The Wolf Among Us casts the audience into the role of Sheriff Bigby Wolf— previously the Big Bad Wolf— as he investigates a murder in the fictitious Fabletown of New York City. Finely-tuned dialogue, choices, and intrigue define Telltale's episodic adventure through the world of the Fables comic series by Bill Willingham.
Before I get into it, let me say upfront: The Wolf Among Us does not require any prior knowledge of the comics. It takes place in 1986— before the first edition takes place. This section is merely to provide an unspoilerific look into the game.
Drawing upon thousands of years of legends, fairy tales, and poems, Fables creates a universe in which all of them coincide. Some of them even overlap: Jack Horner [sitting in the corner] is the same character from "Jack and the Beanstalk." Bigby is not only from "The Three Little Pigs", but also "Little Red Riding Hood" and other stories involving wolves.
At some point, an overwhelming force invades each fable world and causes them to flee to the "mundane" world of humans. After arriving, the fables formed a system of government and any who sign and abide by the newly-created Fabletown law are granted protection and forgiven for any previously committed crimes.
Each fable who can pass for a human, or that can afford a glamour (which makes them appear like one), is allowed to live in Fabletown— a small portion of New York City. Those who cannot have to live upstate on "The Farm" to conceal themselves from the humans (also known as "mundys").
Much of the game is spent in conversation where you are given up to four responses to choose from, and a "fifth response" if you choose to say nothing. Most games would default to a certain choice, but remaining silent is a completely viable option in TWAU. Dialogue, however, is not the only extent to which you need to make a choice. Bigby will face a number of occasions where he'll have to make a choice on which lead to follow, leaving other options behind.
Other decisions are subtle: you'll often find certain objects will elicit a particular response that ends the line of intrigue before you've had your chance to sniff out the rest of the scene. Leaving the wad of cash in the dresser means you might not be able to pay somebody off later, but you might find somebody secretly spying on you instead.
The Big Bad Wolf
Bigby plays the role of the typical film noir anti-hero perfectly: a poor, endlessly-driven detective who is constantly scrutinized and trying to make up for his dark past. He smokes Huff & Puff cigarettes at each chance he gets; not to feed an addiction, but to dull his godlike canine sense of smell. To say he has an advantage would be belittling his situation: he becomes the monster he has to be out of necessity because of the nature of the foes he faces. I don't envy his station in life, but damn do I respect it.
Since the game takes place before the comics, it opens Bigby's personality up for interpretation. The destination remains the same, but the path to get there isn't clear. Will you appeal to his humanity and hear out each suspect? Or will you unleash the beast, leaving a pile of corpses strewn in your wake?
A Dark Twist on Familiar Faces
The world built for The Wolf Among Us is the star of the show. It brings together stories that we all grew up with and causes them to clash. One character's flaw might be another's strength. Maybe if the Three Little Pigs had the Huntsman to help them they'd still have their houses!
Despite all the magic that surrounds Fabletown, it's far from "happily ever after." A life of crime is not uncommon for most fables to make end's meat. Resorting to theft, murder, or prostitution is often the easiest way to make a living, especially for those who were unable to hold onto their wealth from their homeland. Among them, you'll see some familiar faces: Grendel from "Beowulf", Georgie Porgie, and the Little Mermaid, to name a few. The possibilities are potentially endless.
You'll also run into some unfamiliar faces— I had only a vague idea of who Bluebeard was when I first met him ( "Some guy that had a bunch of wives?"). Luckily, the game provides a Book of Fables that updates each time you interact with a new character ("Oh, I guess he murdered all of them...").
Art & Sound
Soundtracks are often hit or miss for most games. Luckily, I didn't think The Wolf Among Us disappointed at all. Tense in all of the right moments, a few subtle beats to add character, and opening the game was delightful each time— I'd actually look forward to it. What really sold me? The stunning intro sequence to each episode:
Voice acting was also better than most games I've played recently. Adam Harrington channeled his inner wolf, and the huge range of facial expressions that each character has was met by a cast who seemed like they were really there.
Cel shading was the icing on the cake for me. I'm only a moderate fan of when developers make distinctive use of it, but this game really brought the comic book style of art to life for me. It emphasizes what needs to be seen, makes for great screenshots, and gives each character the cartoon-ish look readers are accustomed to.
No, I don't mean there's tons of inappropriately huge X, Y, Z in your face. I'm talking about conflicting plots with the comic.
In the comic, Bigby and Snow White eventually have feelings for one another, but it doesn't start showing until after the first story arc. In TWAU, Bigby makes it incredibly obvious that he has feelings for her and she reciprocates to a certain effect. There's plenty of awkward scenes, and for people who want an absolutely canon story line, this is a step in the wrong direction. I didn't mind the notion, but it was something I took notice of.
Similarly, while I enjoyed seeing characters like Jack and Flycatcher, they play such a minor role in this storyline that they only serve to create additional characters to add to the already-hefty roster.
Quick Time Events
People either love or hate them. I usually enjoy them as long as they aren't too frequent, and the QTEs in The Wolf Among Us never disappoint. Most are combat situations where you are forced to break up or start a fight, and aren't particularly difficult or punishing. If I ever missed a response, I always felt like I was able to come back from the loss and make up for it— down, but not out. They range from mashing a button repeatedly, shooting a target, or pressing a certain direction to dodge an attack. There's also the occasional "directional QTE" where you'll have to decide which way to run after a suspect or even which one to go after.
I enjoy how each part is divided into episodes from an organizational standpoint, but the rate of release was disappointing. I'm generally not a fan of the "Season Pass" model— especially when it's the actual core content of the game. Episode 1 was released in October of 2013 and the Finale was just released toward the beginning of July 2014. Ultimately, it was absolutely worth the wait, but if I was Telltale, I'd would have waited until more of the content was finished before releasing the first episode to have a steady release schedule.
As with any of Telltale's recent games, each episode is different than the last, and won't deliver the same prospect of interest. They all have their individual strengths, but some are naturally more interesting than the others— most notably the first and last acts. The introduction will grab your attention, and the ending will leave you craving more in the most noir way possible. Each act has high points of action and shock, but everything in between almost seems like a chore outside of those rare opportunities to sate your curiosity.
Who Should Play This?
This is a question people have been asking for awhile now. People who enjoy the comics will obviously be attracted to play it, but that's a particularly niche audience. How is the game supposed to branch out? The gameplay is solid, but not very many people are sold on quick time events alone. The Walking Dead has the television series, comics, and zombie fad to attract viewers, whereas TWAU only reaches a select audience of readers. It branches heavily into the noir genre, but the fantasy setting may put off hardcore fans.
The Wolf Among Us offers a unique perspective into a fantastical world and establishes a happy medium between visual novel and point-and-click adventure. While the game is hindered by some pacing issues (both in game and development), it nevertheless has proven to be one of the best games I've played this year. Watching a small decision butterfly into a frantic struggle is one of the unmistakeable advantages of Telltale's narrative-heavy games, and I'm looking forward to seeing where they go next with it.
Additionally, if you enjoy your time with The Wolf Among Us, I'd recommend picking up one of the comics. You'll be delighted to see how some of the subtle stories from in the game leak into the plot years later.
Watch for red herrings, trust only yourself, and, most importantly, be wary of those who cry wolf.
Images from tumblr, Telltale's website, and in-game.