terrible loss and harrowing situations. Wolf Among Us embraces that. Its vision of New York is dark and menacing like the New York from Death Wish, but it's also lit up in neon that casts everything in a purple hue, evoking the streets that Joe Buck works in Midnight Cowboy and nodding to the fantasy origins of the characters. The outcast Fables that we meet -- The Huntsman, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast -- are downtrodden and self-pitying. They are literally magical, but that doesn't make them any happier than the next schmuck.

As with The Walking Dead, each encounter gives you dialogue options (and usually, the option of remaining silent) that you must quickly choose to continue each conversation. Occasionally you'll have the chance to navigate Bigby around an environment, looking at clues and picking up objects like in a Lucasarts point-and-click adventure, but usually Telltale drives you from one location to the next.

Telltale has gotten good at framing shots so you can see both character's faces during dialogue. Telltale has gotten good at framing shots so you can see both character's faces during dialogue.

The interactivity comes chiefly from what you say to whom, though there's some action sequences with quick time events that I could take or leave. In dialogue, characters will recall how they've been treated and what information you've revealed to them. Telltale takes its time establishing the story; the first few encounters serve to establish the setting and the character of Bigby, but before too long you've stumbled across a gruesome murder that Bigby will need to solve before New York's Finest get involved and panic spreads through Fabletown.

The mystery is a genuinely good one, but because this is only chapter one of five, Telltale doesn't move us even remotely close to resolution by the end, and in fact just opens up more questions. I do have one significant problem with how Telltale how set up chapter one, in that there's a figure that Bigby considers a suspect in the murder whom we never meet or see onscreen. In a game that does such a good job of letting us inhabit the protagonist, that's a disappointing misstep.

There's some interesting commonalities between Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. Telltale casts you as an alienated figure in both cases: Walking Dead's Lee is harbouring a secret that makes him wary of getting close to any other characters; The Wolf is widely despised for his past as a villain, and even in his human form he's essentially the secret police. It's not much of hero turn to go from being the antagonist to the guy that ships his neighbours off to "The Farm" where unrehabilitated Fables are sequestered.

The distance that these protagonists keep from their fellow characters is a great narrative trick. A Telltale adventure game is serving two different masters: to create world as detailed as Wolf's New York City, Telltale has to keep things small, but to make a satisfying video game, Telltale has to create enough space for you to feel like your decisions are weighty and consequential. By starting Bigby in a place where everyone distrusts him and no one likes him, Telltale is giving you the freedom to define the character as you wish -- there's no baggage from Bigby's relationships to account for, because he doesn't have any.

Bigby takes a lot of cabs. Is he expensing all of that to Fabletown? Bigby takes a lot of cabs. Is he expensing all of that to Fabletown?

The Wolf Among Us sets a high bar for the rest of the series, which will be arriving in regular episodes over the next year. I'm genuinely curious to solve the mystery that's put forward, and Telltale have created a lot of friction already between different characters and groups in Fabletown that Bigby will (of course) have to choose between. Nothing would make me happier than to unreservedly recommend an adventure game of this level of quality to you.

What lets Wolf Among Us down isn't the narrative, but the technical aspects of the port. The game occasionally betrays its PC origins and seems reluctant to run on a third-gen iPad, stuttering from time to time during animations. It's not a dire problem, but it's reasonably frequent and mars what should be a wonderfuly immersive experience.

Still -- with its quality of narrative and exemplary art and design, The Wolf Among Us overrides its technical shortcomings.  The atmosphere is dark and the events of the first chapter go from bad to worse (and then super mega worse) for Bigby, but it's a world that I was reluctant to leave after the four or so hours it took me to finish chapter one. I am itching to solve this mystery.

Review: The Wolf Among Us

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