How do you attempt to review a game without giving away the story. Such a problem is doubly so when dealing with a title like Wolf Among Us, where it really is all about it’s story. Luckily in this case it not only amply tells a tale, but does so with maturity and restraint with a collection of characters that create a world it feels like you are being dropped into the middle of. This is Telltale at the peak of their episodic craft that they started on many years ago.
The comic book world of Fables provides a suitable setting for a dark detective story. The characters from the fairy tales you know and love are now living in New York. The humans work and live in the city like you or I, and those that are more conspicuous to the general public use “glamours” to hide in a human form, provided they can afford it. Those that can’t are sent to “the farm” to live out their days away from prying eyes. Bigby Wolf (get it?) is your focus point in this world, and the sheriff of Fabletown, responsible for ensuring that past life rivalries and grudges of the residents don’t manifest in our world. Working with a “city council” composed of Snow White, Icabod Crane and Bluebeard, they attempt to keep the peace in their little community.
Inititally Wolf Among Us seems very similar to Telltale’s previous work with an almost identical, although more polished, interface and reliance on quick time events for the more action heavy sequences. The uniqueness of this adventure comes from Bigby’s employment as the sheriff, with a number of the episodes requiring some actual investigation and evidence gathering of some form or another. It’s incredibly difficult to provide digital characters (especially stylised ones) with a subtle “tell” for their lying, without making it exceptionally obvious or completely impenetrable. Telltale manage to get around this by making you collect evidence to back up your claims, despite the fact that you know already they are being less than truthful. This new spin on the Telltale formula works well, and adds to the smoke and mirrors of “choice” that players attempt to just forget about while playing.
The characters help immensely in this, pulling names that you are familiar with from childhood stories and constructing new lives with them in our world. Beast and Belle struggling to coming to terms with their now much less glamourous life, Show White taking a leading role in the community, and so on. The cast is much wider than in The Walking Dead, with new characters introduced almost every episode, and so it is even more impressive how rounded each of them feel. The overarching story of the season stops it from becoming a “monster of the week” cliche, with everyone coming together at the end in one of the best scenes Telltale have done yet. It’s difficult to talk too much about the final scene while avoiding spoiling a lot of the narrative up to this point, but suffice to say it’s the most effective way Telltale have employed their signature trick, making your decisions matter, to date.
This is a double edged sword however. Personally, I have always seen these games as one-shot affairs. You play your story to it’s conclusion and then never touch it again. To do so would cause the well crafted illusion of agency in the narrative to slowly fall apart and unintentionally let players see behind the curtain. As such I can only comment on my experince with Wolf Among Us, and based on the choices I made, the conclusion hit exactly how it was supposed to. It’s clear, however, that had I played Bigby in a different way, the finale would have substantially lacked the punch that it had for me. It seems particularly fragile, more so than in any Telltale game yet, and wait with nervous anticipation for Calum to have his play-through to see if my worries are unfounded.
Despite this, the choice illusion is very well executed in Wolf Among Us. There are at least two sections of the story where I had the option to investigate three separate locations, and had only time to actually visit two. Considering the amount of voice and animation and art work that goes into each scene, it’s an exceptionally bold move for a studio on such a tight schedule to not allow players to see a third of that episodes content.
It’s amazing to watch Telltale hone their craft over not just games, but individual episodes. Wolf manages to hit that moment where, acting on instinct due to harsh time restraints, players immediately regret a decision the moment you press the button. This is especially true when Bigby has gone full wolf, which happens to varying degrees throughout the story, where there was an impressive tie between the sheer anger present in his character affecting the way the player would behave, acting without thinking with revenge or self-preservation as the primary motivator.
Visually the game is on a new level for Telltale. What initially seems to be a simple cel-shaded inspiration from the source material reveals new levels of detail the more time is spent in it’s company. The harsh black lines on textures inverting as player shadows crosses them preserves their detail while maintaining the style, and is a trick that took a few episodes to realise. This is not a simple choice of rendering style, the whole environment has been created with it in mind. The Walking Dead employed a more “realistic” style, while mainting some of the graphic novel inspiration, and pales in comparison to what Wolf accomplishes. Even outside of simple rendering, the facial animation of characters is a substantial improvement over Walking Dead, as well as the animation in general. It’s unfortunate to see that the improvements made to the engine for Wolf don’t translate into it’s second season and makes it difficult to go back to. (Disclaimer, The Wolf Among Us was played on PC, whereas The Walking Dead is being played on PS3. This may unfairly bias Wolf in the presentation department, and I have not seen any PC gameplay of Walking Dead Season 2).
I could write for a long time on the journey taken in Wolf, but that will be saved for a spoiler cast in the future. It’s enough for me to say that if you are already in on Telltales episodic adventure formula, then Wolf is a no-brainer. It’s them at the top of their game, and manages to seperate itself from being “just another Telltale game” though some unique gameplay conciets and some amazing visual presentation, as well as having the strong and surprising story that they are famous for.