Developer: Telltale Games
Imagine that every fairytale you were told as a child was actually real, and they're living in 80s New York. Snow White. Beauty and the Beast. Toad and Badger from Wind In The Willows. Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The three little pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. All eking out a living in the mundane world, thinly veiled from our sight by weakening magic and forced to resort to increasingly grim means to get by in the sleazy underbelly of the Big Apple. The Wolf Among Us is a little like Shrek, if you will, but recast for fans of Drive and Law & Order.
Bill Willingham's Fables series of graphic novels has an utterly splendiferous premise, and was arguably crying out for a videogame adaptation worthy of the material. Factor in the same developers behind The Walking Dead and you'd be forgiven for getting just a little excited about this new interactive detective story.
David Cage take note: games definitely can toe the line with barely interactive drama, but you need a superb story to pull it off. Beyond: Two Souls sadly didn't have one, not by a long shot. The Wolf Among Us, on the other hand, is set up to be an absolute belter if Episode One is anything to go by.
The uneasy co-existence between the 'Fables' and 'Mundys' (us normal folk) leads to the legendary characters hiding away from society, but tensions continually bubble and boil over as they come to terms with the gritty reality of New York life, and segregation between the more influential royalty and the less glamorous underclass. Fables are forced into prostitution or worse just to earn a crust, meaning that the underground community is always one step away from revolt or discovery.
In steps Bigby Wolf - no less than the Big Bad Wolf - who's now a grudging sheriff tasked with keeping the peace and stopping violence from seeping out into the mundane world. When a murderer threatens to completely throw the Fables community into panic and disarray, Bigby is thrown headfirst into a detective story worthy of the finest procedural TV drama.
Like The Walking Dead before it, The Wolf Among Us is primarily concerned with character interaction, choosing from several dialogue options against the clock as we interrogate a selection of familiar faces given a gritty new twist. Episode 1 introduces Toad, a struggling landlord in a squalid tenement, the helpful fellow investigator Snow White, supercilious community director Ichabod Crane and even a talking pig, which could have felt rather silly and childish in an inferior game.
This is not an inferior game. Channelling the lessons learned in The Walking Dead, Bigby and the Fables cast are brought to life with utterly peerless voice acting and impeccably-observed facial animations, buoyed up with a script that's hard-edged and uncompromisingly raw, yet surprisingly playful and even tender in places. Over just a couple of hours, we care enough to like our fellow Fables, to relate to them, to love them and utterly despise them, and experiment with a range of responses to see how they react over multiple playthroughs.
I mentioned Beyond: Two Souls in the introduction, and it wasn't just an idle dig. Like Quantic's underwhelming effort, The Wolf Among Us relies on us to keep the narrative moving, to go through the motions rather than ever really taking control. Picking up an item, opening a door or assessing each clue at a crime scene to learn more about the perpetrator before the game puts us back on the rails. We're effectively just onlookers for much of the time, but here the story is utterly gripping, keeping us guessing and reeling at twist after twist as the detective drama unfurls. More importantly, though, we always feel that our input actually matters.
The Wolf Among Us is predicated on giving us choice, or at the very least, the illusion thereof. We can opt to give money to a prostitute or keep it handy for later. We can forcibly rough up suspects or take a more tactful approach. Occasionally we're forced to make the devil's choice between two courses of action against the clock. Some of these choices change literally nothing at all and lead to the exactly same resolution, while others have a short but noticeable consequence later in the Episode. A choice few, however, have major ramifications and will come back to haunt us over the forthcoming series.
Crucially, we always feel that everything we do makes a difference, that we have a say and a stake in the storyline, and that our decisions are actually worth a damn. Even when they don't and aren't. Telltale also thoughtfully included a post-game metrics screen, which is perhaps a little too arch and spoilery for my liking, but undeniably helps to put our actions into context with other players.
Episode One isn't perfect. One of the emergent sideplot threads is rammed down your throat so obnoxiously that it might as well display a massive neon sign stating "THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER" in the background, and I'm not entirely sold on tooltips that occasionally straight-up tell you whether something is meaningful, even if it isn't. "Snow appreciates that." "Toad will remember that." Thanks, game. We probably could have worked that out for ourselves or interpreted it from visual cues. More real detective work might have been nice too, since there's not quite enough scope to really flex our grey matter and engage with a crime scene beyond a couple of standout scenes. Thankfully these are just small niggles in a narrative that, at least for me, goes for the throat and doesn't let go until it's good and done with us. It speaks volumes that I spent much of the weekend playing the superlative The Stanley Parable and still found The Wolf Among Us to be astonishingly effective.
And the ending. My God, what an ending. Episode 1 ends with a cliffhanger that will shock and shake total newcomers to the core, while sending Fables fans scrambling to the forums. It's canonical, remember.
The Wolf Among Us relies heavily on Quick Time Events for its action sequences, which typically revolve around brutal brawls or hectic chases. Though overtly 'gamey' and still not an ideal way of maintaining immersion -- nothing kills engagement faster than enormous button prompts or cursors flashing on-screen to remind us that we're playing a game -- Telltale have made the best of it. Action scenes are fast-paced and intense enough to root us in the moment, as if Bigby's life is hanging by a thread, with our participation the only thing saving him from certain death. Rather than getting in the way, Telltale's QTEs actually help to maintain a sense of all-or-nothing-back-to-the-wall desperation, especially when married with the shocking violence taking place onscreen. We've come a long way since Jurassic Park.
Much must be made of the art direction, which simultaneously evokes both the spirit of Willingham's graphic novels and the sleazy neon-soaked atmosphere of the mid-80s. It's like living a comic, all bold penstrokes, stylised character designs, bold colours and superbly expressive facial animations. Telltale's exquisite visuals are accompanied by an appropriately synth-heavy soundtrack that mires us in the seamy and squalid filth of New York life, while telling us that nothing is going to be okay through menacing bass and pulsing, urgent rhythms.
My only real issues with Episode 1 are largely technical. Navigation can feel slightly awkward and clunky using WASD and mouse controls, while even some timely patching hasn't quite managed to smooth over a few rough edges. A judder here, a character clipping into something there; small but obvious visual glitches that crop up from time to time. We hope more than anything that The Walking Dead's save file glitch doesn't come back to haunt Telltale's latest venture.
It's also far too soon to call The Wolf Among Us a resounding success. No matter how involving its first episode, it's just that, the first episode in a series that will hinge around whether our decisions actually matter - or more accurately whether we feel that they do. Plus, the story has plenty more hours to simmer down, derail or otherwise disappoint. It's just the start, dear reader, and for now waiting for Episode 2 (at the very least) might be the smartest use of your hard-earned sovs.
But damn, what a very fine start indeed.
- Utterly gripping storyline, brilliantly-realised comic book setting and sensational premise
- Impeccable voice acting, script and characters
- Makes our choices feel important and relevant
- A fantastic start for what could be a truly essential series
- Awkward navigation, QTEs will likely prove divisive
- The rails can be a little obvious at times, more real detective work will be welcome in future episodes
- A few technical issues and graphical quirks
The Short Version: The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 grabs us by the throat, shakes us out and leaves us begging for more. A superb detective story with shocking twists, complex characters and meaningful choices galore, brought to life in Willingham's daring and imaginative Fables setting.
Though we can't get the full measure of the series until we can experience it in its entirety, we suspect that this could be the start of something truly magnificent.