Telltale captured the world's attention with its first season of the episodic, narrative-based game, The Walking Dead, so it likely surprised no one that it managed to warrant a second season, (which I've enjoyed quite a bit as noted in my reviews of episodes one/two and three). However, it was probably more surprising that their next game would feature a completely different (and easily less well-known) property, the graphic novel Fables.
Likely due to the Xbox-exclusive series, Fable, having too similar a name, Telltale had to use the lengthier title The Wolf Among Us. It's a great double entendre that plays well with the mysterious, 1980s noir-influenced setting, but it's still never going to be as widely recognized as its zombie-infested sister series. Even so, it's absolutely worth your time, as it uses Telltale's proven method of interactive storytelling to deliver a very mature and twisted tale of politics, sex, backstabbing and murder set in a strange burrow of New York City inhabited by fairytale characters many of us haven't seen since we were kids.
Trust me, though, you might not recognize them this time around.
If you haven't played The Wolf Among Us yet, I'll keep this review spoiler-free so you can get a better sense as to whether or not you might want to pick up the game.
The Wolf Among Us stars Bigby Wolf (the big, bad wolf), who manages to check the box of just about every hard-boiled, film noir detective cliche, as he attempts to solve a series of murders in Fabletown. Along the way, you'll direct Bigby as he works with Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Mr. Toad, the Magic Mirror, and many other fairy tale characters to unravel the nefarious plot against Fabletown's unique citizens.
There have been a few updates and additions to the interface, both visually and control-wise, which give Wolf a little more polish than its predecessor. On the flip-side, though, the technical problems that plague most of Telltale's games are arguably a little more present here, which is disappointing (I played on PS3; your mileage may vary on other platforms).
The tradeoff for getting a few more hiccups or disruptive loading screens, however, is an easily more beautiful game. The aforementioned noir aesthetic pops in hues of blue, yellow, red, and more in game almost entirely set at night. It's striking and hauntingly gorgeous, providing the perfect backdrop for this most unusual of hard-boiled detectives.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
As a fan of ABC's show Once Upon a Time, which also puts a mashup of fairy tale characters in a real-life setting, I wasn't sure what to expect from the Fables universe. The reality is that these two properties are wildly different, with Fables occupying a much grittier and mature headspace that Once Upon a Time forgoes in favor of a idealistic tapestry of heroes and villains, good and evil.
Bigby Wolf, depending on how you play his story, might have a few heroic moments, but Fables is a world firmly rooted in shades of grey and unsavory interpretations of nearly anyone who's graced the pages of a children's storybook. You won't enjoy many of the decisions the game forces you to make, which captures the true art of Telltale's new method of interactive storytelling: you will feel the weight of these decisions.
The story on offer here is one of murder, betrayal, sexual fetish, prostitution, drug trafficking, politics, and societal class struggles; younger players need not apply. Over the course of its five episodes, Wolf will keep you guessing more than a few times, so expect a winding narrative with a few good twists along the way.
The pacing stays pretty consistent throughout the five-episode season, but episode four is a noticeable dip in the excitement. Otherwise, there is a good balance of investigation, interrogation, and intimidation that offers a number of points in the story where you, as the player, can choose what to investigate first, as well as shape the type of detective Bigby Wolf will ultimately turn out to be.
I'll admit that I found the ultimate villain's motivations to be a little confusing. I won't reveal the identity of the character, but he/she is certainly a lesser-known character with minimal backstory outside of this universe. Perhaps finding someone with a relatively blank canvas was a purposeful decision on the part of the writers, but I found interactions with known characters to be more impactful.
Still, it's quite clear from the ending that the story doesn't end here; we may get more clarity around some of the final events, hopefully, in a second season.
Wolf is also notable as a much more violent game than The Walking Dead (which admittedly covers a more gruesome topic).
Nearly every episode features at least one big fight scene, controlled through a more dynamic set of on-screen prompts than The Walking Dead's first season offered. Because the Fables characters can withstand much more physical pain (and heal quickly, a la Wolverine), these can be (literally, in some cases), bone-breaking affairs that may make some players cringe.
A side effect of the quick healing, though, it sometimes felt like the over-the-top violence was just a way to counteract the fact that most altercations were a little lower-stakes. When you know that a character can come back from a smashed skull, things just don't pack the same punch.
Ultimately, I enjoyed seeing Telltale get a chance to flex their creative muscle in a different (although perhaps just as intense) world. Their game engine may not be completely perfect, but it's a great vehicle for delivering interactive experiences that blend the best of active and passive storytelling.
Fellow games developer Quantic Dream released the "interactive drama" game, Heavy Rain, in 2010. While far more photorealistic, the engine powering that game allowed for a similar type of "choose-your-own adventure" story that Telltale has master. Studio lead David Cage hinted at the possibility of using that engine to continue delivering more stories. While we eventually got the less-well-received Beyond: Two Souls from that studio in 2013, no such episodic gaming ever came out of Quantic Dream.
Telltale, on the other hand, continues to deliver bite-sized, impactful experiences each year, doled out in sub-two-hour episodes that can either be enjoyed as they release or as "binge" gaming sessions later. The most surprising thing is that more studios haven't explored this space, as it's a welcome diversion from the shooter-saturated gaming landscape.
The Wolf Among Us, more than anything, proves that The Walking Dead was not a fluke: Telltale knows what they're doing here, leading the charge in the industry for a new type of entertainment. We may look back at these games in five or ten years' time as the early turning point in games becoming the medium of choice for impactful, story-driven experiences. And that's about the highest praise I can offer here; consider this game wholeheartedly recommended.
Reviewed on PlayStation 3 using retail codes purchased on PlayStation Network. Completed all five episodes on a single playthrough of the story.