They say a leopard can’t change its spots, but no one ever said anything about wolves. The Big Bad Wolf, that infamously vicious monster from your childhood fairytales, is nowadays less of a blood-thirsty predator and more of a jaded lawman in the city of Manhattan. Actually, he is just one of the many fabled creatures and characters that left the magical world of legend to live more-or-less normal lives among us common folk. It may sound fantastical, but all of this is true in the world of Fables, a comic book series by Bill Willingham, and the new episodic game series by Telltale Games – The Wolf Among Us.
Since the Fables universe isn’t as widely known as that of Telltale previous series, The Walking Dead, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us, titled Faith, has two rather difficult tasks. Not only does it need to set the stage for the entire season to follow, it also needs to introduce the player to a strange new world and the many characters inhabiting it. True, most of these characters are pretty famous, having starred in books, movies and TV shows for decades, but they are not immediately recognizable (just ask the Woodsman) thanks to the harsh reality of living in secret amongst the “mundies”. I’m glad to report that Faith does an excellent job with both tasks, but like with any good story, we should start from the beginning.
The Big Bad Wolf, known today as Bigby Wolf, is the sheriff of Fabletown – the Manhattan neighborhood where the Fables live. He is in charge of both keeping the order within the community and preventing it from being discovered by the outside world; a job that’s not so easy to do when you have humanoid toads in sweatpants or chain-smoking pigs walking about. Nevertheless, this is the routine (believe it or not) the player steps into as the first episode begins. However, this routine doesn’t last very long; a grisly murder shakes the neighborhood of Fabletown, sending Bigby on a Film Noir-esque investigation.
Yes, we’ve been down this road many times, but the Wolf Among Us manages to put a new twist on this familiar scenario. Exchanging banter with a magical mirror, or having a drink with a talking pig, or tearing a monster’s arm off during an interrogation aren’t things you normally do in your run-of-the-mill murder investigation, but in The Wolf Among Us they seem completely logical (to use the word loosely). The clichés are all there as well, but they feel necessary in order to balance out the more… unusual parts. It’s nothing short of amazing how well the game blends the mundane and the fantastic to create a sort of noir fairytale.
Apart from the murder investigation, Faith also delves a little bit into the personal story of Bigby – how he transformed from one of the most feared Fables out there to the tired, unshaved protector of Fabletown. Though it appears the transformation hasn’t quite stuck, since whenever things get hairy, Bigby’s inner beast comes out. Underneath his human appearance, Bigby is still the Big Bad Wolf he always has been; it is up to the player to decide whether he wants to embrace Bigby’s feral instincts and animalistic strength, or rely on good-old-fashioned police work and diplomacy (or as much diplomacy a wolf can muster) to overcome obstacles along the way. This internal conflict isn’t highlighted all that much in the first episode, but it feels like it’s going to be a much bigger deal later on.
Anyone who played The Walking Dead series knows exactly how important choice is to Telltale Games. Every dialog option, every item you use or give away and the order of your actions will have some sort of impact on how the story progresses or how certain characters treat Bigby. Sure, there are some set-pieces you can’t avoid, but these usually offer some sort of choice that will determine how things will play from that point onward. Every action has consequences you’ll have to live with as the season develops, so you better choose Bigby’s responses carefully.
Choice is the driving force behind what otherwise would be a pretty standard point-and-click game. There’s very little in The Wolf Among Us when it comes to actual gameplay mechanics – you move around the area and click on points of interest to investigate, or characters to talk to. Most of the game progression is done through dialog, and that dialog changes depending on the clues you’ve found or items you’ve picked up. For example, when investigating a break-in, spotting a blood stain on the wall will give you an additional dialog option with the owner that may lead to new information about what happened; though you can always beat the truth out of him if you choose. The more action-heavy scenes rely on quick-time-events to test your reflexes, but this is an adventure game at heart so there’s enough time to pull them off without a hitch.
A great choice made by Telltale is the game’s visual style. The bright neon colors contrasting with deep purple shadows perfectly encapsulate the atmosphere of a grim fairytale right from the start. Yes, it means the nighttime scenes are way more visually impressive than those happening during the day, but thanks to great character design there’s always something to look at. There’s also always someone to talk to and enjoy the well-written dialog. It too suffers from the occasional film noir cliché, but it always feels appropriate and never takes you out of the story.
Faith, the first episode of the Wolf Among Us, is a beautiful adventure game with an expertly told story of murder, loss, redemption and choice. The Fables universe allows for a fresh twist on what otherwise would have been just another murder mystery with noir tones. Admittedly, the game offers more in terms of story than gameplay, but that is the Telltale way (it’s right there in the name). After the huge success of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us has some very big shoes to fill, but with such a strong opening episode – I have complete faith in it.