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It feels almost disingenuous to open a review of The Wolf Among Us’ first installment — entitled Faith, a blindingly obvious name in hindsight — without mentioning The Walking Dead. What felt like a swan song for Telltale Games after the disappointing Jurassic Park adaptation became something of a resurrection; both for the studio itself and downloadable story-based interactive experiences. Although The Walking Dead wasn’t perfect, it was my game of the year, and some of the highs I experienced playing that game won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Now Telltale has to make another game. Perhaps the most important game in the studio’s history; one that proves The Walking Dead wasn’t a fluke.
The Wolf Among Us is a (supposedly canonical) prequel to Fables, a comic series I’ve never read. If this game is anything to go by, Fables is about fairy tale characters exiled from the world of make-believe and sent to New York City. You play the Big Bad Wolf, reformed under the name Bigby Wolf and keeping the peace in Fabletown as its sheriff.
Some of the inescapable fantasy clichés of the modern day are back — normal people are called ‘Mundies’ and there’s a magic spell hiding the Fables’ true identities — but otherwise, this isn’t your typical modern fantasy story. There’s no Chosen One™, there’s no secret demon war, there’s no horrific attempts to combine the latest trends into some Frankenstein’s Monster designed to hit as many demographics as possible. Instead, Faith opens with a drunkard beating a prostitute. Go stop him, hopefully using as much violence as possible. Telltale still knows how to open a game, that’s for sure.
So far, The Wolf Among Us isn’t exactly like its critically acclaimed sister. The Walking Dead was about survival and hard choices in a bleak, uncaring world. The Wolf Among Us is about solving a murder.
When you make choices in The Walking Dead, there was usually some immediately visible fallout. Your options were usually shades of grey; the game was persistently asking who you wanted to die the least. Here, the only grey is the wool being pulled over your eyes. When you make a choice in The Wolf Among Us, you’re making steps towards solving the overarching mystery.
But there are some overarching similarities between the two games that lead me to believe Telltale has adopted a new house style. Both games are exceptionally well paced, deftly blend genres and tones, and move the plot along after just the right amount of character building. And they’re both adventure games where you make choices. Since this is only the first episode, it’s hard to tell what the future holds for The Wolf Among Us as a whole, but I would be amazed if Telltale just throws everything out the window.
The Fables feel more like cartoons than the nuanced survivors you encountered in The Walking Dead, which actually did change the way I played. As much as I would love to see Lee Everett as the protagonist of this game as well, Bigby just isn’t Lee. There’s no Clem keeping him on the side of the angels, and he’s not a decent person thrown into a horrific situation nobody understands. Bigby is a staple of Fabletown. He has a history with the other characters, and he comes into the game with a personality. It’s your job to shape his character development going forward, as opposed to you shaping Lee into a character. It’s not restricting; in some ways, it’s freeing.
After I spent all of The Walking Dead playing a nice guy trying to solve increasingly tense situations, now I get to play a hard-boiled, sharp-tongued badass. And man, is it cathartic. Imagine L.A. Noire, but you can just punch a witness if you’re fed up with their nonsense. I’m playing a man trying to escape his violent past, but his past is violent for a reason. Now, I’m letting the animal out in the name of justice. It feels good. Perhaps that was the idea. If so, this could be Telltale’s most thematically interesting game to date and I look forward to the development of this character arc.
The action has also been fine-tuned, possibly to fit the new protagonist. The quick-time prompts are more visible, and the action sequences feel less like I’m struggling against the cursor. I’m not sure if that’s a thematic change from The Walking Dead — Lee was no fighter, so it made sense that the action would be a little cumbersome — or a response to criticism, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. I only died once, and that was due to my own carelessness. By the way, if you’re playing on a keyboard, I hope you bought a new ‘Q’ key.
The Wolf Among Us also looks fantastic, with a generally smooth framerate throughout. Fabletown is a gorgeous, darkly colorful world, especially at night. If you like neon pastels draped across what is assuredly a crime-filled metropolis, you’ll find a lot for your eyes to feast upon here. I can’t speak to the quality of every platform, but the OSX version is a major step up from The Walking Dead. Checkpoints happen smooth as you like, with little to no choppiness during the action. We’ll have to see if the inexcusable save bug from The Walking Dead returns. Novelty won’t be able to excuse technical issues this time around.
It’s usually difficult to judge episodic games, but when a company wants $25 up front for $5 worth of immediate content, sometimes reviews of said content are necessary. Take it from a skeptic, Telltale has restored my faith — no pun intended — and I look forward to seeing what the future of this particular series brings.