Review: The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1

Last year, The Walking Dead: Season One rocked my world. Telltale took a pretty damn good comic series about zombies and melodrama and built it into a masterpiece; a thesis on mortality, fatherhood, and the difference between survival and life that wrenched at my heartstrings and ultimately brought me to tears. It was a singular achievement in interactive storytelling and episodic delivery that kept me riveted, month after month, discussing my experiences with friends and biting my nails waiting to see what would happen next, and – once the inevitability of that became apparent – how it would play out.

As you can expect, I was eager to see what Telltale would do next, so it was only natural that I’d stop by their booth at PAX. Once again, my world was rocked, though for entirely different reasons. The brief snippet I played there of The Wolf Among Us hinted at a world so deep and fascinating that I couldn’t wait to see more. As soon as the expo was over, I spent the next two weeks pouring over every last comic in Bill Willingham’s Fables series, absorbed in its imaginative world, gripped by its masterful storytelling, and in love with its broad cast of deep, memorable characters. This is not just a pretty damn good series, but a great one, and I give it my highest recommendation.

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Of course, this put a lot of pressure on Telltale’s adaptation. With The Walking Dead, they were able to match and even exceed their source material, shooting well beyond simply surrounding people with zombies and making them cry. With Fables, though, simply replicating Willingham’s unique blend of noir mystery, high fantasy, and modern war stories would be a feat in itself. But if any creative team could manage it, it would be Telltale, and what I’d seen at PAX certainly boded well. Having finally played through the first episode, I’m happy to say that they’ve delivered on almost every front.

The game is a prequel set in the 1980s. An opening text blurb wastes no time in establishing Fabletown: a loose collective of famous fictional characters (the titular Fables) tucked away in a small neighborhood in modern Manhattan. Our hero is Bigby Wolf, AKA the Big Bad Wolf, a reformed monster in human guise who acts as sheriff over the human-passing stars of faerie stories and public-domain novels alike. He’s a gruff, hard-nosed (in a figurative and literal sense), and nobody, not even him, is entirely confident in his reformation.

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This first episode, Faith, sets up a grim mystery while playing heavily off of Bigby’s sordid past. We open on Bigby investigating a domestic disturbance in a low-rent Fabletown apartment. The Woodsman (of Little Red Riding Hood fame) is engaged in a heated shouting match with a fable prostitute. Inevitably, it escalates into a brawl between The Woodsman and Wolf, opening up old wounds (figurative and literal), causing a lot of collateral damage, and nearly bringing out Bigby’s beastly side. Fortunately the prostitute, Faith, puts the Woodsman’s axe in the back of his head before things get too out of hand (such flesh wounds merely inconvenience the immortal Fables), and heads off to meet her pimp. Another night in the life of a noir detective… up until Faith’s head shows up on Bigby’s doorstep sans her body.

Thus kicks off a grand whodunit that takes Bigby throughout Fabletown and across the paths of many fictitious individuals. Some – like Snow White, Beast, and Bufkin – will be instantly familiar to Fables readers, while others – like The Woodsman, Faith, and the lovable Mr. Toad – have been drudged up from the public domain specially for the game. It’s a treat to see new dynamics between the characters we know, with Snow working as Ichabod Crane’s assistant, Bigby still inexpertly flirting and trying to get her attention, and Colin of The Three Little Pigs… well, he’s still crashing on Bigby’s couch. Some things never change. The new characters are well-written and interesting, and it’s clear that a lot of care has been taken to make sure they fit with the series’ tone.

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Though packed to the gills with Fables fan-service (the spot-on depictions of the woodlands apartments and iconic business office are especially delightful), The Wolf Among Us does a great job introducing its universe and characters to the uninitiated. The story it tells is also compelling in its own right, a solid mystery with plenty of suspects to harass and clues to track down. Of course, you get the sense that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye (especially if you’re familiar with the series), which is only compounded as it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. As a fan, I can’t help but recall one of the universe’s most oft-stated rules: “the good ones always come back.”

It’s the way the story is told that really sells it. The game takes the quicktime-event-heavy action of The Walking Dead and infuses it with more traditional Adventure Game design sensibilities. You’ll investigate crime scenes, work the truth out of witnesses through dialogue, and even engage in a few inventory puzzles (with the interesting wrinkle that certain choices you make can leave you without items you need). The mechanical focus is still squarely on the narrative though, and the pace is kept tight. As in Walking Dead, you’ll make a lot of timed dialogue decisions throughout the game, as well as a few choices of priorities that more drastically affect the plot. However, whereas your decisions in The Walking Dead determine what kind of man Lee Everett is, Bigby is already an established character with a lot of history. Instead, dialogue choices affect what sides of Bigby’s personality are most prevalent.

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The Wolf Among Us brings Fabletown and its denizens to life with a vibrant, neon-tinged art style that perfectly captures the look of the original comics. It’s distinct from the flat and sketchy Walking Dead,  with more precise line work and harsh, three-tone shading that gives it a greater sense of depth. The lighting work is phenomenal, giving each scene its own distinct mood and punctuating the film-noir atmosphere. The animation is also good where it needs to be, giving the characters a great range of expression and lending weight to the action scenes. Unfortunately the walk cycles are a little on the stiff side, and like most of Telltale’s other games, there are a number of animation glitches that, while minor, detract a little from the experience.

Perhaps the biggest risk Telltale took in adapting this series was in getting it to sound right. All of their previous games – with the exception of Bone – are adapted from franchises with established musical themes and character voices. Thankfully, their casting department has knocked it out of the park again – with few exceptions, it’s tough to imagine these characters sounding any different than they do now. Likewise, the score augments the tone of the game nicely, using slow, vaguely jazzy synth riffs to build tension and subtly entrench the notion that the game takes place in the ’80s.

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Closing Comments:

Like The Walking Dead before it, The Wolf Among Us is at once a faithful adaptation and a great original story in its own right. Fables fans will be delighted to see more of the characters they know and love, and newcomers will find this to be a great jumping-off point into an expansive and fascinating universe. The mystery presented is intriguing, and promises to get more complex and intense as the episodes go on. This also happens to be the best-looking and best-playing adventure game that Telltale has ever released, which is really saying something for such masters of their craft. As it was with The Walking Dead, if you own anything that can run this game, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to play it.
score4.5
  Version Reviewed: PC