Once upon a time (about ten years ago), in a far away land (California, USA), there was a magical studio called Telltale Games. Known across the land for their unique episodic style of storytelling, Telltale won the favour of gamers and critics alike for their spin-off adventures from well-known franchises such as Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and The Walking Dead. Now they venture into much darker territory, where princesses have agendas, witches work on the black market, monsters hide out in dingy back street bars and wolves have swapped sheep’s clothing for a shirt and tie. In the world of Fabletown, not everyone will get the happily-ever-after they so once deserved.
The Wolf Among Us serves as a prequel to Fables, the fantasy comic series created by Bill Willingham and published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint since 2002. Giving a contemporary spin on classic characters from fables, fairy tales and folklore, the series features gritty reimaginings of the likes of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Jack Horner and the Big Bad Wolf. Having been forced off their fantasy Homelands by “The Adversary” most of these characters have now emigrated to New York City, living in secret as they try to hide their identity from the “mundane” human race, while dealing with the internal perils that come with being a magical being.
As the title suggests, players are put in the role of Bigby, the former Big Bad Wolf that once huffed and puffed his way across the Homelands but has since reformed and been granted the position as Sheriff of Fabletown. His new chain-smoking, hard-boiled human form allows him to freely walk amongst the “mundies” in order to maintain order in Fabletown. However, things take a turn for the worse when the political turmoil amongst the fairy tale community reaches boiling point, and a grisly murder case literally ends up right on Bigby’s doorstep.
Having wrapped up on last-generation consoles, tablet devices and PC just a few months ago, it didn’t take long for the game to get a well-deserved re-release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. All five episodes of this noir nightmare have been compiled together in one handy, budget priced package that will certainly entice gamers who may have asked their fairy godmother for a brand new machine, before they ever had the chance to play this fantastic, morally blurred tale.
Conversation is at the heart of The Wolf Among Us and is vital when trying to weed out clues and evidence from the reluctant folk of Fabletown. Ranging from a gruff, no-nonsense, direct approach to a more sympathetic, reasonable tone is completely up to the player, but no matter what you choose, your actions will have repercussions, both positive and negative, in the greater scheme of things in future episodes and interactions. Silence is always an option, in keeping with the neo-noir feel of the game, but not always necessarily the right one. While it won’t have an overall impact on the route of the story, certain conversational paths will unlock vital clues, or indeed make them more obscure during the course of your investigation.
The political shape of Fabletown is in fact moulded by your actions, with poor Bigby generally getting the brunt of the bad vibes and contempt that characters such as Mr Toad, Georgie Porgie, The Little Mermaid and even your nemesis The Woodsman have for the administration you work for. There’s a general reluctance to divulge key information so it’s crucial to assess the situation before choosing your dialogue, using one of the PlayStation’s function buttons. You’re up against the clock however, so more than often you’ll rely on your gut reactions, meaning that everyone who plays this game will play through a unique experience.
Against some of your more dangerous peers however, the wrong decision can be life-threatening and at times, you’ll find yourself in one of the game’s many action sequences, fighting your way out of a situation rather than talking your way out of it. When Bigby gets angry, he hulks out, verging closer and closer to unleashing his underlying big, bad persona. This opens up a number of quick time events that will have you chasing down and pouncing upon the bad apples that lurk within Fabletown’s dark and dangerous underbelly. Attacks can be avoided by pushing the left analogue stick as instructed on screen, which is usually followed by a prompt to respond with one of the buttons on the controller. Missing the occasional instruction doesn’t always lead to a Game Over screen, but as the tension heightens and the danger grows more severe, you’ll have to keep your wits about you if you want to survive, let alone crack the case.
Investigation is perhaps the final integral part of the gameplay. When searching a potential crime scene, you’ll see a number of highlighted areas that can be interacted with in various ways. Using the right analogue stick you to pinpoint an object, you’re then given a number of options. Triangle can be used to look at the object, generally resulting in Bigby mumbling to himself or one of the other characters, while square can be used to interact with it. Given that everything you need to progress the story is there right in front of you, most of the leg work is already done for you. Even when using an item or piece of evidence at a later date, you’re basically told what to do with it when the time comes. Gone are the days of showing off every item in your inventory to see what will provoke the correct reaction a la Monkey Island.
While it’s expected from a game centred upon a murder mystery, The Wolf Among Us involves much more snooping and detective work than in other games of similar stature. However, given that many of Telltale’s employees forged part of their career at Lucasarts, working on games such as Sam & Max, Grim Fandango, The Dig and the Monkey Island series, it’s a shame that The Wolf Among Us spoon feeds many of the game’s vital clues to the player. It’s a small criticism considering that the dialogue is the game’s main driving force, but it would be nice to have a bit more of a challenge in a game with surprisingly adult themes.
Don’t let the cel-shaded comic book style or fairy tale subject matter fool you either. The Wolf Among Us is a very adult game, with enough violence, sexual references, and bad language to make even Quentin Tarantino blush. In the same way The Walking Dead wasn’t afraid to be a bloody horror show, The Wolf Among Us has more in common with a modern thriller than with your childhood picture books. However, the graphical style still works well and looks even crisper and sharper as a next-gen port.
However, the jump to PlayStation 4 isn’t without its problems. While the change to framerate is immediately noticeable, it causes some bizarre glitches that aren’t entirely off-putting, but do interrupt some key moments in the story. First of all, audio has a tendency to go out of sync during some key conversations. At times, speech will run a few seconds ahead of what’s happening on screen, before pausing for a moment to catch up with itself. Secondly, some of the in-game choices will interrupt cutscenes at times of critical dialogue, jumping ahead without warning. It doesn’t happen all the time, but given that gut reactions and reflexes are critical to the game mechanics, it does become annoying. Finally, while the graphics may intentionally look papery, some of the character movements look totally awkward, with some at times walking through inanimate objects or even each other during cutscenes. It’s not enough to put you off the game altogether by no means, but it is a little frustrating. It’s a problem that was found during the game’s original release run on last-gen machines and only seems to have worsened during the transition.
Another strange omission, that not only The Wolf Among Us is guilty of, is the option to play all five episodes as one overall game. You’d think the option would be available to forgo the episodic set up and amalgamate the entire game together into one coherent story. While cliffhangers are vital to keep you coming back, having to sit through a “Previously on…” opening segue ahead of every episode grows a bit tiresome, particularly if you’re poised at the ready to move onto the next act. Even having this capability as an option after completing the game would have been a nice feature, given that there are a number of reasons to return to Fabletown once the mystery has been solved.
The main reason to venture back is to of course, see how differently the story would have panned out had you made different decisions. At the end of each episode, your stats are compiled and compared to other players around the world, provided you are connected to the PlayStation Network. It’s interesting to see how ruthless or diplomatic you are compared to others and has been a popular feature in the Telltale collective for quite some time. The other reason to play the game a few times is to unlock entries in the Book of Fables feature, found in the extras section of the main menu. Certain items and events will unlock information about the characters, locations, and lore of Fables throughout the game, but some will be missed depending on what path you take throughout the game. So whether it’s morbid curiosity or utter completionism that compels you to play the game again, at least there’s more than one reason to play the game again.
Despite some niggling concerns, The Wolf Among Us is well worth the budget price attached to both digital and physical versions. Being able to “binge” on the season within two or three sittings does make the narrative feel a little more coherent, rather than having to wait months on end to see what happens next, so that’s another bonus to this package. As a compelling modern noir that completely turns the traditional fairy tale on it’s head, it’s probably Telltale’s riskiest adaptation to date. However, the gamble pays off, leaving us hungry like the wolf for the further adventures of Bigby and his Fabletown associates.