On Tuesday, David Cage's big-budget disaster Beyond: Two Souls tried its hardest to kill the high-profile, story-heavy, gameplay-light category of games single-handedly. A more three days later, Telltale having their say in the matter with The Wolf Among Us, an episodic prequel to Bill Willingham's Fables comics. To my delight, this noir adventure is off to such a great start that the torment Beyond inflicted on me last weekend is now just a memory.
The concept here is that in New York City there is a community of characters from classic fables who have left the fantasy realm and settled in our world. Our protagonist is Bigby Wolf, better known commonly as The Big Bad Wolf, who is that sheriff of this little community. Ichabod Crane, Snow White, Mr. Toad and others you'll recognize play roles as well, and having the context of those old stories we heard or read as children for what is going on here is neat.
But that presentation and setting are just the hook -- albeit a really excellent one. The Wolf Among Us is a noir murder mystery, one that Mr. Wolf must solve before it all gets out of hand in this secret society that is far more grungy and seedy than one would expect without reading Willingham’s books. The tale itself is compelling and even upsetting at points; the attachments I developed just in this one episode were often rewarded with a punch to the gut, meaning that to me The Wolf Among Us comes out swinging in a way that The Walking Dead really didn’t. Whereas that game was more of a slow burn, this first episode of The Wolf Among Us hits hard and often, escalating the tension more quickly from scene to scene, but without sacrificing the character development that made last year’s Game of the Year work so well. That’s the power of Telltale’s writing work, as an utterance of “I’ve seen how you look at her” in the second scene says so much.
I have not read the Fables books, and the game does contain some concepts that I didn’t quite “get,” but divining the gist of these things isn’t too difficult. One exception is Bluebeard, a character who obviously will have a role to play in upcoming episodes but is only mentioned in passing here; despite that, you have the option to name him as a suspect in the murder, and I have no idea why. That’s not much of a stumbling block, however.
It remains to be seen just what the decisions you make in this episode will mean later on, but at least one does feel more potentially meaningful long-term than any in The Walking Dead turned out to be. Need more data to draw a conclusion on that, however.
A note on technical aspects and mechanics: on PC The Wolf Among Us runs perfectly smoothly on my rig, and the usual gamut of tech goofs in the console Telltale games is absent here. And to my delight, players no longer need to use the scroll wheel to select dialogue options, instead clicking with the cursor the one you want. Given the time limit on choosing, numbering the options would have been nice, but one step at a time, I suppose. There are also fewer quick-time events that will kill you if you fail them -- but yes, you can still get the game over screen. There just seems to be a bit more leeway granted this time.
Episode 1 for The Wolf Among Us is a very, very promising beginning, and this series comes out the gate stronger than The Walking Dead did last summer. That bodes well for Telltale’s attempt to live up to the hype they’ve built for themselves, and makes the wait for new episodes even more painful that I could have expected.